Bite Your Tongue! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

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 [1]. Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

A Test for Pridefulness

None of us likes to think we are prideful. It’s always someone else; that guy over there is the arrogant one. One way of gauging is to ponder how well we accept being corrected. Consider the following verses from Proverbs:

He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning (Proverbs 9:7-12).

Which one are you?Do you bristle when someone corrects you or do you grow wiser from the input you receive?

It’s not easy to accept criticism or correction without feeling some degree of humiliation, particularly when it is public in some manner.

Of course, there are different kinds of correction.There is the sort that involves facts about which we are mistaken. At other times need to be set straight on the proper procedures to be followed in some situation. Finally, there are times when we have failed in a moral sense and need to be summoned back to what is right. Whatever the case, being corrected can be difficult, and how we handle it is a good indicator of pride or humility in our soul.

There are, to be sure, times when people do not correct us in the best way possible.Perhaps they are smug or seek to embarrass us. Even in those cases, though, if we are wrong, we should view correction as beneficial, regardless of how poorly it is delivered.

Note also that the passage from Proverbs above links humility to wisdom and learning.Thus, something we call docility is related to humility. The word docility comes from the Latin word for being teachable. Too often, we can be stubbornly opinionated and resist being taught. It is important to ask the Lord for greater docility.

In preparation for Lent, take this short self-test for pridefulness: How do you take correction? How teachable are you?

The Sin That Comes From Being a Busybody – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory

122914The term “busybody” usually refers to one who is intent on the matters of others but looks little to his own issues. Busybodies also tend to focus especially on the faults, foibles, and troubles of other folks. Seldom are they chattering away about good news related to other people; more often it is the scurrilous and scandalous that occupy their minds.

Merriam-Webster online defines a busybody as  “a person who is too interested in the private lives of other people.” It is a form of sinful curiosity.

Now personally I have never been a busybody, but I have known many of them 😉   But of course, this is a human problem. Many of us are far too interested in things that are really none of our business. That alone is problem enough. But the problem is compounded in that the busybody is almost always too little concerned about his own ”issues” (we used to call them sins). When our attention to, fascination with, or scorn about sin is directed outward, we lose the proper introspection that properly examines our own need for repentance. The pointed index finger too easily ignores the three folded fingers pointing back at oneself, and those three fingers symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit urging us to look to our own vineyard.

Indeed, Scripture says, They made me keeper of the vineyards; but, my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song 1:6) For we who would be prophets too easily ignore the word of God as directed to our own souls.

Further, it is a common trap of the devil that he keeps us focused on what we cannot change so that we do not focus on what we can change. In other words, it is more difficult to change others and less difficult to change ourselves. Thus the devil would have us focus on others, who are hard to change, so that we will not focus on our very self, whom we can more easily change.

Thus, being a busybody is not only obnoxious, it is a trap the devil enjoys laying for us.

Pope St. Gregory the Great has a meditation near the end of his Pastoral Rule wherein he ponders the problem of the busybody. He uses the story of Dinah from the Bible. He does not use the term “busybody,” but the related concept of “self-flattery.” Let’s review some of his observations.

Frequently the crafty enemy … seduces [the mind] by flattery in a false security that leads to destruction. And this is expressed figuratively in the person of Dinah. For it is written:

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the pagan women of the land;  and when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her.  And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden and spoke tenderly to her (Gen 34:1-3).

For [pertaining to us] Dinah “goes down to see the women of that region.” But whenever a soul neglects to consider itself and concerns itself with the actions of others and wonders beyond its own proper condition and order, then Shechem takes her soul by force,  inasmuch as the Devil corrupts the mind that is occupied by external matters. “And [Shechem’s] soul was drawn to her” because the devil considers us conjoined to him through iniquity. And … the devil calls before our minds a false sense of hope and security … Thus it is written that Shechem “spoke tenderly to her” when she was sad [humbled]. For to us the devil speaks to us of the greater offenses committed by others … [Pastoral Rule III.29].

In effect, Gregory uses the story of Dinah as an allegory of the trouble we get into when we focus too much on the lives of others and look not enough to our own souls. For Dinah gets into trouble when she tours the land to see the pagan women (the Hivites) and inquires, with a sort of fascination, into what they do. And one of the men of that land seduces her, taking  advantage of the vulnerability caused by her sinful curiosity. But even after being humbled and sinned against, she still lets him speak tenderly to her. She is far too fascinated with the Hivites. And thus her rapist, Shechem, was able to speak tenderly to her and win her heart, a thing no rapist should be able to do.

