I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately. Not specific words, but just the excess quantity of them.
We’re surrounded: in addition to our own talk, we’re inundated with the internet, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and on and on. You know all this. It sometimes feels like we’re waging a losing battle against all the noise. There are two different categories of words to consider: those we speak, and those we take in; the noise we make and the noise we hear. Next time we’ll ponder what the saints say about outer and inner silence and the things we allow into our minds and hearts. But right now I want to focus on the words we say—and those we choose not to say.
The noise pollution in society is pretty relentless, but even worse, we often contribute to it with too much talking. And the more we talk, the more we are likely to say something we’ll regret. The Bible makes this clear. One of my favorite proverbs is in chapter 17 verse 28: “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.” (This is from the New King James version; probably for some manuscript reason beyond my pay grade, I can’t find the same verse in the OSB.)
St. John Chrysostom stated, “You do not know what a gift of God is silence and the fact that you do not need any word.” And St. Elijah the priest (I’m sorry I’m not sure about his identity) said, “Some are most careful about the food they take in but negligent about the words they give out.”
Ouch. Guilty as charged.
So it was very interesting to me, as I’ve been pondering my talk habits, that Time magazine arrived in the mail with a cover story about overtalking in the Jan. 30 / Feb. 6 issue. The essay inside, called “On Mute: Overtalkers are everywhere—but saying less will get you more,” is adapted from author Dan Lyons’s book, STFU (I won’t spell out that acronym here): The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World.
The author is refreshingly honest about his own struggles with talking constantly. His overtalking, actually termed “talkaholism” by communication-studies scholars, has negatively affected his marriage, family, and career. His lifelong habit had been to fill all silences with the sound of his own voice, talking over others, dominating meetings and family gatherings, and saying pretty much everything that came to his mind, no matter how wildly inappropriate.
I can’t relate. Sometimes I’m in the company of a chatterbox and I think, “Where do they find the words?” I tend to be on the quieter side of the communication continuum, usually preferring to listen rather than to talk. I would love to claim this as evidence of a bit of wisdom, but really it’s just my natural bent.
Lyons’s essay includes the usual modern nod to evolutionary biology, with experts explaining that extreme talkativeness is nature, not nurture. Studies reveal brain-wave differences in talkaholics. One expert stated that talkaholics are unable to quit; he wouldn’t go so far as embracing determinism, but he said that we can’t really change who we are (p. 66).
The Orthodox Church offers far more hope and guidance than that, but it is true that we are unique individuals created in the image of God with varying personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Some of us struggle with overtalking. Some of us don’t talk all that much, but when we do say something, it can be trivial, unhelpful, and even cruel.
When we look at the wisdom of the saints, they speak with one voice about . . . not speaking. They are keenly aware of the power of the spoken word, and they urge us toward keeping our mouths shut.
Mother Gavrielia of Greece, whose life spanned most of the 20th century, reminds us, “What we say remains to eternity.” And St. John of Kronstadt advised, “Watch whether your heart agrees with everything that your tongue pronounces.”
The Church’s emphasis on silence, both outward and inward, is not something I grew up with. My Protestant past emphasized “speaking the truth” as well as the importance of our speech being “with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one,” as St. Paul taught in Colossians 4:6. I was taught to speak with kindness and love, which are good things. But I was never taught to consider limiting my words entirely.
The High Value of Words in the Protestant World
In the Evangelical subculture that shaped me, we liked to learn about our different “spiritual gifts,” using the list found mostly in 1 Corinthians 12. We also discussed St. Paul’s reminder that just as the physical body requires all parts to function well, so does the spiritual body of the Church. He wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one” (vv. 5-6).
Over the years I took several tests that were called “spiritual gift inventories,” which were meant to help us understand the abilities that God had given us and how we could use them to serve the Church and the world. These were sometimes helpful and sometimes not so much, depending on the test—they weren’t exactly scientific. But the results of this exploration were often positive for a local congregation, motivating people to find their place in the Church and offer back to God the gifts He had given them.
