In the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great, the opening line reads: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”
This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!
Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!
The Book of James says this:
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his 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).
Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton . Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!
- The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead
The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).
- The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying
May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).
- The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.
Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.
- The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little
… a fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
- The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information
Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).
- The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.
As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).
- The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.
He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).
Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).
- The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned
He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).
- The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity
Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).
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 (1 Tim 5:1-2).
- The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. 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.
Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).
So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!
There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!
- 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 me, 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 speaking.