But so it is with us. We are far too fascinated with the sins and struggles of others. Like busybodies we go out to consort with the people of the sinful world. And being focused on and fascinated by them, rather than looking to our own selves, we open ourselves up to being taken advantage of by both the devil and a sinful world. We are an easy target when we do not look to our own soul but rather are preoccupied with the scurrilous details of the lives of others.

And then the devil seizes us and has consort with our soul. He speaks “tenderly” to us telling us how, compared to others, we are not really so bad.  Here is a false security indeed. We have been sinfully curious as to the sins and struggles of others, and now we are in the devil’s clutches being reassured by him.

We should be angry with him for raping our vulnerable soul in the first place! But instead, we let him sweet-talk and reassure us.

And thus we are prey two times over. First, we indulged our sinful curiosity into the struggles of others, and then having done so, allowed ourselves to be falsely reassured by the devil of our relative innocence.

The bottom line is that busybodies are easy prey for the devil. By looking not to their own lives, but instead prying with sinful fascination into the lives of others, they wander into sin easily. And all the while, since they look not to themselves, they are easily deluded by the thought that at least they are not as bad as so-and so.

Then only problem is, “being better than so-and-so” is not the standard for eternal life. Jesus is the standard. Only grace and mercy can help us meet that standard.

The busybody is busy about all things except the one thing necessary. As St. Paul says, If we would judge ourselves truly, we would not be judged (1 Cor 11:31).

On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

In the Office of Readings this week we read about a census conducted by King David that caused great harm (2 Samuel 24). Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned him not to take the census, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the prophet Gad informed David that God was angry and intended to punish him and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to be in God’s hands than those of an enemy. About 70,000 people died during those three days.

This raises two central questions:

What is wrong with a census?

Why was all Israel punished for something David did?

What is wrong with a census?

The first answer can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in mankind, not in numbers. We tend to rely too heavily on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful if a lot of people support it. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rectitude rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? In calling for a count of his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than in God; this is a sin.

David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he was proud that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah and in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of patting himself on the back, of making a name for himself. The numbers are quite impressive—so impressive that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. If women, children, and those men too old or frail for service had been included, the number would probably have been close to 5 million. (These figures seem so high that they are a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration.) Suffice it to say that David ruled over a populous nation. His taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishments and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, king of multitudes!

Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to count; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

Finally, the results of a census can be used sinfully. Governments can and sometimes have used the information to oppress the people. The census David commissioned provided him with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often taken to facilitate a military draft. It was also typically used as a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power.

Even in our own time as we know, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, as the results can lead to shifts in electoral boundaries, increases or decreases in congressional representation, changes in tax policy, shifting of spending priorities, and the pitting of different ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of trouble can be tied back to the results of the census; numbers can be powerful. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside.

Note: I am not taking a side on the citizenship question that is currently being debated in the U.S. The point I am making here is much broader (and older) than the current disagreement.

In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful or unjust ways.

Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the passage. God is clear, though, in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so.

Why was Israel punished for something David did?

This question is much more difficult to answer than was the first one. First, we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation.

The most common answer emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David … to number Israel and Judah. For some undisclosed reason, God was angry with the whole nation and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the result of a census was also a point of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become!” This is mere speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel had angered the Lord.

It is important to note that modern Western notion of individualism is not a biblical one. We tend to think that what we do is our business and what others do is theirs, and thus we are outraged at the idea that many would suffer for the sins of one. In the biblical worldview, though, we are all interconnected: There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is the biblical vision.

The decisions we make affect the people around us, whether for better or for worse. Even what we call “private” sins set loose evil, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say that God is not being “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, we should seek His mercy.

God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin, but God’s anger at Israel is His passion to set things right. He is getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On The Sinful Census Conducted by King David

“God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

One of the questionable, and unfortunately common, forms of moral reasoning today is the rather narcissistic notion that God wants each of us to be happy. Sometimes it is put in the form of a rhetorical question: God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He?

And this sort of reasoning (if you want to call it that) is used to justify just about anything. Thus, in pondering divorce, a spouse might point to his or her misery and conclude that God would approve of the split because God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He? Many seek to justify so-called same-sex marriage, and other illicit sexual notions in the same way.

