Biting your tongue
Why what we say is important
Lasairian was a soft spoken man. (For a while, he had to be.) He seldom spoke rashly. Rather, he was always careful to think about what he was going to say. He leashed his tongue, aware of the power of words. He sought only to build people up, to bring them together, to aid and guide them.
He was also imaginary. And that’s my embarrassment: I spent more time thinking about what he was going to say than about what I’m going to say at any given moment.
How many of us wake up in the morning with joy? How many wake up and say, “Thank you, Lord, for this new day.” How many of us wake up with anxiety or grim, defeated dread? How many wake up and say, “Damn it, I don’t want to get up.” Many alarm clocks get smacked and cursed at, I’d guess.
I’ve been a member of the second group for way, way too long. I’m working on changing membership, but I’m not there yet. Presently, I am having trouble remembering to thank God for the new day, because when I get up, it is not technically “day” yet.
Furthermore, when I get to work, I am often met with the sense that my coworkers would rather be somewhere else, or at least not around each other. To be fair, it’s early in the morning – about 5:15 a.m. – and those there before I arrive have been there since 3:30 or so. But this sense only grows stronger as the morning wears on and other people arrive. There’s griping and gossiping and grunted greetings. Sometimes this devolves into shouting.
I’m not a morning person. In fact, for many years growing up, I was an insomniac. I finally saw a therapist about my trouble sleeping in college, when I unwillingly developed the ability to wake up at 3 a.m. and be unable to fall back asleep, even if I’d only made it to sleep four hours earlier. I’m continually surprised at my ability to get to work that early in the morning, let alone walk in a straight line and do my moderately complicated job.
With all that, it’s still difficult for me to remember to thank God for each new day. Offhand, a prayer might be along the lines of “Thank you for another day of having to deal with these idiots.” Such a prayer would be insulting to both God and my coworkers, for I know they are not idiots. They are justifiably cranky, given when they get up, and for all I know they have solid beefs with each other and with various issues. I don’t know for certain because I try to focus all my attention on my work so I don’t mess up.
I also focus because I don’t want to get caught up in gossip. I’d rather serve as a juror for a mind-numbingly boring civil case than listen to gossip. But such cases are not as prevalent as gossip.
Leviticus 19:16 says “Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.” Proverbs 11:13 says “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.” If that isn’t clear enough, Proverbs 20:19 says “A gossip betrays a confidence, so avoid a man who talks too much.” My personal favorite, Proverbs 18:2, says “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” And those are just a few verses about gossip! And gossip is just one subtopic of speech!
The Bible, a wordy book, has much to say about words. Proverbs 18:21 – “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Lasairian understood this, which means so did/do I, since I was playing him. If I could handle speaking kindly to and of others in a game, why do I not do so in real life, where it counts? Why is it difficult? Is it human nature to gossip and complain?
One reason we talk about other people is that other people are interesting. Since they’re not you, they have things going on you don’t know about, things that might be more exciting than whatever you’re doing that day. Another reason is to spread knowledge. Since humans do many things, if we didn’t talk about each other to some extent, we would have precious little to talk about, or read. History would be unwritten; we wouldn’t learn from the past.
There’s a difference between educating a person about what a second person did, spreading good words about a person such as “What they did is so cool!” and gossiping about and belittling a person. In spreading word of deeds or words, care must be taken to not distort the truth. One of the Ten Commandments, after all, is “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20). Another is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Would you want someone gossiping about or insulting you?
In Romans, Paul writes about the sinful nature and lawlessness of mankind. “They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:29b-32).
If one of the Commandments deals with gossip, and Paul is decrying evil speech, this problem has been around for a while.
My good friend Douglas Cherry, when asked why we speak to other in such ways and gossip, answered thusly.
“I think it’s mostly a matter of the individual being self-interested, the most important thing in a person’s life is what they are facing. When they marry or have other persons with which they feel a personal closeness with, this individual becomes part of the person’s sphere of interest and concern. This is kind of like an onion with layers, not a cake, mind you. When we worry, we become fixated at one of those layers where everything outside of that is less important to the individual than what they are concerned about. At this point, other people’s concerns become drains on recourse aimed at personal interests, often distracting or bothering the worrier. Some people can recognize this behavior and take steps to moderate it so long as their level of worry has not reached a point where their level of anxiety overtakes their conscious efforts at realizing that everyone has problems, and that a kind word can do as much to help them as it helps us to receive outside support. So, when distracted or agitated, people tend to lash out at things that enter into their personal bubble.”
“The more self-interested and lacking in respect for others the subject is, the more quickly and harshly they will respond negatively to outside stimulus. Add in things like low self-esteem, brain chemistry and dragging down others to make one’s self feel better, which so seem to do, makes this messy. However, there are others who raise others up in order to make themselves feel better or just because it’s the right thing to do, and these are the heroes, so to speak. Somewhere in the middle is the rest of us.”
Doug: a man who believes in the concept of personal honor.
The Bible says we are all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God. That’s one explanation for why many of us, and perhaps all of us at one point or another, are jerks. But we don’t have to be. Heaven knows there’s incentive to improve: “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours our lies will [perish] not go free” (Proverbs 19:5). “Those who guard their mouths and tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23). “The righteous will overtake the house of the wicked and bring them to ruin” (Proverbs 21:12).
We should take care of what we say. The gift of speech is a deceptive one. Its deception is that we don’t stop to think about it, the very wonder. We don’t wake up and say, “Wow, I can still talk!” No, we wake up and (sometimes) say, “Oh, I don’t want to get up.”
A few days after the incident that began this book, I found myself singing along to the radio at work, and it hit me: Lasairian couldn’t do this anymore. He couldn’t talk, or sing. Not in joy, not in sorrow, not even in plain old boredom. That inspired me to think about what I say, for I’m known for my cutting remarks. I heard God say, “Be joyful for the gift of speech; use it wisely; speak gently and weigh your words so you have no regrets. Take wonder in that which seems a given.”
Philippians 4:5 – “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” Gentleness is the opposite of stubbornness and thoughtlessness. It’s a quality embodied in Jesus Christ. Its part of the “heavenly wisdom” that comes from above (James 3:17).
‘Tis good to speak kindly of and to others, to build them up and not tear them down. Sweet words can sometimes be harder to say, but are easier on the ear and heart, both for the speaker and the listener. There will come a day when we cannot speak, and then it will be too late.