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Taming the Tongue

by Aneel Aranha

As a little child, I remember going to the doctor on the odd occasions when I fell ill. The doctor would ask me what was wrong with me, but before I could give him any kind of answer, he'd tell me to stick my tongue out! It didn't take long for me to realize that he didn't really care what I said to him; all he was interested in was my tongue, which apparently told him more about the state of my physical health than anything I might have said.

Interestingly, our tongues also speak a lot about the state of our spiritual health, and Scripture is voluminous on the subject, repeatedly establishing the relationship between the heart and the tongue, and showing how the condition of one reflects the condition of the other. When speaking to the religious leaders of his time, this is what Jesus, himself, had to say:

You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37)

It is by our words that we will be judged. Unfortunately, most of us don't realize this basic truth, and use our tongues carelessly; unmindful or uncaring of what we say. We engage in excessive chatter, gossip, slander, flattery, lies and dozens of other sins of our tongues, jeopardizing our very salvation and making a farce of our religiousness. James, in his letter to the Jewish Christians living outside Palestine, warns:

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

Some understanding of what the various sins of the tongue are, why we commit these sins, how much they displease God, and how we could possibly remedy them, might help us rein in our tongues. We will look at some of them.


Talking too much

As a dream comes when there are many cares,
so the speech of a fool when there are many words.
(Ecclesiastes 5:3)

This is a very common ailment that several of us suffer from, most not recognizing that volubility is not the virtue that we imagine it to be. Part of the reason we talk so much is because we find silences uncomfortable and feel the need to constantly fill them up. To do that we need something to fill it in with, and given that most people are uninclined to speak of things spiritual, it leaves them only with unspiritual matters to talk about. The result is excessive chatter, often resembling verbal diarrhea, with the subject matter ranging from insipid to puerile, and invariably sinful!

Even in prayer we are guilty of this sin, going on and on in an endless monologue, entirely unheeding of Jesus's caution not to "keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words" (Matthew 6:7). This continuous gibber doesn't let God get a word in edgewise either. Prayer is a two way street and it is as important—if not more— to listen as it is to talk. God speaks to us in our silences but we never give him an opportunity to do so.

The cure for talking too much is simple: shut up and listen! God has given you two ears but only one mouth for a very good reason! People who listen more are apt to be people who learn more. They are also less likely to be bores!

Gossip and Slander

... nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:10)

You might find it interesting to note that the word "devil" in Greek means "a slanderer". Whenever we engage in slanderous conversation we become devilish—quite literally. All slander has its roots in gossip, which is talk about personal or sensational facts about others. This is diabolical at all times, seeing as how slander is character assasination, worse than murder because here the victim is still physically alive and having to deal with a mutilated reputation.

Not only is this evil, it renders our worship of God useless. You simply cannot praise God on the one hand while debasing your brother on the other. James has plenty to say here as well: "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)

Is it okay to speak good, then? Yes, but my own advice is not to speak about anybody. Period. Even if you mean to speak well of somebody, conversations about people invariably end up with some calumny spoken, some belittlement, some disparagement. Examine your own experiences in the matter and you will see that this is true. It has to do with the tongue being "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:7-8). That's a description of the fangs of a snake. The best way to render a snake impotent is not by defanging it, but by refusing to give it freedom to move.

Hastiness in Speech

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.
(Ecclesiastes 5:2)

Have you ever played the word game Blockbuster? A question is thrown at opposing teams and the team that hits the buzzer first gets to answer first. In their hurry to be the first to score points a team will often hit the buzzer before the question is even half way completed and end up having no idea what to answer. We are guilty of the same thing in conversations. In our eagerness to get the first word in, we often open our mouths and blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, which is, more often than not, asinine.

To quote James again, though slightly out of context: "Everyone should be quick to listen, but slow to speak" (James 1:19). We are often guilty of this sin with God too, making him promises without thinking them through. Proverbs 29:20 says that there is more hope for a fool than a man who is hasty with his words, which is a stern warning because Scripture has nothing good to say about fools.