Further, other responsibilities are often blithely set aside as too demanding, under the pretext that God would not make difficult demands because, after all, He wants me to be happy. Since getting to Mass is difficult for me, God will understand if I don’t go; He wants me to be happy, not burdened. Forgiving someone is hard and God does not ask hard things of us; He wants me to be happy. Refusing to cooperate with some evil at work would risk my income; surely God would not demand that I withstand it since He wants me to be happy, content, and financially secure.

The notion that God wants me to be happy thus becomes a kind of trump card, some sort of definitive declaration that obviates the need for any further moral reflection. Practically speaking, this means that I am now free to do as I please. Since I am happy, God is happy, and this is His will … or so the thinking goes.

There are, of course, multiple problems with the “God wants me to be happy” moral stance. In the first place, happiness is a complex matter that admits of many subjective criteria including personal development, temporal dimensions, and worldview. For example, a spiritually mature person can find happiness simply in knowing that he is pleasing God by follow His Commandments. On an interpersonal level, many are happy to make sacrifices for the people they love. To others who are less mature, even the smallest sacrifice can seem obnoxious and bring on unhappiness; pleasing God is not even on their radar, let alone something that would make them happy.

Happiness is also temporally variable. Most of us are well aware that happiness tomorrow is often contingent upon making certain sacrifices today. For example, the happiness one gets in taking a vacation is usually dependent upon having saved up some money beforehand. Making sacrifices today enables happiness tomorrow. If all I do is please myself in the moment, insist on being happy right now, my ability to be happy in the future will likely be seriously compromised. Setting no limits today might mean that I am broke tomorrow, or addicted, or unhealthily overweight, or afflicted with a sexually-transmitted disease. True, lasting, deep happiness in the future often requires some sacrifice today, some capacity to say “No” right now. Without any consideration of the future or of eternal life, “happiness” in the moment is vague, foolish, and meaningless, if not outright destructive. God desires our happiness, all right, but the happiness He wants for us is that of eternal life with Him forever. He has clearly indicated that this will often involve forsaking many of the passing pleasures and the “happiness” of this world.

More troubling still is the self-referential and narcissistic aspect contained in the simple little word “me.” God wants me to be happy.

Those who expresses this “me” notion might be surprised to discover that God has bigger things in mind. God actually cares about other people, too! He also cares about future generations and about the common good. Yes, there’s just a little more on God’s radar than you.

So the divorced man who might say, “God wants me to be happy” should consider that God might actually care about his children too; He might care about the culture that suffers due to rampant divorce; He might care about future generations that would inherit a culture shredded by destroyed families.

Wow, God might actually want others to be happy besides me! Even more shockingly, God might want me to sacrifice my happiness for them! He might actually want me to consider them and even regard them as more important that I am.

As a moral reference point, “me” is remarkably narrow and usually self-serving. And yet many today use this almost reflexively and authoritatively. “God wants me to be happy, so all discussions and further deliberations are over. God has spoken through my desires. He wants me to be happy. Who are you to dispute that? We’re done here; I will not be judged by you.”

“God wants me to be happy” is not a legitimate moral principle. It bespeaks a narcissism that is, sadly, too common today. Call it “Stuart Smalley theology.” You don’t know who Stuart Smalley is? This video shows it plainly enough. The bottom line is, don’t be Stuart Smalley.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord warns of using uncivil and/or hateful words such as “Raqa” and “fool.” And yet the same Lord Jesus often used very strong language toward some of His opponents, sometimes calling them names such as vipers and hypocrites.

We live in a world that often insists on the use of gentle language and euphemisms. While doing so is not a bad thing, we also tend to manifest a kind of thin-skinned quality and a political correctness that is too fussy about many things, often taking personally what is not meant personally.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility” dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word has entered into common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variances in what is considered to be civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charity as well as a modern and American notion of civility:

    • Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips (Eccl 10:12).
    • The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Eccles 9:17).
    • Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
    • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
    • Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3:21).
    • With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
    • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
    • Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6).
    • Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11).
    • But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8).
    • Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19).
    • Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (Gal 6:1).
    • Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

    • Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34)
    • And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23 varia)
    • Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
    • Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).
    • And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you? (Mark 9:19)
    • Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
    • Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts” (Jn 5:41-42).
    • So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
    • Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)

Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 3, 5)

Paul against the false apostles: And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).

