One of the more under-rated categories of sin are the sins of speech. There are many ways we sin, but perhaps the most common way is by speech. Too easily, almost without thought, we engage in gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, uncharitable observations and remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. We can surely cause great harm with a gift capable of such good!
And not only do we sin by commission but also by omission. For frequently we are silent when we should speak. We do not correct when we should. Prophets are to speak God’s word, but too often we fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says,
Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.
Well did James say:
Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect! (James 3:2)
And too easily do we dismiss sins of speech as of little account. While it may be true that not every sin of speech is serious or mortal, it is possible to inflict great harm with speech and thus have the matter become very serious, even mortal.
Four college friends went on a trip to go carousing the weekend before final exams. They had a great time. After so much partying, though, they slept all day Sunday and didn’t get back to their university until Monday morning. Instead of going to the final exam, they decided that, when the exam ended, they would talk with the professor and give him an excuse for why they had missed the exam.
They explained that they had gone on a trip over the weekend and had planned to return with time to study, but unfortunately, a tire had gone flat on the road back. They didn’t have the tools to change the tire, and no one had wanted to help them.
As a result of this adventure, they had missed the final exam. The professor thought it over and agreed to give them the exam the next day. The four friends were happy to have gotten away with their escapade.
They studied all night and arrived the next day to take the exam. The professor put them in separate classrooms and gave each one the test so they could get started.
The first question was an easy one about the history of marketing; it was worth 5 points. ‘Great!’, each one thought alone in his classroom. “This is going to be very easy.” Each one answered the question and turned the page
over. On the second page was written, ‘For 95 points: which tire went flat on the trip?’
Often, we prefer to lie to “save” ourselves from certain difficult situations and to avoid problems. Nonetheless, liars usually end up being betrayed by their own lies. The fact is, lies are not just a sin that offend God, but it becomes a vice that is then very difficult to overcome. It becomes the easiest way to avoid what we don’t want and to obtain what we most enjoy. As we keep going down this path, we go deeper and deeper into darkness. Without realizing it, we end up building our lives and decisions on lies – lies which could be discovered at any moment. Eventually we will have to pay the price. This simple story warns us of the dangers of the bad habit of lying.
Lying first and foremost breaks a relationship of trust. Even when it is forgiven, forgotten, and made up for, the memory of the lie causes a persistent discomfort, a feeling of suspicion and mistrust that asks, “Will I be able to
Why do we lie?
Fear, essentially: fear of the gaze of the other, fear of judgment, fear of the consequences of our actions. This first cowardice latches onto another reality: by hiding the truth from the other person, I decide that there is no law.
Jesus warns, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36)
With this in mind, it may be of value to focus on one aspect of the sins of speech commonly called “gossip.”
Gossip in general can merely apply to talk of a personal or trivial nature. But the sin of gossip is more specifically considered to be idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It usually involves uncharitable or inappropriate conversation about others, not present and has a reputation for the introduction of errors and variations into the information transmitted. The CCC includes gossip under its treatment of the 8th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor“.
St. Thomas well distinguishes a number of different forms of gossip and we can look at them one by one.
- Reviling – Dishonouring a person, usually to their face, and often in the hearing of others. It is done openly, audibly and is usually rooted in anger and personal disrespect. It may include name-calling, caricature, profanity and even cursing. For the most part, we do not consider reviling to be a form of gossip per se, (since gossip is usually conducted apart from the offended person and reviling to their face). But reviling is a sin of speech that ought to be mentioned here, since it is annexed to the general dishonour and harming of the reputation of others that is at the heart of gossip. Reviling as such is intended to cause personal embarrassment or dishonour.
- Backbiting – Generally we call this today, “talking behind someone’s back.” Backbiting is the secret and quiet injuring of a person’s good name to others. Here the key point is that the injured person is not present either to defend or clarify what is said. There are two forms of backbiting that St Thomas distinguishes:
- Calumny – which is telling lies about someone behind their back. The written form of this is called slander.
Detraction – which is passing on harmful truths about others. What is said is true, but is not necessary information to be shared, and the information has the
effect of diminishing a person’s reputation or harming their good name before others. For example, it may be true that Joe has a drinking problem, but it is not
necessary information to share.
- There may be times when it is important to share certain truths about others because it is necessary information but such information should be shared only by those who need to know it for a just cause. Further, the information must be certainly true and not merely hearsay. Finally, only the necessary information should be shared, avoiding a full rendering of everything you ever wanted to know about Joe.