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower," Jesus says. "Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'" (Luke 14:28) When we make hasty promises, we often end up with unfinished buildings.

Lies

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. (Psalm 34:13)

This is another sin of the tongue that comes straight from the devil, whom Scripture refers to as "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). When we lie, we immediately adopt Satan for a dad and condemn ourselves in the eyes of God, who abhors liars and promises them a bath in "a fiery lake of burning sulphur" (Rev. 21:8).

The cure to lying comes from understanding the main reasons we lie. Many lies are told with the intention of "gaining face" with others, largely because we obtain our sense of worth by what others think of us. Others are told as a cover up to sins. True Christians gain their sense of worth by what their heavenly father thinks of them and consequently are spared the trouble of lying, either to cover up a misdeed, or to stand tall in the eyes of their friends, because they lead lives pleasing to God rather than their fellowmen.

True Christians also don't need to worry about lying to God, himself, in their prayers, which is something many of us do, albeit without realizing it. How often, for instance, do we sing hymns with intense passion, while not actually living or truly meaning the words contained in them? Consider the lyrics contained in the hymns "I have decided to follow Jesus" or "He is my everything"; are we truly honest when we sing them?

Flattery and Boastfulness

Everyone lies to his neighbor;
their flattering lips speak with deception.
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue
(Psalm 12:2-3)

Flattery and boastfulness are two more sins of the tongue, both practiced with abhorrent frequency. Flattery is a contemptible sin of speech, a lie masquerading as a compliment. We flatter others, usually to get something out of them, and are in turn flattered. The latter is as dangerous as the former, and even more so when it comes to our spirituality. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, warns against those who cause divisions and put obstacles in the way that are contrary to God's teachings, often using "smooth talk and flattery (to) deceive the minds of naive people" (Romans 16:17-18).

Even more repugnant—if that is possible— is boasting. I have seen Christian "leaders" strut into prayer meetings with an air of superciliousness that makes my stomach churn, interspersing their pontifications with endless bragging, usually about their wealth, which they claim is a result of a "reward" for being in service to the Lord. (I dare not consider the implications of this theory on our saints, most of whom lived below, or close to, the poverty line.) They claim Scriptural justification for their bragging by quoting Jeremiah 9:24: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.

Understanding this verse correctly actually works as the best cure against bragging, rather than a defense for it. You are what you are because God has decided it to be so. Just think for a moment about a beggar on the streets of Lahore, or a soldier with his intestines spilling out of him in war-torn Baghdad, or a starving child in Ethiopia, or even just a simple, ordinary farm hand. Realize that you could have been any of them. The only reason you are not is because God decided so, which makes it foolish to believe that you had anything much to do with what you are or who you are. Once you understand this, everything falls into perspective, and the humbling is automatic.

And the list goes on ...

The above are just a few sins of the tongue. There are several others including obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4); angry talk (2 Cor. 12:20); blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20), "peddling" the gospel message (2 Cor. 2:17); and foolish and stupid arguments (2 Tim. 2:23-24).

All these take us away from God's path and we have to learn to rein in our tongues if we are to stay on it. And if we can do this, we can exercise immense control over our bodies as well. James (yes, again!) says that we all stumble in many ways, but "if anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:2) This is truly immense power that we can exercise if we control our tongues.

The best remedy is to simply shut up, and to think twice, even thrice before we say anything. And if the urge to really engage in conversation strikes you, pick godly subjects to talk about. There is very little chance of going wrong here, especially if you ensure the conversation is not confrontational or argumentative; on the contrary it is likely to be uplifting and empowering and extremely interesting!

When we end up before God on Judgement Day, God might ask us how we are doing, but just like that doctor of my youth, he might interrupt us to make us stick our tongues out. Let him find it healthy.

May the Spirit be with you.

Aneel Aranha (November 14, 2004)

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