When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.
Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested (Sirach 27:4-7).
What we say reveals a great deal about us—more than we imagine. Speech is among our greatest gifts, yet self-mastery in speech is among the rarest. Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggeration, harsh attack, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spew hatred, incite fear, spread misinformation, tempt, discourage, promote error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!
The Letter 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 (Jam 3:2-10).
Although one may conquer any sin by God’s grace, those associated with speech are among the hardest to overcome. Sometimes it seems as if our speech is being controlled by a separate, baser part of our brain. We can be halfway through saying something before realizing how foolish and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks artistically of the sinful tongue.
Here are some common sins of the tongue:
The Lying Tongue – speaking falsehoods with the intention of misleading others.
- The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Prov 12:22).
- A false witness will not go unpunished, and one who utters lies will not escape (Prov 19:5).
- Not every story should you believe (Sir 19:14).
The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, injuring their reputations through detraction.
- A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sir 5:13-16).
- Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you … (Sir 19:5).
The Indiscreet Tongue – spreading confidential, unnecessary, or hurtful information about others.
- He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with such a one (Prov 20:19).
- A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
- He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip… 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 … (Sir 19:5, 14).
- Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev 19:16).
The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them.
- May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Ps 12:4).
- Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
The Proud Tongue – speaking boastfully or in an overly certain way.
There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.
- May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue, Those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; when our lips speak, who can lord it over us?” (Ps 12:4-5)
- An evil man is trapped by his rebellious speech, but a righteous man escapes from trouble (Prov 12:13).
- The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
The Overused Tongue – saying too much, which usually ushers in sin by its excess.
- A fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecc 5:2).
- When words are many, sin is inevitable, but he who restrains his lips is wise (Prov 10:19).
The Rash Tongue – speaking before one should, often without having all the information.
- Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecc 5:1).
- Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth (Sir 5:13).
- Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:28).
The Quarrelsome Tongue – speaking in an overly opinionated way, attacking others personally, and/or provoking unnecessary division.
- Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
- A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
- Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
The Cursing Tongue – wishing harm upon others, often 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 (Ps 109:17).
- Whoever curses his father or mother, his lamp will be extinguished in deepest darkness (Prov 20:20).
The Piercing Tongue – speaking unnecessarily harshly or severely.
- The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
- Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
- 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 – failing to speak 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 poor behavior has been facilitated by our silence. As prophets, we are called to speak God’s Word.
- Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Tim 4:2).
- Israel’s watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Is 56:10).
Yes, our speech is riddled with what it should not have and lacking in what it should. How wretched is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect. Indeed, if anyone masters his tongue, he is a spiritual superman!
Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Ps 141:3).
Yes, 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.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Bite Your Tongue! A Homily for the 8th Sunday of the Year