The overriding message, anchored by the words of St. Paul, was that the Church needs all our varied gifts. But I guarantee you, in the Evangelical world, the gifts that are really valued are preaching and teaching. You’ve heard of televangelists, of course. Have you ever heard of a tele-helper or a tele-administrator?
This emphasis on the spoken word is likely a result of the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the preaching of the Word—the Bible—with the sermon as the center of the church service and the Eucharist devalued, redefined, and shunted to the side. Words are a big deal here in the West.
Spoken words in the form of praying aloud in a corporate setting are also valued highly. I have heard people being described as having a spiritual “gift of prayer.” I’m still not sure what that means, given that prayer is a gift from God to all of us. But generally, somebody with this gift was considered gifted at praying, perhaps with a special “anointing” for it. And when a group prayer time began, you could bet that the usual suspects would pray aloud with great passion, often sprinkling their prayers with lots of Bible verses.
Let me be clear that people in the prayer groups I attended were praying sincerely and fervently for God to act. But I never encountered any awareness of the dangers and temptations in this type of corporate prayer—specifically, pride. Pride in being able to speak well extemporaneously. Pride in knowing theology. Pride in having lots of scriptures memorized and ready to use—or misuse.
Those who prayed aloud were the leaders of the group, not the ones praying silently in the background. And I was one of those people who prayed aloud, with lots of words. Was I sincere? Yes, I think so. Here’s a more uncomfortable question: Did I get a bit of a dopamine rush when someone else affirmed what I prayed, or when I recalled just the right verse for the situation at just the right time?
I don’t want to answer that. Okay, probably so. Yes.
We were taught the many Bible verses about guarding our tongues and being careful about the words we speak. But the value of quietness, of restraining even harmless talk during the rest of our day, was not discussed or even considered.
Open Mouth, Insert Foot
As I was slowly coming into the Church and learning about Orthodox Christianity, I kept reading things about the importance of simply not talking much. Even as a naturally quiet person, I couldn’t easily understand this because of my wordy background. Preaching the gospel requires words! Speaking the truth requires words! Discipling others requires words!
Early in my journey I picked up The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer by Bishop Irenei Steenberg and read the following:
Quietude, then, is a necessary ingredient for the development of prayer, not merely at the times dedicated to this divine act, but as an overriding characteristic of our Life in Christ. If we are constantly talkative and noisy in our worldly affairs, then this is the spirit we will bring to our prayer. (p.95)
I couldn’t make sense of that. I mean, I have my morning quiet time. What does conversation during the rest of the day have to do with prayer? As long as my words are kind and true and respectful, or at least harmless, how can they negatively affect my life in Christ?
My prayer time existed in a nice little compartment, and I also tried to pray throughout the day. Yet Bishop Irenei’s written words blew away my tidy little quiet-time compartment. He was saying that listening and speaking in all areas of life affect my relationship with Christ, and I soon discovered that his teaching is in harmony with the saints and elders through the ages.
Saint Paisios the Athonite, who reposed in 1994, stated simply (as was his way), “Almost all problems start from the mouth (what you say) and, likewise, by the amount you depend on your passions.”
My first response to these wise words was, “Wait a minute. I have a lot of problems that come at me from the outside”—from the various difficulties of life, including the choices that others make. I have no control over these things. But, on second thought . . .
The holy elder did say “almost all problems.” How do I exacerbate the problems in my life through thoughtless words? Do I respond to others verbally by snapping at them, by being sarcastic or rude? Maybe I’ve actually been wronged by someone. When I don’t respond in love and compassion, trying to understand the other’s viewpoint, do I make the situation worse? Do I hurt her, belittle him, put them on the defensive?
When I’m stressed, do I indulge in grumbling and complaining? (Short answer: yes.) Do I feel entitled to snap at others because I feel overwhelmed?