Paul on the Cretans: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13).

Peter against dissenters: Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2, varia).

Jude against dissenters: These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage (Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse. Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,” for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, as already observed, we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance – The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

Gluttony is eating or drinking inordinately, contrary to reason. It is a sin opposed to the virtue of temperance because it is the immoderate indulgence in the delights of food or drink. Gluttony can involve more than merely eating too much. Drunkenness is also a type of gluttony because it is excessive indulgence in intoxicating drink.

A person can be excessive in what, when, how, and how much he eats. St. Thomas Aquinas and others have distinguished five ways gluttony can be manifested. One can approach food or drink:

Hastily, by eating too rapidly, gulping down food or drink. As a gift of God, food and drink should be savored and enjoyed. To fail in this regard is not only impolite when in the company of others but can also be offensive to God or to those who have prepared the meal. By hastily eating or drinking, one downplays the gift by rushing past its subtleties and delights, which require a more moderate rate of consumption to appreciate fully. Rapid consumption also tends to lead to overconsumption, whether food or drink.

Sumptuously, by demanding rich foods more so than healthier fare. For example, consuming sweets and fatty foods rather than fruits and vegetables, or expensive foods rather than more moderate ones, fine wines and liquors rather than water and juice.

Excessively, by habitually consuming too much.

Greedily, by demanding what one wants, when one wants it, and in the quantity one wants. Some are unwilling to share food or drink with others; others demand to be served first; still others insist on being served separately.

Daintily, by insisting that food be prepared to exacting standards of appearance or taste.

Yes, gluttony can be manifested in many ways, not just through excessive consumption.

St Thomas also noted these five “daughters” of gluttony:

Unseemly joy – This is best seen as a result of excessive consumption of intoxicating drink but eating too much can also lead to a levity that is beyond what is reasonable. There is an expression that is dismissive of a necessary seriousness: “Eat, drink, and be merry.” There is also the foolish saying, “Life is short; eat dessert first.”

Scurrility (foolish talking) – Long meals are often rife with gossip and silly or imprudent speech. Add alcohol and conversation can become increasingly unruly and flippant.

Uncleanness – Some are so addicted to the feast and the table that they induce vomiting to “make room” so that that they can return and consume more. Others vomit from the overconsumption itself, sometimes after having passed out.

Loquaciousness – This is similar to scurrility but refers to talking too much in general rather than the content of the speech.

Dullness of mind – Heavy food or intoxicating drink can cause sluggishness and sleepiness. Drinking too much can lower a person’s inhibitions. One seldom does good thinking after a heavy meal or a bout of excessive drinking.

While gluttony is not the most serious of sins (sins of the spirit are more consequential), gluttony can be one of the more disgraceful because of its effect on the intellect. Gluttony can become very serious in at least four ways:

First, drunkenness is a species of gluttony. The quantity of human tears shed on account of its effects demonstrate the havoc wrought.

Second, gluttony is an addiction and addictions are a serious problem.

Third, there can be a deep folly involved in gluttony by thinking that one can satisfy inner emptiness with things of this world.

Finally, gluttony is closely connected to avarice and lust.

Virtues that assist in battling gluttony – Rather than concentrating on the gluttony itself, we must turn our back on the problem and look to God as our joy and fulfillment. Gluttony is one of those sins we must crowd out with other virtues such as joy, zeal for heavenly things, gratitude, temperance, and moderation. We must gain the insight that when it comes to food and drink, “less is more”; things are best enjoyed in moderation. These can also be helpful: shame over excess, interest in physical fitness, and charity exhibited by preferring meals for the company rather than merely the food or drink.

The battle against gluttony is great in our times due to the way in which foods are prepared, the often-hidden prevalence of sugar in so many things, and the near elimination of famine in the Western world. We also live longer, are seldom sick for lengthy periods, and are able to consume food with little or no preparation time. Our bodies seem designed for occasional want of food, lengthy illness, and far more physical exertion than is common today. It seems easier to fall into gluttony in today’s world, but there are factors that may lessen guilt. Merely being overweight is not always an indication of gluttony; still, it can indicate a need to reexamine one’s diet.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

One of the more misunderstood of the cardinal sins is sloth. Most see it merely as laziness, but there is more to it than that. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of this cardinal sin.

The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of sloth as sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf Summa Theologica II-II 35,2).