- Calumny – which is telling lies about someone behind their back. The written form of this is called slander.
- Tale -Bearing – also called tale whispering – the tale bearer seeks to stir up trouble and arouse people to action against a person. Perhaps he seeks to have others end professional, business, or personal relationships with the one gossiped about. Perhaps his goal is to incite angry responses toward the person, or even violence. Perhaps too, some legal action is the desired outcome. But the tale-bearer seeks to incite some action against the one he gossips about, hence it goes further than the harming of reputation, to include the harming of relationships, finances, legal standing, and so forth.
- Derision – is making fun of a person, perhaps of their mannerisms, or a physical trait, or a personal quality. While some of this can be light-hearted, it
often strays into hurtful and humiliating actions or words that diminish someone else’s standing or honour within the community.
- Cursing – a spoken wish or command that another person be afflicted with some evil or harm. This may or may not be spoken to their face. Here too we see a dishonouring of a person in the presence of others. The usual goal is to incite from others, anger and dishonour towards the injured person.
When we talk about the fifth commandment “thou shall not kill” most of us just by pass this one in an instant. But what we do not realize is that our words can kill. One of the most precious things a person has is their reputation, and sins like gossip kill this. It is a very serious thing, therefore, to harm the reputation of another. And while this harm may sometimes be mild, we ought not easily dismiss the possibility that, what we think to be a small matter, might actually cause greater harm than we imagine. St James says of the gossiping tongue:
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 (James 3:11).
“It’s so rotten, gossip. At the beginning, it seems to be something enjoyable and fun, like a piece of candy. But at the end, it fills the heart with bitterness and also poisons us,”
“I tell you the truth, I am convinced that if each one of us would purposely avoid gossip, at the end, we would become a saint! It’s a beautiful path!”
~ Pope Francis
Recently, a horribly raunchy movie made national headlines because it contained over 500 uses of the f-word. Yeah, it was obscenely obscene, and obviously, that level of profanity is unusual. But the fact is, vulgarities are becoming commonplace in music, movies, literature, and everyday language.
This growing trend raises the question— is profanity a sin? Is it morally wrong to use words that are considered to be profane?
Here are the principles in judging the morality of our speech:
The first principle is intent. What’s the purpose? For example, if you are furious with someone, and you tell them to go to hell (or worse), your intent is obviously to hurt the other person with your words. This kind of angry speech is always prohibited, even if no profane words are used.
Jesus makes this clear when he strongly condemns hateful language: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
Of course, there are plenty of other motivations for using profanity besides anger, but the point is, examining our motives will help us determine if we are sinning or not.
The second principle is degree. It is well known that some profanities are more offensive than others, such as words that have an obviously crude and sexual connotation. The f-word is undoubtedly considered the most obscene word in the English language, and there don’t seem to be any cases in which its use can be justified. Frequency is also important. If every other word in your vocabulary is a vulgarity, it’s probably a sign of a deeper problem.
–Image Text —
As catholics, we shouldn’t ask how much we can get away with. That’s an immature attitude. Instead, we should ask if our speech is fitting for a follower of Christ.
Let anyone who indulges in foul conversation say to himself, I am a minister of Satan because I help him ruin souls. – St. John Bosco
- Sewer Speech
The excretory category
Words which refer to the excretory functions of the body form this category. In common usage, they are rarely spoken for their underlying meaning. (When was the last time you walked down the street and heard somebody yell, “Excrement!“). Instead, they are used as derogatory exclamations to insult and show contempt, or merely as conversation fillers. As insults, they are forbidden by Christ’s commandment to
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
As verbal fillers, they are divorced from their meaning and fail to conform with a Christian standard of language.
“Let your speech be always gracious and in good taste, and strive to respond properly to all who address you” (Colossians 4:6).
“It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him impure; it is what comes out of his mouth… Do you not see that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is discharged into the latrine, but what comes out of the mouth originates in the heart? It is things like these that make a man impure”
~ Matthew 15:11, 17-18
The Sexual Category
Words which refer to the sexual organs or the act of sex itself . All of these words are derogatory, treating sex solely as a means of pleasure and reducing the human person to a mere object. Like the excretory words, most of them are used as insults or mere utterances devoid of any relation to the meaning of the word.
“Everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the council, and if they hold him in contempt he risks the fires of Gehenna”
~ Matthew 5:22
- “We use the tongue to say, ‘Praise be the Lord and Father’; then we use it to curse men, though they are made in the likeness of God. Blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. This ought not to be, my brothers!” (James 3:9-10).
