Lord, Keep Your Arm Around My Shoulder and Your Hand Over My Mouth – A Meditation on the Sins of Speech

One of the greatest gifts of the Human person is the capacity to speak. It is also one of our greatest weaknesses. The Book of James says,

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect!, able to keep their whole body in check.  When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  (James 3:2-18)

Perhaps the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, uncharitable observations and remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread mis-information, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. We can surely cause great harm with a gift capable of such good!

Note how James says in the quote above that we have learned to tame just about every wild animal, but the tongue, such a small part of us physically is barely able to be tamed. One may conquer many sins by God’s grace, but speech is usually the last. It almost seems that a different and lower part of our brain has a life of its own when it comes to speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Every now and then we even forget who we’re talking to or that what we say might get repeated.

An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and  helped her up the flight of steps, “Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely. “The front row please,” she answered. “You really don’t want to do that,” the usher said,  “The pastor is really boring and you might nod off to sleep.”  “Hmm…Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired.  “No.” he said….. “I’m the pastor`s mother,” she replied indignantly. “Oh! Do you know who I am?”  he asked.  “No.” she said.   “Good,” he answered.

A young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having.  “Goat,” the little boy replied.  “Goat?” replied the startled man of the cloth, “Are you sure about that?”   “Yep,” said the youngster.  “I heard Dad say to Mom, `Today is just as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.’”

Oops….open mouth insert foot! Many are the sins we commit through speech. It is such a gift and yet so often misused.

And not only do we sin by commission but also by omission. For frequently we are silent when we should speak. We do not correct when we should. In our age the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s word but too often we fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.  I pray you are an exception, but too many Christians are well described here. So our speech is riddled with what it should not have, and devoid of what it should have. How wretched indeed our condition. Well did James say: Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect!

There are many cautions to learn when it comes to speech. Here are some other Scriptures on speech, mostly from the Wisdom Tradition:

  1. Be swift to hear, but slow to answer.  If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth.  Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall.  Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16)
  2. He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled….Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child….Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool…..every story you must not believe…..who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
  3. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart  to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few….Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…..Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6)
  4. In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT)
  5. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6)
  6. He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23)
  7. He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin. (Prov 13:3)
  8. A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Prov 20:19)
  9. A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9)
  10. A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5)
  11. A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue. (Prov 17:27-28)
  12. When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov  10:19)
  13. Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating. (Prov 18:6)
  14. Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10)
  15. The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly. (Prov 12:22-23)
  16. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. (Prov 15:2)
  17. The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4)
  18. A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Prov 18:2)
  19. Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing. (Prov 12:18)
  20. A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. (Prov 11:12-13)
  21. The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
  22. The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28)
  23. The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness. (Prov 12:23)
  24. Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)
  25. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. (Psalm 34:13)

Help Lord!  keep Your arm around my shoulder and Your hand over my mouth! Put your word in my heart, so that when I do speak, it’s really you.

This video features the ladies, but men gossip too. This is an excerpt from Music Man:

17 Replies to “Lord, Keep Your Arm Around My Shoulder and Your Hand Over My Mouth – A Meditation on the Sins of Speech”

  1. Our Lady of Laus gave a great example of the tongue when she told the visionary to correct certain sinners, especially women caught in sins against the Fifth and Sixth Commandments.

  2. How fitting this post is this week of St. Blaise’s feast. I was just commenting on how I invoke him to preserve me not only from physical ailments of the throat, but also preserve me from ailments of the vocal chords and my poor speech.

  3. It’s so hard to discern between sins of commission and omission in speech. Recently a friend got mad at me because I said “that’s wrong” in regard to a statement a favorite author of hers had made. I felt that the statement expressed a view that was not only wrong but even dangerous. My friend accused me of being arrogant. I suppose it was the way I said it. I know I have an attitude of “I’ve read a lot of books, therefore my opinions are better than yours.” Please join me in praying that I might have discernment as to when it is appropriate to speak and when I am just showing off.

  4. Children are recording devices that may play back what they’ve taken in at any moment. Even if they’ve given no sign that they were paying the least bit of attention.

  5. Msgr, this is very apropos for me at this time, and I plan to print your article to give out to a religious organization. There has been a rumor around about a visiting priest who is on sabbatical. He does not drive here, so he is dependent on people to take him to places or his appointments at any time of day. Now, he is talked about because he has been seen riding in a widow’s car quite often. (She drives him to church where he says Mass and other appointments. She is retired and mostly available to offer this service). The leaders of the group are reluctant to do something about it, except to “seemingly” seek the advice of others. To me, when you discuss something of concern to someone and not act on it, is in itself participating in a gossip.

