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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT)
- Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6)
- He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23)
- He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin. (Prov 13:3)
- A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. (Prov 20:19)
- A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9)
- A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5)
- 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)
- When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19)
- Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating. (Prov 18:6)
- Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10)
- 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)
- The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. (Prov 15:2)
- The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4)
- A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Prov 18:2)
- Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing. (Prov 12:18)
- 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)
- The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
- The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28)
- The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness. (Prov 12:23)
- Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3)
- 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: