If We Do Not Control Our Tongue, Our Devotions Might Be In Vain

If We Do Not Control Our Tongue, Our Devotions Might Be In Vain July 23, 2020

No photographer listed: Shire Horse / pxfuel

The tongue, James says, needs to be kept under control, “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (Jas. 1:26 RSV). James’s point is that if we are uncharitable in our speech, if we undermine justice by our speech, we deceive ourselves in thinking we are being faithful to God. Without charity, without love, we have nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1). This is true, not just about the spoken word, but also concerning what is written down; if we do not cling to love, if we let unlove rule over us and our communications with others, we demonstrate how far we are from authentic religious devotion to God. The more we sow the seed of unlove in our hearts, the further we turn away from the God who is love. Whatever devotions we might have, whatever good deeds we might do, whatever beliefs we might hold, if we do not strive to follow Christ along the path of love, all of that will prove to be naught. They will have all been done in vain.

This is not to say we are not human; most of us experience the habits of concupiscence turning us against our better nature. Most of us will have to struggle against terrible inclinations; sometimes, we will find ourselves failing to rein them in. We can be forgiven, so long as we recognize the problem and fight against it. That is, so long as we are fighting against our bad habits, if we do not seek to justify them and let them grow in us, we do not necessarily fall under the condemnation of James. For James is not arguing against those who struggle to do what is right, but against those who do not do so, against those who give in to their worst instincts and defend them: they have deceived themselves in thinking that they shall receive mercy while they do not give mercy to others.

When we go about taming the tongue, we must realize that it will not be tamed easily. Like training an animal, we will have to take our time, expecting it to be a long process. If we put in the effort, we will see things slowly change. God is merciful and loving and he will render us mercy and grace if we seek what is good and right and do not excuse our unlove.

One of the ways we get lost in uncharity, and so risk losing our soul, is by being contentious towards others, finding reasons to needlessly and harshly criticize them. St. Symeon the New Theologians warns us that those of us who are contentious are setting up traps for our own selves; we are hooked by the pleasure which we get from such contentious talk. Often, we feel so superior to those who we contend against that we fail to recognize the state of our own soul and risk imitating the devils who fell from heaven:

A contentious person is like someone who deliberately gives himself over to the enemies of his king. Contentiousness is a trap whose bait is self-justification; deceived by it we swallow the hook of sin. Then our unhappy soul is caught, tongue and throat, by the demons. Sometimes they exalt it to the heights of pride and sometimes cast it down into the depths of sin, to be judged by those who have fallen from heaven. [1]

Thus, he points out, though our words might speak some sort of truth, they are like a two-edged sword, and so after cutting up others, it will then turn against us, possibly cutting us from eternal life:

A person in the habit of contradicting others becomes a two-edged sword to himself. Unwittingly, he destroys his own soul and alienates it from eternal life.[2]

When Paul talks about the way humanity turned towards depravity in the book of Romans, he connects it with the malice and the various ways such maliciousness manifests itself, including the use of the tongue to undermine others:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:28-31 RSV).

What we say, and how we treat others, can be as deadly to our soul as murder, indeed, it can become even more destructive, because we often recognize the evil behind murder while we rarely recognize the soul-destroying hate manifested in our speech. This means, we will let that evil grow in our hearts, not recognizing the way it is defiling our souls. And, if ever challenged, we will try to say “we have the freedom to act that way,” trying to suggest those who would point to our error are undermining our rights. But, as Bede explains, we should not abuse freedom in this fashion:

But on the other hand they use their freedom as a cloak for maliciousness who, the less they are restrained by the yoke of human service, are the more widely set free for the oppression of sins, and when they become servants of vices with impunity, they call this freedom and cover up their fault under this name.[3]

If we let hate rise up in us, we strangle the seed of grace within. We truly deceive ourselves if we think we can be good and faithful Christians if we neglect charity and so cut ourselves off from grace.

Paul, therefore, tells us a way to get beyond the trap of the tongue; the way to overcome contentiousness, the way to overcome using the tongue as a weapon against others (which will turn against its owner), is to use it charitably. Thus, “Let no evil talk 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” (Eph. 4:29 RSV). We bridle the tongue by training it, creating the habits which we lack, so that we can learn how to engage others with the charity that is necessary for us if we want to be good disciples of Christ.

We must gain control of ourselves; we must find the seeds of those bad habits which are established in and seeded by hate and destroy them; we must tame ourselves through acts of charity. We must truly let love grow in us. The more we struggle against love and justify unlove, the further will be from God; the more we struggle against that unlove, the more we show we truly understand the faith and our religious devotion will not be in vain.

[1] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Four. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 30 [#30].

[2] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts,” 30 [#29].

[3] Venerable Bede, “Commentary on 1 Peter” in Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles. trans. Dom. David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1985), 92.


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