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Bite Your Tongue! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

by Msgr. Charles Pope
speech

In the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great, the opening line reads: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”

This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!

Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech

Gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Book of James says this:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).

Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome

It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton [1]. Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!

  1. The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead

The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).

  1. The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying

May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).

  1. The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.

  1. The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little

… a fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

  1. The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information

Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).

Anothers

  1. The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.

As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).

  1. The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.

He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).

Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).

  1. The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned

He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).

The last two

  1. The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity

Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

  1. The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.

Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).

So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!

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