Some modern commentators describe sloth as a “don’t care” feeling. Some even say it is a kind of falling out of love with God and the things of God (cf Rev 2:4). On account of sloth, the idea of right living and the gift of a transformed humanity inspires not joy, but aversion or even disgust because it is seen as too difficult or as requiring the setting aside of currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. Through sloth, many experience sorrow rather than joy or zeal in following God and receiving a transformed human life. They are distressed at the prospect of what might have to occur should they embrace the faith more deeply.

Sloth also tends to dismiss the power of grace, focusing instead on the “trouble” or effort involved in walking in the Christian way.

Sloth is not merely laziness; it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic “busyness” with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.

Consider, for example, a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose that this man has a wife and children. A man in this position has some very significant gifts and duties beyond his career. He is a husband, a father, and the spiritual leader of his home. He is also a disciple, one whom the Lord has summoned to a new life, to the great discovery of God, and to the deepest meaning and realities of his life. He also has the awesome responsibility to announce these truths to his wife and children. All of the duties of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him; the task seems too open-ended. He doesn’t want to reflect too much because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering: moral questions, priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his family, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. It’s all just too hard, too filled with uncertainty. Entering more deeply into the spiritual life is difficult. Work is easier and they call him “Sir” and do what he says.

So he buries himself in his work; this helps him to avoid prayer and reflection. Of course there’s no time for Mass or for praying with his wife and children. There’s no time for Scripture, retreats, and the like.

This man is not lazy but he is slothful. In the end, his workaholism is sloth, for it is sorrow at and aversion to the gift that the Lord offers him: to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. In this example, the man’s sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in avoidance and is rooted in fear. Through sloth, he is not joyful at the invitation of the Lord or the Church. Instead he is sorrowful and averse to what he sees as toilsome and possibly raising uncomfortable things he would rather not think about. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.

That said, sloth does often manifest itself as a kind of lethargy, a boredom that can’t seem to muster any interest, energy, joy, or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about many things, but God and the faith are not among them.

Boredom seems to have increased in modern times and this fuels sloth. We are overstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, the fast-paced movies and video games all contribute. From the time we awaken until we fall into bed at the end of the day, there is almost never a moment of silence or a time when we are not being bombarded by images, often flickering and quickly changing.

This overstimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, when we are asked to listen for an extended period time, when the imagery is not changing quickly enough, we are easily bored.

Boredom feeds right into sloth. The “still, small voice of God,” the quiet of prayer, the simple reading of Scripture and the pondering of its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship—none of these appeal to those used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy and the music, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship, and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered boring and about as appealing as going to the dentist. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going at less than full speed.

In his book Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft says,

Sloth is a cold sin, not a hot one. But that makes it even deadlier. [For] rebellion against God is closer to him than indifference … God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both. Sloth is a sin of omission not commission. That too makes it deadlier, for a similar reason. To commit evil is at least to be playing the game … Sloth simply does not play God’s game, either with him or against him … It sits on the sidelines bored … Better to be hot or cold than lukewarm [p. 154].

The “daughters” of Sloth are: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things. For indeed, sloth can make us hate and thus have malice and spite for the good things of God. Then too there are the obvious daughters listed here which proceed from a sort of oppressive sorrow at the good things of God.

Of the Virtues that are medicine for sloth: As with envy, joy and zeal are essential. So too are Magnanimity and magnificence whereby we think great things and do them. By faith we learn to appreciate the good things of God and by charity we learn to love them.  By almsgiving we intentionally move outside our self. And, by justice we are motivated to render to God and others what is their due. 

The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this beatitude: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).

We must also ask for and seek the fruits of the Holy Spirit, especially love, joy, and peace. These gifts kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.

Because sloth is such a deep drive, we must throw ourselves to the care of God with great humility, recognizing our poverty and seeking His miraculous grace to give us grateful, loving, and passionate hearts.

Finally, because sloth can also be caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:

  • We ought to meditate carefully on what our specific call is. Because we cannot do and be everything, we need to understand our own particular gifts and how God expects us to use them. Having done this, we do well to “stay in our lane.”
  • We must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages, not in one giant leap. We need not be so sorrowful or averse to the good things God offers us. As a loving Father, He leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to another.

Pray for zeal, joy, hope, confidence, and a hunger for holy things. The Christian journey is meant to be a thrilling one, as we experience how God is utterly transforming us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth