For my morning lectio divina, today I read Matthew 12:33-37. Although this passage is best known for “the tree is known by its fruit” (v. 33), two other parts of the passage particularly caught my attention this morning, from verses 34 and 37:
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks… for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
Challenging words indeed for me as a writer — but also for anyone who loves to speak or write! What Jesus is saying here is that our words, by the very nature of language itself, effectively limit us within the ordinary consciousness of division and opposition, the “binary mind” of judgment, evaluation, and discernment. It is in the nature of language itself to shape, to create, binary awareness: the consciousness that analyzes, divides, separates, and judges. To speak, to write, indeed even to think, is to dwell within that less-than-unitive mind-and-heart-space. And although such language-defined awareness might be perfectly normal, Jesus calls us to a new experience of mindfulness, shaped not by the limitations of language but by the limitlessness of Divine Love.
Granted, the “binary mind” shaped by language is not always a bad thing: when we are driving, or managing conflict, or negotiating a pay raise, we need to be in a state of mind that can quickly “justify” or “condemn” anything that emerges — and respond appropriately. So the issue is not whether the consciousness shaped (and limited) by language is good or bad: it has its place.
But if our awareness is only defined by the imperfections of language/words/thoughts, we remain in a place where we will forever be subject to the binary reality of justification and condemnation, even if it is of our own making. In his call to metanoia, Jesus calls us to a new mind-and-heart-space, a new dimension of being, that is both deeper and higher than the limitations of human language, and therefore can be accessed only through silence. If we want to be faithful to the ethical demands of the sermon on the mount: “judge not” and “love your enemies” — we have to learn to access that place-beyond-language, that space beyond the ordinary justification/condemnation dynamics of our syntax-embedded consciousness. In short, we have to learn to “be still and know” the presence of God, for to God, “silence is praise” (Psalm 46:10, Psalm 65:1 translated literally).
The words that we utter reveal the nature of our hearts: for out of the abundance of the heart do we speak. But even the wisest and most compassionate among us will still sometimes fall, and inevitably speak words of condemnation. James 3:5-8 reminds us of how dangerous the tongue can be. The point here is not to stop speaking altogether (even monks know that speaking has its place). Rather, perhaps the best way to respond to the power of language is to dilute our words, as much as possible or practical, with loving silence — so that when we do express ourselves, we will embody the Quaker proverb: “speak only when your words will be an improvement on silence.” Such language that emerges from the vastness of God’s silent love will far more likely be words that justify rather than condemn — that is to say, words that bless, rather than curse.
Heavenly God, help me, help all of us, to learn to speak, even to think, only as an expression of your vast limitless love and the silence of your presence in our midst. Teach us to say only words of blessing and compassion, even when we must speak to set boundaries and establish limits. For You are Love; therefore, may our words always emerge out of Your Love. In Christ’s Name, Amen.