    Sometimes, in our judgment of people, we fail to distinguish between occasioning and causing. For instance, because of the nature of his work, a priest maybe an occasion of sin when he is seen talking to or having lunch with a woman of questionable character, or, in this case, being seen with a widow in her car. A priest in this instance, maybe an occasion of sin, but he is not the cause of the gossip. I think there is much truth to the saying “consider the source”, before believing.

    My action on this was to telephone the priest and made him aware of the talk that had been going around, and left him to decide how he should handle it with this group that he is helping. He took it graciously and thanked me for the concern.

    1. It’s really hard to know whether to pass along gossip to the object of said gossip.

  6. dianne, I think most of us have that problem of not knowing when to speak. Mr. Pope makes a great point though about sins of commission and sins of omission when it comes to speech. All of us have been in a room with, or know someone who, won’t speak up or, won’t shut up. The difficulty becomes when we don’t know if we should now speak up, or shut up. It is probably the best spiritual position to be in where at least, we ask ourselves this question BEFORE we speak. And an even better position, when we ask God first.

  7. Thanks and coincidentally (sp). I have been asking God to shut my mouth recently. I really need help and your piece did just that.

  8. Excellent meditation. Our entire family needs to read this one. We often speak in anger to our children, esp. at the end of the day when patience is nil. And our children talk back too often … Lord have mercy, help us to control our tongues.

    I did like your two little stories though — they made me laugh. I’ve had the privilege of meeting our priest’s mother before she died and she told us many funny stories about him (how naughty he was, but also how he knew he wanted to be a priest when he was only seven).

  9. Some of our ” Catholic ” bloggers and writers should brush up on ” sins of the tongue.” A well known priest has recently been the object of attack by these ” good Catholics.” Every one deserves his good name. If we know some one has committed a public scandle and that individual is in a position of public trust we might consider speaking to the local bishop. We are absolutely not free to destroy his name by raking it through the press or other media.

  10. The power of words, and silence when the very stones should cry out for justice, the discernment to know when and how to use this wonderful gift God gives us. It is my lifelong struggle. I think there is yet another dimension to know how to forgive and forget, to not judge harshly the words of others. I guess you master this with prayer and patience.

    I had this prayer on the wall in my kitchen for years when my kids were little

    Lord, give me gentle words and smiling eyes
    and keep my lips from hasty sharp replies
    that when in years to come and my house is still
    Loving memories its rooms will fill. Amen

  11. Is it not good to rest on the saviour”s promises.”I will never leave you”.My Peace I give unto you” I will come again for you”
    “Fear Not”
    There are many more in the Bible look for them
    God Bless

  12. My Dad covers his huge hand over my mouth any time I talk back or cuss. So glad I’m old enough now that he doesn’t have to spank me! I get embarrassed even just when he covers up my mouth especially if people I know are around but I guess it is my own fault. I pray to be better as I get older!

  13. Words are just words, it’s the foul meanings behind words that are bad. Old fashioned manners are good and pure and wise.

  14. This is unfortunately a very hard lesson to learn. But speaking from my own experience, God WILL teach it to us IF we are willing to allow Him to do so. It’s horrible how we human beings hurt others. What finally started teaching me was when I myself hurt sinner people at work. ME! A Child of God! I’m an ordained minister! AND, they all knew it! When I had to stand there and apologize for MY ugliness I had spread, it literally knocked me to my knees. How AWFUL that I hurt someone that God intended for me to show His love and mercy to. I had to repent over it, and lay before Him quite a bit after that to get over the hurt that I had bestowed upon them. AND, not only did I hurt them, but I tarnished my testimony of loving God and sharing His love with them. SHAME ON ME! These scriptures are VERY IMPORTANT to our Christian walk. My God is TOO IMPORTANT to me to keep talking about others or “sharing the information” or “seeking counsel about the situation” etc. There’s ONLY 1 that can change anything. That’s my Heavenly Father! HE is the 1 that can change situations, people, hurts, WHATEVER it is, He won’t gossip, or jump on the band wagon. He WILL move if we are faithful to lay on our face before Him and cry out to Him over whatever it is we need Him to do.

  15. You bet. Quoting from the IRS instructions for the 1099-MISC: “Box 1. Rents. Enter amounts of $600 or more for all types of rents, such as real estate rentals paid for office space (unless paid to a real estate agent), machine rentals (for example, renting a bulldozer to level your parking lot), and pasture rentals (for example, farmers paying for the use of grazing land).” The only reason why you would not report rents paid to your landlord is if your landlord is a corporation.

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