I sometimes find it difficult to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. It seems that controlling what one says is one of the hardest things to master.
These days many people are examining the problem of vitriolic speech in our culture, talk so inflammatory that it is comparable to throwing sulfuric acid in another’s face. Some claim that caustic speech in the media is harmless because
it’s only “entertainment.” Others decry the loss of a more genteel way of expressing ourselves. People on both sides value the freedom to speak openly in a democracy.
Rather than focus on legal dimensions or proper etiquette, I would like to look how we use words from a spiritual perspective.
Twisting the truth is as ancient as Adam and Eve, who both used words to shift blame away from themselves: when caught in disobedience, Adam blamed Eve, and in turn, Eve blamed the snake. Although their words may have seemed logical at the time, they were not able to hide the truth from God.
While there is nothing new about distorting the truth or using words in an attempt to manipulate others, what is new in our time the ease with which so many of us can spread our words around the globe within seconds. The sheer vastness of communication today makes it more important than ever before to raise questions about the words we choose, the tone in which we convey messages, and the truthfulness of messages that we receive and pass on to other people.
What did Jesus teach?
While Jesus was not afraid to tell religious leaders when they were wrong, I find no evidence that he derived any pleasure in correcting others. Jesus was a kind, compassionate person who wanted all to be brought into communion with his heavenly Father, even those commonly thought of as “enemies.”
In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, we read about Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the religious ritual of hand-washing before eating. Jesus replies by drawing attention to the ways the religious leaders were using rationalizations to break commandments even more basic. He calls them hypocrites and quotes the prophet Isaiah:This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. —Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV
From this, we can see that what is important to Jesus is that our words are genuine and in accord with our actions. It is not acceptable to rationalize our evil deeds or merely say we believe in God. Attitudes and intentions deep within us are what matters.
Later in the same chapter, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what we say, again focusing on the motivations of the heart:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
–Matthew 15:17-20, NRSV
While the leaders were focused on religious purity laws, Jesus was more concerned about the ideas coming out of one’s mouth. He even says some words defile us because they arise from evil intent within our hearts. (Even if we succeed at fooling the people around us with clever phraseology, God still sees our hidden motivation.)
So how we use words is indeed important to Christ. If you are like me, you fall short of these high standards, and I will remind you that God understands our human weakness and will forgive anything we are truly sorry for having said or done. However, that does not take away our responsibility to at least strive, with the help of the Spirit, to improve the ways we communicate with one another.
There are times when it is the path of wisdom to remain silent. There are other times when the Spirit prompts us to speak, sometimes about something that others do not want to hear. At those times it is especially important to speak the truth in a compassionate manner.
For the words that come out of our mouths—or spill onto the internet—have the power to heal others or hurt them, to bring people together or to push them towards war, to build up the kingdom of God with love or divide God’s family with hate. Which path will you and I choose?
1. Reflect on this saying: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” When is this saying true? Is there a time when it is not appropriate?
2. What does your upbringing or spiritual tradition teach about speaking the truth? Does it have teachings about gossip, slander, telling half-truths, etc.? If you don’t know, ask your religious leader, read the sacred texts, or search the web.