Lord, Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth: A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

070813One 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.

Scriptures speak very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list i found from James Melton [1]. The List is his, but the commentary is mine. Beware the

  1. The Lying Tongue – Speaking false things with the intention to mislead. Proverbs 12:22 says,  The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.
  2. The Flattering Tongue – a lying or exaggerating about the good qualities of others to ingratiate ourselves to them. This is a form of lying. Psalm 12:3 says, May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue
  3. The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and over certain of what it says. Neither will those of proud tongue be easily corrected or reasonably qualify or distinguish their remarks.  Psalm 12 :4 condemns , those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”
  4. The Overused Tongue – Those who say far too much, especially about that which they know little. Ecclesiastes 5:3 says a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
  5. The Swift Tongue – Those who speak before they should, before they even have all the information. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter any thing before God…. And James 1:19 says, Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak
  6. The Backbiting Tongue – Those who talk of others behind their back. Here is the secret and quiet injuring of a person’s good name to others. Calumny is to outright lie about another. Detraction is to call unnecessary attention to the known faults of others so as to harm their reputation. Proverbs 25:23 says, As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger! Leviticus 19:16 says, You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not jeopardize the  life of your neighbor; I am the LORD.
  7. The Tale Bearing Tongue – Those who spread all sort of unnecessary and usually hurtful information. Much personal information that ought not be shared is spread by talebearers.  Proverbs 20:19 says, He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips. Leviticus 19:16 says, Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people.
  8. The Cursing Tongue – Those who wish harm on others, usually that they be damned. Psalm 109:17 warns, He loved to pronounce a curse– may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing– may it be far from him.
  9. The Piercing Tongue – Those who speak with unnecessary harshness and severity. 2 Timothy 4:2 says, Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 1 Tim 5:1-2 says, Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
  10. The Silent Tongue – Those who do not speak when they should to warn of sin, call to the kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. Isaiah 56:10 says, Israel’s  watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark. 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.

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 is another list of Scriptures on speech, mostly from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and Heed:

  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:

22 Replies to “Lord, Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth: A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech”

  1. Thank you, Monsignor. That was interesting to read. I’m kind of a quiet person, mostly because I am very careful about my speech. I have already taught my young children the saying, “Loose lips sink ships.”

  2. Matthew 12:36: “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”

    Yikes! Lots of room for improvement in this area!! This is a great list and I will be printing it out for my family. Another “tongue” we have to watch out for is the “complaining tongue”. Our complaints sow seeds of discontent which bear bitter fruit over time, as well as reveal our ingratitude for what God has given us.

  3. (I think ‘known’ in the definition of detraction is meant to read ‘unknown’. “He becomes guilty: –of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them [. . .]”–CCC, p. 2477.)

    Dion, of The Wanderer and Runaround Sue fame, also recorded a song about St. Jerome called The Thunderer. I recall Dion saying on The Journey Home that St. Jerome gives us all hope. I haven’t read that much St. Jerome, but enough to know what Dion was talking about and I agree with him.

    St. Jerome pray for us!

    1. Jerome’s writings reveal that he was a man of many words. He often subjected his opponents to withering criticism, but he was certainly no fool!

  4. Is there a video of the hymn that starts with the words “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” ? I’ve been told more than once to “zip it”. Even the anecdote about the too noisy tradesman who stopped the orchestra practising, and told them to please continue because they were’t bothering him! Wasn’t enough to deter me, I think I’m sad to say. Anyway if you find that video…..the words and the sound fit this blog.

  5. Excellent! Indeed anyone who can avoid all that would be on the way to holiness. But then we have to deal with those pesky thoughts and desires!


  6. The things people say in comments boxes chill my soul. Thank you for posting this; I’ll be linking to it.

  7. Thank you for teaching us so clearly and boldly. This is the sort of thing we need to hear!

  8. Thank you for this Monsignor, as always. Controlling my tongue is my constant struggle, particularly as a woman (women being drawn to gossip like bees to honey sometimes). I wonder if we, as Catholic Christians living our lives, put enough focus on this particular group of sins. I know I don’t. I think of myself as a “good person” generally, but I don’t reflect enough on my speech.

    On a side note, about a year ago, I remember following a story about a Hassidic musician who decided to leave that particular branch of Judaism. Anyway, I read a bit about that, and I noticed something very interesting in the comboxes on multiple sites from the mostly Orthodox Jewish commenters. When commenters went too far with the topic, people would start saying, “Stop, that is lashon hara.” It was a constant call as some people were defaming this particular man, lashon hara, lashon hara. It seemed good to me in a way that there was such an easy, compact way to communicate this teaching to each other.

  9. Thanks for the post! These references are ones to keep close at hand.
    Also: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:14-15

  10. Thank you, Monsignor! If I ever serve on a parish council again, I have considered urging us to begin by reading Ephesians 4:25-5:5 together as a prayerful meditation on the things we should not be doing with our mouths.

    Your blog and your reflections are a blessing to me. Thank you for the effort you put into it and please be assured of its value to your readers.

  11. The incorrupt tongue of Saint Anthony is perfect statement of its being at the service of God, alone.
    This is encouraging: 2 Timothy 4:2 says, Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 1 Tim 5:1-2 says, Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Ty! Monsignor.

  12. Thank you, Monsignor. My tongue has wounded more people and gotten me in to more trouble!
    And I don’t seem like the kind of person who would say such things — and that is the worst cross. A few years ago, when I finally read the passage from James that you quoted, I wrote it in big letters and kept it with me for a long time because it was such a revelation to me.
    When I was a child, my weekly confession was that I lied to someone every week. I was quite the liar. I Didn’t want to get into trouble, so I would lie. No one (but God) ever knew I was lying because I was so sweet and kind and shy. Thank God, those sins are forgiven!
    But as a grownup, my tongue still gets me into deep trouble when I ‘say what I shouldn’t say’ — and ‘don’t say what I SHOULD say’ — it doesn’t happen very often anymore due to lots of ‘kneeling prayers’ and Adoration hours. The tongue is still a weapon of fire, as James wrote so very long ago.
    (I wonder if he was writing in reference to the apostles’ relationships to one another before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? I always wonder what it was like for them on Good Friday night — with only John able to report being an eyewitness to the Crucifixion.)

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