How To Tame The Tongue

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In this powerful passage the Apostle James reflects on the nature of the human tongue. He is aware of its strength and its weakness as an instrument of communication. He understands, too, that the tongue, the instrument of human language, is a force that can be used for both good and evil. How we use it reveals the quality of our moral and spiritual character at any given point in time. James is simply helping us to reflect on how we use our tongues.

ʺNo human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers and sisters. Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water? Can a fig tree produce olives, or a grape vine figs? Neither can salt water yield fresh.

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom.ʺ (James 3: 8-13)

With our tongues we can lift up tender, melodic, and poetic praises of such beauty that they can bring us to tears of joy. But with those same tongues we can also bring about cruelties of such ugliness that we cower in their presence. The tongues of those who bend to no other will but their own can be forked. Such tongues can speak with such pleasing sweetness that they can win over an innocent heart in one moment, then, with just as much facility, they can bring utter ruin to that very same innocent heart in the next. The undisciplined tongue will lie with as much ease as it will tell the truth. The selfishly desired end is all that matters. For those who speak with such tongues, not even the innocence and the natural dignity of a fellow human being is more important than the immediate gratification of their desired momentary gain.

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Only the tongue that belongs to one who has humbly submitted one’s will to the will of God can be disciplined enough to be used for the good, the true, and the beautiful habitually. This is the wisdom that James is writing about here. How does one develop this humility rooted in wisdom? It seems that James is revealing the answer to that question here too. The wise, those who truly understand, have become so and gained that understanding, because they have developed the habits of stilling their restless tongues. And in the resulting silence they have learned the graceful benefits of listening. In that humble silence they have been able to finally hear the voice of the Author of all that is good, true, and beautiful whispering in quiet depths of their own hearts and souls. They have learned to enter that silence humbly, without self-imposed expectations. In doing so they have learned that, rather than talking, it is better to simply live their lives more and more in accord with God’s will. They have learned that actions really do speak louder than words. They have learned to speak God’s Law of Love with their lives, not by filling the air with the pretense of sweet sounding words. Rather, they make the lives of all those around them sweet with the honey of their good deeds done out of their humble faith in God.

Lord, teach us to discipline our tongues. Help us to be silent and to listen with true humility before we speak so that, when we speak, it will always be out of wisdom and always in service of the good, the true and the beautiful that comes from you alone. We ask this prayer in your name, Jesus. Amen.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.