Lord, Keep Your Arm Around My Shoulder and Your Hand Over My Mouth! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

blog 8.19.15One of the greatest gifts given to 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 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)

Perhaps 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 such good, we can surely cause great harm!

James says in the passage above that though we have learned to tame nearly every wild animal, no human being is able to tame the tongue—such a small part of us physically. Though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually 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. Sometimes we even forget to whom we’re talking, or that what we say might well be 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 of these!

  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 – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order 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 overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not 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 – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little. Ecclesiastes 5:3 says, a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
  5. The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all the information. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God. And James 1:19 says, Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak.
  6. 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. 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 – spreading unnecessary and often hurtful information about others. Talebearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared. 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 – wishing 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 – speaking 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 – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them 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 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 Scriptures concerning 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 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.


17 Replies to “Lord, Keep Your Arm Around My Shoulder and Your Hand Over My Mouth! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech”

  1. STELLAR! Your common sense approach to Christian discipleship is a refreshing spiritual and educational encouragement. Thank you for your outstanding homilies!

    1. Thanks for this. I will look into it today. I think we need to find alternatives to Facebook and start to grow apart from that increasingly abusive forum.

  2. Today, the apostle James would have to rephrase many of his cautions so that they were about a keyboard, rather than a tongue.

  3. Uh oh! What are you trying to do – put charlatans, politicians running for office, radio talk show hosts, amongst others of the loose lip class, out of business?

  4. Sorry, one added purveyor of gossip needs highlighting: TMZ Celebrity News. Do we really need to know so much about celebrities than we already know? I doubt it.

    1. Exactly, lots of sinful curiosity going on. I also remain amazed at how many people are willing to discuss very private issues about themselves and their families on national TV.

    2. Ugh! TMZ! They upset me greatly. They take such delight in the faults of celebrities (and even pseudo celebrities), as if they are somehow without any faults of their own. Sad, really.

      What is the saying…”When you judge me, you judge yourself”?

      Trust me, someone else said something like that and it probably sounded way more profound.

  5. It seems that it is socially acceptable to put one’s nose into everyone else’s business; I’m guilty of this, too, but it is disrespectful. There is much to be said for the value of privacy. Being a busy body takes away from my trust in God, since I want to discover and judge everything and everyone myself. Something to work on.

  6. Very timely post! Sometimes I have no brain to mouth filter, and it’s something I try very hard to keep tabs on. I found I was in good company working in the ER and public safety as a lot of us had no brain to mouth filters…whatever we were thinking came out eventually! Not everyone likes brutal honesty and there are ways to be more tactful with some things.

  7. This is very timely and relevant for all of us. Trying to master the tongue, through the lost wisdom of silence and prudence is very difficult for me. Yet, like the Rosary, it is good medicine for the soul. One immediate benefit is i have not the slightest interest in what goes on in other peoples lives or homes. i have learned i have enough detritus within myself to deal with, so why try and and more to my own dump site! Learning silence is a beautiful thing, bringing peace to the heart and a much more intimate walk with God.

    When i don’t open my big mouth that is…..

  8. I think that women in particular are so prone to The Backbiting Tongue. There is something in our nature (probably the way that our brains are wired for relationships) that also makes us turn mean, especially towards each other. You can even see it in young girls, sadly enough. And how many young people even know the meaning of calumny and detraction, never mind that they are sins. Always excellent teaching on this topic Monsignor!

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