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Three Tips for Taming the Tongue

  • PHILLIP CAMPBELL

There certainly are times when charity and justice demand that we speak up in defense of truth, but we often end up speaking when we ought to keep silent and keeping silent when we ought to speak up.

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It was my worst day as a parish Director of Religious Education: the Third Sunday of Advent, 2007. For weeks, I had been preparing a presentation on Catholic Christmas traditions to give to all the children in our program. As a lover of history and Catholic culture, I was eager to share the humble beauty of the Polish oplatek wafer, the colorful and vibrant Mexican las posadas plays, and of course, the inspiring story of St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century Greek bishop who later morphed into Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, during the segment on St. Nicholas, I let it slip that there was no such person as Santa Claus.  I had not meant to divulge this intelligence, but after it came out I thought, "Who cares? They're old enough to know the truth! Somebody's got to tell them."

I would soon regret my flippant attitude and the firestorm I unleashed. As you can imagine, the kids who believed in Santa were scandalized and confused. My unfortunate pastor was deluged with calls from irate parents. "Who does your DRE think he is telling my son there is no such thing as Santa?" they demanded. "If we want our kids to believe in Santa, it's our business!" The wrath was so intense, my pastor had to send a letter to every family in the program, apologizing for my statements and acknowledging I had no authority whatsoever to "debunk" Santa to other people's kids. I had never been so miserable, and had never learned so valuable a lesson.


"The tongue is also a fire"

My pastor and the parents were correct, of course. Just because we think somebody ought to hear something does not mean that it is our place to tell them. There certainly are times when charity and justice demand that we speak up in defense of truth; instructing the ignorant and reproving the sinner are spiritual works of mercy (CCC 2447). But we often end up speaking when we ought to keep silent and keeping silent when we ought to speak up.

St. James graphically warns us of the danger of an unbridled tongue:

If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot's inclination wishes. In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. ... For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. (James 3:2-8) 

So how do we avoid "setting the entire course of our lives on fire" by our words? As in all other areas of life, our speech should be regulated by the four Cardinal Virtues, especially the virtue of prudence (see CCC 1804-1806).


1. Be prudent about when to speak.

The prudent person asks, "Does charity or necessity demand that I speak?" If we make a habit of asking ourselves this question, much damage can be avoided.

Prudence is sometimes called "the perfected ability of right decision-making."  With speech, the first decision is when to speak. How do we judge when correcting someone's fault is necessary and not just nit-picking? Where's the line between communicating important information and gossiping? The prudent person asks, "Does charity or necessity demand that I speak?" If we make a habit of asking ourselves this question, much damage can be avoided.

I wish I had done so before giving my talk on Christmas traditions. I might have realized what my pastor later told me: that treading anywhere near the topic of Santa Claus's existence with an audience of elementary school kids was very imprudent.  Parents have different views on what to tell their own kids about Santa, and I had no mandate to debunk the myth to a room full of other people's children.

When in doubt about whether to speak, it's best to err on the side of restraint. The Book of Proverbs tells us that a multiplicity of words and sin go together, but restrained speech is a sign of wisdom: "Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 10:19).


2. Be prudent in how you speak.

When speaking up is the right thing to do, we still need to exercise prudence in how we express ourselves. There's a world of difference between saying, "I'm concerned that you may be harming your reputation" versus "I think you should know lots of people think you're a jerk."

The prudence of speech may best be judged by the standard of charity. Will my words build people up and edify them, or will they cause confusion and anxiety? Is my speech seasoned with grace and genuine concern for the other, or am I speaking in a self-centered way or with selfish motives? Am I trying to impart truly valuable knowledge, or am I simply showing off my knowledge to stroke my ego? By considering these questions before you speak, you're less likely to put your foot in your mouth or worse, hurt another person.


3.  Have the courage to speak when it's right to do so but difficult.

If you cultivate prudence in choosing when to speak and how to express yourself, it's much easier to speak up in situations that call for some courage. I saw a good example of this recently when my friend David faced a challenging situation at his job.

A manager at his company was performing poorly – using company resources for personal needs, watching videos on the Internet at work, failing to communicate with other staff members and customers, and keeping a sloppy, disorganized work area. However, this manager was a close personal friend of the company's owner, so people were afraid to alert the owner to the problem for fear of offending him.

The prudence of speech may best be judged by the standard of charity. Will my words build people up and edify them, or will they cause confusion and anxiety? Is my speech seasoned with grace and genuine concern for the other.

David knew that justice demanded the manager's scandalous behavior be addressed, but he also recognized the need for prudence. An overzealous or ill-worded report could be misconstrued and rejected by the company's owner. After reflecting and praying about it, David talked to the owner, who not only listened but thanked David sincerely for bringing the matter to his attention.

Later, I asked David how he handled such a sensitive issue. He said, "I made sure to only talk about actual behaviors I had witnessed rather than making broad character judgments. For example, I said, 'He did not return a customer's calls,' which is a specific action, rather than saying, 'He's lazy,' which is a moral judgment on his character. I knew that as a friend, the owner would defend the manager's character, but that as a businessman, he would not defend any unprofessional actions. I spoke humbly, saying, 'I think' and 'It seems' rather than 'I know.' And I made certain he knew I was speaking from a genuine concern for the company and not out of any personal motive."

While St. James' observation that "no man can tame the tongue" may sound pessimistic, people like my friend David show the taming power of prudence. And if you read on a few verses further in St. James' epistle, he makes much the same point with the Spirit's guidance.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine 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. (James 3:10-13)

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Acknowledgement

Phillip Campbell. "Three Tips for Taming the Tongue." The Spitzer Center (July 7, 2011).

The Spitzer Center's mission is to strengthen culture, faith and spirit in Catholic organizations for the new evangelization.

Reprinted with permission of The Spitzer Center. Endorsements for the work of the Spitzer Center are here. Spitzer Center programs are listed here.

The Author

Phillip Campbell is a teacher and writer whose pieces have appeared in such publications as St. Austin Review and The Distributist Review. He lives in Howell, Michigan, with his wife and four children.

Copyright © 2011 The Spitzer Center
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