By Clovis G. Chappell
"I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue." Psalm 39:1
Clovis G. Chappell: Here is a man who has resolved to control his tongue. Most of us know perfectly well how to sympathize with him in his great decision. So much is this the case that we feel that we might even be able to trace with considerable accuracy some of the steps by which he reached his high resolve. Probably one evening he had gone for a visit to the house of a friend. There were other guests present, and they conversed long and freely. Their conversation, unfortunately, turned largely upon personalities. He himself wielded the sword of his tongue skillfully and merrily. He was decidedly interesting. Many times his sallies of wit were greeted by gales of laughter. As he took his way home he was at first rather proud of himself. He felt as if he had been the toast of the evening.
But when he had reached home and was preparing for some much-needed rest, just as he was dropping off to sleep a witty and cutting remark he _had made about an absent friend slipped into his mind. He remembered the laughter that had greeted that bright remark. But in spite of the success of his well-aimed shaft, he now felt his face grow hot as he thought of it. His bed somehow became a thing of stone. His pillows were stuffed with nettles. "What a fool I was," he said to himself bitterly; "what a cruel, ungrateful fool to allow myself to talk life that! Henceforth I will take heed to my ways that I sin not with my tongue."
But this poet doubtless soon found that he had undertaken a difficult task in setting himself to control his tongue. Mastering the tongue is no easy matter. If we have not found that out, it is probably because we have never seriously undertaken the conquest. James, in his classic passage on the tongue, declares that while man has succeeded in taming all kinds of monsters, both on land and sea, he has not yet made much headway with the tongue. "It is a restless evil," he declares truly (James 3:8).
Just as you have seen a wild beast pace back and forth in its cage, ready to snap at any hand that is reached toward it, ready to dash out the door and back to its old life of savagery at the slightest opportunity, so it is with these restless tongues of ours. They, therefore, need constant guarding. They are harder to subdue, declares the practical James, than the creatures of the jungle.
But in spite of the difficulty of the task, this psalmist resolutely undertook it. And we ought to see with clearer eyes than he the absolute necessity of our doing the same. If James is right, there is simply no being vitally religious while we let our tongues run loose. If we claim to be Christian and at the same time talk recklessly, he tells us that our Christianity is a sheer futility. Jesus Christ and an unbridled tongue cannot live in fellowship. "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, this man's religion is vain" (James 1:26). But, if he does bridle his tongue, then he has at least one mark of Christian perfection. According to James, he has measured up to one big test of moral and spiritual maturity. "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body" (James 3:2).
What are some of the sins of the tongue? We might mention many. There is the foolish habit of profane swearing. There is the course and filthy jest. Whoever engages in unclean talk is unclean at heart, though such a one may be outwardly as chaste as Diana [the Roman goddess]. There is the sin of insincerity in speech, the lies that we tell, white or gray or black. Then there are the harsh words that we utter to one another in our anger. These often wound far more deeply than blows.
As a teacher of boys I have found by actual experience that I could inflict corporal punishment upon a boy and retain his warm friendship. In fact, there were times when our friendship even seemed deepened by the ordeal. But friendship is seldom possible where harsh and abusive language is used. Love and friendship cannot live long in the atmosphere of a perpetual war whoop.
But the particular sin that we wish to consider now is the sin of the faultfinder, the gossip, the talebearer. This is a type of sin that is repeatedly rebuked in the Bible. One old law says, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people" (Lev. 19:16). The author of the fifteenth Psalm, in enumerating those who are going to be able to stand before God, puts among the first the man that "backbiteth not with his tongue" (Psa. 15:3). Paul, according to Moffatt, writes to the Romans (14:13) : "So let us leave off criticizing one another." And Jesus says: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt. 7:2)
Now this kind of sinning with our tongues is exceedingly prevalent. We find it practiced by those fiction writers who, seeing and reporting only the worst, allow themselves to degenerate into creatures little better than literary scavengers. We meet it among those writers of biography who are fond of debunking the heroes of the past by showing us that they are not heroic at all, but the commonest of common clay. We find it in certain newspapers that glorify crime, that paint the bootlegger as a hero and a martyr if he is killed while violating the law, and the enforcement officer as a fool if he is killed in line of duty. We also find it in those papers of the jingo type that seek to create friction between nation and nation. We find it in our social contacts where we so often amuse ourselves by playing loose with the good names of each other.