Sheesh. Whether we’re naturally quiet or talkative, introvert or extrovert, we all do this. We all cause problems with the things that come out of our mouths.
Restraint as a Tool of Spiritual Growth
In the seventh century, Venerable Isaac the Syrian, bishop of Nineveh, wrote, “Keep yourself from much talk, for it is this that extinguishes the noetic movements produced in our heart by God” (Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, p. 95). Bishop Irenei in our era warned against bringing a talkative spirit to our prayer, and St. Isaac around 1,400 years ago is saying the same thing: We can drown out God’s work in our hearts through our own words.
In the ninth or 10th century, St. Philotheos of Sinai taught,
Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together.
This idea was new to me. The saints and elders of the Church aren’t referring to the speech we know is wrong, like gossip, slander, profanity, and criticism. That’s a given, that we should avoid such things. Instead, they’re addressing speech in general and its connection to our spiritual growth. With one voice across the centuries they proclaim that when it comes to talk, less is more.
When I think about my religious past, I realize that sometimes, even saying something that’s true for supposedly high-minded, spiritual reasons can be wrong—even damaging. I was conditioned to “speak the truth in love,” and now I have many questions about that.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica said,
If we at first believe that what we are about to say will be to someone’s benefit, but then, after we use our discernment, we decide that our words will only hurt the other person, then it is better to remain silent. Everything should be done with discernment. When one uses one’s discernment, then one is also vigilant. (Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, p.157)
I remember years of feeling an impulse—an obligation, really—to lovingly confront someone who was in sin. As you can imagine, no matter how much I had prayed about the matter, the result was rarely positive. Now I see that there is a lot of presumption and judgment involved in that course of action. I also observed a lot of condemnation from others who were speaking the truth. It was definitely not spoken in love or with understanding and care for the person who was the object of the truth-telling. Of course there are times when difficult things need to be said, but it was a jolt to me to read about saints whose approach to truth involved protecting sinners rather than exposing them.
I recently read about the venerable Ammonas of Egypt in the book I use for my prayer rule—or “quiet time”—the 2023 Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints. The January 26 entry notes that Ammonas was known for never judging anyone and shares this story about him:
Once, a certain monk scandalized the local people by having an affair with a woman. When Ammonas visited that place, they asked him to go to the monk’s cell, where the woman now was, so that they could scorn him. Knowing the plan, the monk hid the woman in an earthen jar. When the group arrived, Ammonas perceived where the woman was hiding and went and sat on the vessel. He told the people to search the cell. Having found nothing, they left, and Ammonas admonished them for the false accusations. Then he said to the monk, “Brother, be on your guard.” Then he left.
Saint Ammonas didn’t excuse the monk’s or the woman’s sinful choices, but he didn’t expose them either. I don’t know the rest of the story, but I’m guessing he totally disarmed these people. They had no need to defend themselves because he didn’t attack. Yet, in a gentle and roundabout way—“Brother, be on your guard”—he helped them both to see their need for repentance. That shows real wisdom and discernment.
This story brought back a memory from several decades ago, when Rob and I attended a Baptist church. We knew a young man—I’ll call him Matt—who had been a partier and quite a player in his early twenties. Matt was a good-looking guy, and he knew how to manipulate women into bed with him. At that time in his life he worked at a restaurant along with a woman from our church, Blanca. One day he showed up at work with alcohol on his breath.
Now, what should Blanca do? What would you do? Baptists are big on speaking truth—often without love and discernment. (I speak from experience as a former Baptist.) Blanca could have spoken to Matt about his reckless life, called him to repentance, or even reported him to their boss so that he would face the consequences of his behavior. She could have spoken the truth in love by warning him about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
Instead, Blanca whispered to him, “Hey, bro, want a stick of gum?” Her words revealed that she knew he was hungover, yet she helped him mask his alcohol breath with some minty freshness. She didn’t expose him; she covered him.