- “You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
- “You must put that aside now: all the anger and quick temper, the malice, the insults, the foul language” (Colossians 3:8).
Justifications we make
I Don’t Mean Anything Bad By The Words
Well, speech is our way of communicating as social beings and words have meanings. When you casually say “Oh my God,” you’re using the divine name, whether or not you mean anything by it. When you curse using words from the sexual category, you denigrate the most intimate of unions, the act whereby two become one and God brings new life into the world.
Simply because there is no harm in your heart doesn’t make this action right. Society would not long tolerate a person constantly uttering racial epithets, regardless of the intention behind the words, and neither should we tolerate profanity.
“Let not your mouth become used to coarse talk, for in it lies sinful matter” (Sirach 23:13).
It’s Just A Habit
We certainly are creatures of habit, and cursing is one bad habit which we should strive to overcome. Christ calls us to be perfect as He is perfect. Can you picture yourself using bad language in front of Jesus,
“the Lord of all speech”? (CCC 2152).
Or even in front of your parents or children for that matter?
“Nor should there be any obscene, silly, or suggestive talk; all that is out of place” (Ephesians 5:4).
It’s Cool And Makes Me Popular
Popularity can be a very good thing, but only if it is achieved through good and noble deeds. As Christians, our goal is to follow Jesus, not to seek popularity.
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own; the reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world. But I chose you out of the world” (John 15:19).
Placing popularity before Christ’s commands is a serious wrong.
Oh, Come On! It Doesn’t Hurt Anybody!
To the contrary, it hurts many people. First of all, you hurt yourself.
“A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives” (Sirach 23:15).
Abusing the sacred is directly sinful. Use of the excretory and sexual categories distorts our view of creation and fills our mind with thoughts, which keep us from God.
“The tongue defiles the entire body” (James 3:6).
For a soul is like an empty glass and bad language like pebbles. The purpose of a glass is to hold water. But as we fill our glass with pebbles, there is less and less room for Jesus, the water of salvation.
“If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is deceived; his worship is pointless” (James 1:26).
Second, you hurt those around you by leading them to use bad language. We hear bad language, repeat it over and over, until we begin to feel that it is normal and begin using it ourselves. Leading others into sin through example is a grievous wrong (CCC 2284).
“Scandal will inevitably arise, but woe to him through whom they come.
He would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck than giving scandal to one of these little ones” (Luke 17:1-2).
Uses of the Tongue
We have seen our failure to use our tongue in a way that glorifies God and we know that we have failed because the intention of our heart has not been right. We shall now look at the purpose of our tongue and speech, as God intended.
- To speak the truth
- Silence of the tongue
- Praising God/using the gift of tongues
- Honouring/edifying/appreciating people
- Communicating faith and joy
- Correcting with meekness/ responding to correction
- Spreading the good news/talking about Jesus
- To speak the truth
Jesus tells us that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The eighth commandment also invites us to tell the truth at all times.
What is the truth?
For us Christians, the truth has a name and a face: it is embodied in Jesus Christ:
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Notice Jesus did not say “a way” or “a truth,” or “a part of the way” or “a part of the truth.” No; rather, he said the way and the truth. Period!
The church is urgently in need of a new generation of youth who will make the right choice: will the youth look for someone whom the Church refers to as the “father of lies,” or will they become disciples of a man who said (in
“The truth will set you free”?
- Silence of the tongue
As a consistent rule, we ought to be very careful about sins of speech. Too easily and carelessly we risk ruining the reputation and standing of others by our gossip. Idle chatter about others can bring great harm and draw many
others into sin. Scripture says,
Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3).
Indeed, Help Lord! keep Your arm around my shoulder and Your hand over my mouth! Put your word in my heart, so that when I do speak, it’s really You.
“if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is in vain.” – James 1:26
Bridling our tongue is a perfect analogy for what must be done to our tongues. If our tongue is to be fruitful for God, there is a certain amount of restraint that we must place on what comes out of it . It involves gaining firm control over it and learning what God wants us to accomplish through it.
Beware of too much speaking, for it banishes from the soul the holy thoughts and recollection with God’ – St. Dorotheus
- Praising God/using the gift of tongues
“The Lord gave me my tongue as a reward and I will praise Him with it”. ~ Sirach 51:22
Most of us take our tongue for granted and use it as we please, especially for all the wrong reasons. But the book of Sirach teaches us that our tongue is a reward from God and that we ought to use it to praise Him When there is a tendency to use obscene, silly and vulgar language, instead of giving into that temptation, start praising God, let there be thanksgiving
Eph 5:4:”offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess His name”.
