The word of the day is “tongue.” In our reading of James 3:1-10, we hear about the peril of an uncontrolled tongue. But how do we tame it? James doubts we can. He writes, “for every kind of beast and bird… has been tamed by mankind, but no man can tame the tongue” (vs. 7). The apostle’s words are a warning to us. Yet in the verses that follow today’s reading and in other wisdom literature we find some wise advice about getting control of our tongue.
Indeed, the management of our speech is an important topic. The apostle points out that an unrestrained tongue is more hazardous than a raging forest fire (vs. 5-6) or a torrential flood. We cannot contain what is said once it spews out its folly, profanity, or rancor. What is said cannot be unsaid. But it spills out as water gushes out of dam that has collapsed.
Slow to Speak
In contrast, James advises in Chapter 1 that we should be “swift to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Our conversation should not be impulsive or thoughtless, especially when we are angry (James 1:19). Rather, we should choose our words carefully so that they are fitting for the occasion.
How can we speak words that are sweeter than a honeycomb and phrases that are “healing to the soul” (vs. Proverbs 16:22)? We cannot so long as our thoughts are as sour as vinegar.
Immediately following our reading, the apostle observes that both fresh and saltwater cannot flow out of the same spring (James 3:11). And a fig tree cannot bear olives (vs. 14). These illustrations suggest that if we would tame our tongue, we must be aware of the source of our speech.
The Connection Between the Heart and the Mouth
The book of Proverbs explains that the heart is the origin of all that we say. It states, “The heart of the wise teaches his mouth. And adds learning to his lips” (vs. Proverbs 16:23). Likewise, the Lord taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things (Mathew vs. 34-35). This wisdom suggests that there is a direct connection between the mouth and the heart. Consequently, whoever would remedy his speech must first amend his heart.
Always in the Lord’s Presence
Yet there is a way of training the tongue to restrain itself while we rid our hearts of “bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking, with all malice” (vs. Ephesians 4:31). The Deuterocanonical book of the Wisdom of Solomon teaches, “For God is the witness of [one’s] thoughts, the true examiner of [one’s] heart, and the hearer of [one’s] tongue” (vs. Wisdom 1:6).[i] The writer goes on, The Spirit of the Lord fills the world,” and He “knows what is said” (vs. Wisdom 1:7). The Creator and Ruler of the world is not deaf to anything “righteous” or “unrighteous” that comes out of our mouths. Furthermore, “His zealous ear hears all things, and the noise of murmuring is not hidden” from Him (vs. Wisdom 1:11).
With the ever-presence of the Lord in mind, the Book of Wisdom teaches “Keep yourself from useless murmuring and refrain your tongue from evil speech” (vs. 1:11). Imagine that you are in church in the presence of Christ and surrounded by the icons of the Mother of God and the saints. How would you dare utter a swear word or tell a frivolous story in such a holy place? But “the earth is the Lord’s and its fullness” (vs. Ps 24:1), and you are the temple of the Holy Spirit (vs. 1 Cor. 6:19). Where can you hide from Him (vs. Ps. 139:7) so that you can release your vile talk from your lips?
If we keep in mind that God is with us everywhere we go, at least when unholy words slip from our tongue, we will be conscious of it. And realizing our fault, we can immediately repent of it. Meanwhile, the practice of the awareness of God can open our hearts and minds to the cleansing of the Holy Spirit. And the result is that our speech becomes worthy of being in the Almighty’s presence.
For Your Reflection
Our discussion raises the question that Matthew the Poor addresses in his book, Orthodox Prayer Life.: “How can we attain to recollection?” (Matthew-the-Poor 2003, 191-92). That is, how can we reach the point where we are conscious that everything we say and do is in the presence of the Holy God? Matthew teaches, “Be convinced without doubt that God is before your eyes. If anyone sees his chief or superior before him and converses with him, he does not turn his gaze from him. How much more should he who prays to God (with obvious conviction) not turn his mind from him who tries the heart and mind” (Matthew-the-Poor 2003, 191-92).
Here, of course, Matthews is speaking of prayer. But by prayer, we practice the habit of keeping God “before our eyes.” Eventually, our constant awareness of the Lord’s presence in prayer permeates our hearts and pervades our minds so that everything we say becomes a kind of prayer and worthy of God’s holy ears.
Matthew-the-Poor. 2003. Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way. Translated by Wadi El-Natroun The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great, Egypt. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
[i] “one’s” replaces the original “his”)
Thank you, Fr. Basil, for this word.
Dear Anthy: I join you in one of the most difficult struggles of faith–to control the tongue. God bless. Fr. Basil