What harm does the man do who thus sins with his tongue?
1. The fault-finder injures himself. "The tongue," says Jesus, "defiles the whole body." (Matt. 15:11) That is profoundly true. The mudslinger cannot engage in his favorite pastime without getting some of the mud that he slings both upon his hands and upon his heart. How often we have come away from such an experience with a sense of defilement! Yet that was not our intention at all. We were vainly hoping that by slinging mud upon others we might enhance some one's estimate of our own cleanliness. We were foolish enough to believe that we could build ourselves up by tearing another down. We were blind enough to fancy that by putting a stick of dynamite under the house of our neighbor we could strengthen the foundations of our own. But this is never the case. In our effort to injure others we may succeed, but we always inflict the deeper injury upon ourselves.
It is easy to see why this is the case. The fault-finder seeks for the worst instead of the best. Seeking for the worst, he finds it. Finding it, he so fixes his gaze upon it that he misses the good altogether. Pick out the best man you know and set yourself to find fault with him, and you will succeed. Begin to publish his faults and you will come to distrust him. Keep it up and your distrust will become contempt. Persist still further and your contempt will harden into hate. Experience has doubtless demonstrated to some of us that it is possible to criticize another who has done us no wrong at all till we come to believe ourselves really injured and till we come further positively to hate the one that we have falsely persuaded ourselves has injured us. Faultfinding, therefore, is harmful because it is a sin against love.
Then it works vast ill in that it ministers to our pride and self-satisfaction. As a rule, the more we find fault with others, the less fault we have to find with ourselves. The man who was keen enough to see a mote in his brother's eye was blissfully unconscious that he had a whole tree trunk in his own (Matt. 7:3). The Pharisee who classed all other men as extortioners, unjust, and adulterers, had no fault to find with himself. In fact, he regarded himself as a paragon of piety.
The supreme devil of literature, I take it, is Iago [in Shakespeare's Othello]. So low does he sink that he comes to take pride in that which is the very badge of his devilishness. "I am nothing if not critical," he says with a swagger. How deadly, therefore, is that habit that kills our humility and our love and brings us to take a supreme pride in what should be our supreme shame.
2. Then the faultfinder hurts the man he criticizes. Oftentimes he wounds him to the very heart. Some of the bitterest suffering that this world has known has been inflicted by the unbridled tongue. The writer of the sixty-fourth Psalm pictures the reckless talker as shooting arrows at his victim (Psa. 64:3). Those arrows are not made of stone or steel. They are made of words, sharp, bitter, poisonous words. Therefore they do not kill in a moment. Maybe they never kill at all. But they rankle and torture and sometimes leave old wounds that never heal. There is no estimating the exquisite pain that fine, sensitive souls have suffered through wounds inflicted by the tongue.
There are those brave and strong enough to disregard in large measure the harsh criticisms directed against them. Yet even these do not always escape the faultfinder unscathed. If such are not hurt in their feelings, they are hurt in their reputations. And the one who injures my reputation also injures my usefulness. For the measure of my power to help is at least in part the measure of the confidence that I can command. Yet I have known parents to openly criticize their minister in the presence of their children, and then be surprised and pained that he, whose reputation they had destroyed, was not able to win their children. But the failure of that minister was not due to himself alone. His chance of success had been killed by those seeking his help.
Not only is faultfinding an attack upon the reputation and usefulness of the victim, but it is an attack upon his character as well. I know that nothing said against us can destroy our characters. But it can do this: It can take from us one of the greatest safeguards of character. What greater help is there toward the living of a right life than the confidence of one's fellows? That old saying, "Give a dog a bad name and he will justify it," has lived because there is so much truth in it. It is hard for one to fall who is undergirded by a firm and steadfast confidence. But how easy it is if everybody expects that one to do so! Therefore, the faultfinder makes war upon the feelings, the reputation, and the character of his victim.