Another way of glorifying God is to call upon His name in times of special need. By doing so we acknowledge His presence as a source of our protection, provision, sustenance etc. We should however do so placing all our trust and confidence in Him and not whine and despair but praise Him in the situation for who He is.
The gift of tongues is a very effective way by which we can praise the Lord, for even when we do not know how to pray,
the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26)
- Honouring/edifying/appreciating people
Thy mouth is the mouth of Christ- therefore thou mayest not open for idle speeches that mouth which should be reserved only for the praises of God and the edification of thy neighbour’ – St Anselm of Canterbury
“Let your speech always be gracious” says St. Paul – Our speech should literally be grace-full. It should build up the hearer. In writing to the Ephesians, St. Paul exhorts us to guard our speech carefully. “Let no evil talk [sometimes translated “profane speech”] come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” This is the rule that should guide us as we examine our speech.
To edify comes from the word edifice- to build. Our speech must therefore build up another. Does it?
Let us strive to submit everything in our lives to Christ, including our speech. Rather than seeing how much we can get away with, let’s strive to be full of grace and kindness in our speech. Anything less isn’t fitting for a child of God.
‘Whether we think, speak or act in a good or an evil manner depends upon whether we cleave inwardly to virtue or to vice.’ – St. Thalassios the Libyan
Most of us find it difficult to express genuine affection and to praise others for maybe a virtue or ability, unless we have cultivated the habit. Many of us refrain from doingso under the pretext that it will puff up the ego of the other person. However, St.Paul in his letters deals with those he is pastoring with a contrary logic. He first begins by praising them and building them up and then goes on to deal with other aspects of their conduct.
We in our own lives should work on this same quality of building others up through our words.
- Communicating Faith and Joy/li>
If our speech is negative and filled with discouragement and anxiety, we will contribute to the destruction of faith and joy in our listeners. Grumbling and discouraging words do not impart grace and have no place in the speech patterns of those working to build the kingdom of God.
Ex : Joshua and Caleb and the Israelite spies who went to check Canaan out (Num 13:25)
Words of faith can dispel anxiety and words of encouragement can overcome despair. In this world filled with pessimism and negativity it is important to let our light shine forth and spread the warmth and radiance of God’s love through the use of words that communicate faith, hope and joy.
- Correcting with Meekness/ responding to Correction/li>
Our speech does not always have to have a positive/feel good tone to it. While we build each other up, we are also called to take responsibility for the spiritual growth of our brothers and sisters. This would often involve correcting them, however St. Paul in his letters emphasizes that correction should be given gently and not be heavy handed or arrogant but done with humility and self control- always looking out for the good of the person being corrected.
“Try to be patient in bearing the defects of others, whatever they may be because you also have many things which others must bear with”.
– Fr. Thomas Kempis (The Imitation of Christ)
It is often easy to correct others, especially when we are in a position of authority, but often extremely difficult to receive correction from others. More often than not when corrected, we tend to react rather than respond, get angry rather than staying calm and shout back rather than remaining silent and reflecting on the faults pointed out to us. We must therefore strive to be open to correction with all humility and meekness, and learn to reflect and respond rather than jump the gun and react.
- Spreading the Good News/talking about Jesus/li>
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds to Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light”.
~ 1 Peter 2:9
Our life is a stage for God to manifest Himself and show himself as the Lord of all, time and again. We are called to testify and give Him glory for what He has done in the smallness of our lives.
What makes our community different is that out of our brokenness, God makes himself present and we experience and share that. We are called to share how the Word is becoming flesh in our lives and give glory to God because of it.
It is easy to talk about Jesus when we are in the midst of people who believe and feel called to a similar lifestyle as us. But what happens when we are in the midst of those who are hostile to the Gospel?
It is in these situations that we are called to live out our covenant to being witnesses. It is for us to acknowledge the presence of our Lord, irrespective of the consequences and undaunted by the cost. Jesus will acknowledge before all the saints of heaven that we are His faithful disciples and servants.
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my father who Is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my father who is in heaven.” ~ Mathew 10:32-33
May we every day join in praying that each act, word and deed of our lives be done in the service of the Lord.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” ~ Psalm 19:15