Later Matt became a dedicated Christian. He was open and repentant about his past and eventually married Blanca’s sister.
What if Blanca had used those other words—“speaking truth” and calling him out? We can’t know the answers to “what ifs,” but he might have become defensive, perhaps developing a lifelong distaste for those self-righteous, judgmental Christians. Blanca showed true discernment with her restraint.
Remaining Silent Protects Us Spiritually
Elder Ephraim of Arizona taught, “Whoever guards his tongue guards his soul from great sins and grievous falls.”
When I’m talking, by necessity I’m thinking about what I’m saying, listening to the sound of my voice, gauging the reaction of my audience, and even planning ahead for follow-up comments. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; that’s the way conversation works.
But when I pour my energy into my own words, I leave no space for God. He can’t get a word in edgewise because I cannot both talk and listen at the same time. I can only listen when I pause. And even then, I’m so eager to communicate my point that I’m less likely to notice a divine nudge.
And, of course, the greater the amount of words, the greater the likelihood of my saying something unwise. It’s just a matter of statistics at some point.
Knowing When to Speak
In Luke 6:45, Jesus taught—and I’ll bet many of us have memorized the last sentence of this verse—“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Our words really do reflect our spiritual state. I’ve noticed that I am more critical and impatient when I am frustrated and feeling that my life is spinning out of control. I have learned to bite my tongue and withdraw so that I don’t say the angry, judgmental words that are in my mind. During such times my soul definitely needs some work, including confession and repentance, but at least my silence is not damaging others.
For those of us who live in the world, what can we do with all these ideas? We are not monastics living in a cell. If you are a mom or dad with three or four small children and, inspired by the example of the saints, you decide to take a vow of silence, I guarantee that your family life will quickly descend into chaos.
Some people’s jobs require a lot of talking. This is especially true if you’re in sales. Too much silence can interpreted as being noncommunicative or antisocial. How do we find a balance?
I think the words we speak, and don’t speak, are a question of discernment. Even those of us in talkative vocations can be careful not to participate in office gossip, negativity, complaining, and crude jokes. We can be friendly and kind while still being watchful.
Bishop Irenei advised,
Learn to love opportunities not to speak, not to contribute, not to influence. Rather than crave conversations in which your voice can be heard, crave instead those opportunities in which your silence may respond to voice, in which you may sacrifice your willful desire for self-involvement on the altar of quiet humility before God and man. (The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer, p.97)
How can we apply this wisdom in the office? At home with our children? There is an art to speech—a spiritual practice. Even the practice of hesitating, of stopping a moment to think before we speak, can make a world of difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Some super-quiet people need to learn when to speak—to offer a word of encouragement and kindness. Others—probably the majority—need to learn when to refrain from speaking.
Lessons from an Overtalker
Dan Lyons, who wrote that Time cover article, learned some important lessons from his research on overtalking. His efforts to change his motormouth behavior include some wise practices. He wrote:
I bailed out of social media almost entirely. I trained myself to become comfortable with uncomfortable silences. . . . I attached a piece of paper to the wall above my computer screen with admonishments in 60-point type: “QUIET! LISTEN! SHORT ANSWERS! WRAP IT UP!” I asked my kids open-ended questions, then sat back and let them speak. Officially speaking, we were “having a talk,” but in truth, I was having a listen. (p. 66)
When I apply the old adage of “think before you speak,” I am reminded of a famous quote from radio host Bernard Meltzer, who hosted an advice call-in show from 1967 through the ’90s. He is accredited with saying: Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.That checklist alone can cut out a lot of mindless talk.When it comes to words—when to speak, when to remain silent—I have more questions than answers. These questions are worth asking, and they can drive us toward God, to listen to His Spirit regarding the exercise of our mouths. But even when we’re not speaking, the noise around us can drown out God’s voice and take away our inner peace and stillness. Next time we’ll explore what the Church has to say about that.I hope you can join me.