"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed."
3. Then the faultfinder hurts his hearer. Of course this hearer is too often willing to be hurt. Those to whom we carry tales, to whom we gossip in an evil way, usually welcome such liberties. We cannot broadcast our criticisms unless some one tunes in on us. The listener therefore becomes a sharer in the crime of the speaker. If the critic is guilty of stealing a reputation, then the listener is guilty of receiving stolen goods. Both, therefore, meet the same condemnation. Also the injuries that the faultfinder inflicts upon himself are shared by the receiver of his confidences.
4. Finally, faultfinding is a sin against society. There is no telling the evil that one lie can accomplish. "The tongue is a fire," says James (James 3:6). Having started a blaze, there is no telling where the blaze will stop. The beauties of the great forests of the [U.S.] Northwest lift the heart and set the soul to dreaming. But I have seen these great forests become charred and blackened ruins because perchance some smoker had been careless in the handling of a match. And ruins more ugly and tragic than these are often left in the wake of the careless Wielder of the tongue.
Society is founded upon confidence. Destroy confidence and the whole social fabric falls to pieces. The faultfinder is a destroyer of confidence and is therefore an enemy both to the individual and to the group.
No wonder, then, that this wise psalmist highly resolved that he would no longer sin with his tongue. Surely we, too, are ready to join him in his high resolve. But having resolved, how may we hope to succeed? To help us in this direction let me offer the following suggestions:
1. Before we find fault let us realize how unfair it is for us to do so unless we have all the facts in hand. Let us realize further how impossible it is for us to know all the facts. We may live with each other for half a century and then know each other only superficially. It is utterly impossible for any human being to be absolutely sure that he is rightly judging his brother. How often we are forced to say, "I should not have been so harsh and unkind if I had only understood." But we never know fully. Therefore Jesus says, "Judge not." That is a prerogative that belongs to God and to God only. Let us beware of usurping the throne of the Almighty. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" (Romans 14:4)
2. Then it might help us to realize that our judgments, however carelessly and hastily made, often have a terrible finality. We always make them without a full knowledge of the facts. Many times we find, after rendering our decision, that we were altogether wrong. Yet having uttered our hasty judgments, we cannot fully recall them, however eager we may be to do so.
"Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds,
But you cannot do that way when you are flying words."
We may be brave enough and honest enough to try to correct our false report, but there are always those who heard the lie that will never hear the correction. Years later that old forgotten lie may arise in a vague question with regard to its victim: "Did I not hear something bad about him once?" And to be questioned is often to be condemned.
One play my brother and I kindled a fire in an old stump that stood in the center of a field that was rank with dry grass. Father did not want the grass burned. Therefore we were a bit careful. But in spite of our care a spark flew out and started a little blaze that began to spread rapidly. We at once saw the danger. Therefore we each grabbed a branch of a tree and began to fight the fire vigorously. We soon succeeded in extinguishing the blaze that was immediately in front of us. But we looked up a moment later to discover that by our very efforts to put out the fire, we had scattered it in a dozen different directions. We were sorry and tried hard to correct our blunder, but the grass was burned none the less, and the fences too. Such is often the case with the fires that we kindle with our tongues. In our very effort to extinguish them we only spread them.
3. Then it might be well for us to face the facts as to what lies behind our faultfinding. Why do we thus let our tongues run loose? Does it come of anything big or brotherly in us? What is the source of this fire called the tongue? Here again James comes to our assistance. He says that the tongue of the faultfinder is set on fire of hell (James 3:6). That is an ugly truth, but we need to face it. Harsh and unkind criticisms are not born of heaven; they are born of hell. They are not the outcome of love, they are the outcome of hate.
Who is Satan anyway? He is the slanderer. He is the traducer [defamer] of the brethren. "Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?" (Job 1:8) What is Satan's answer to this question? He fairly shakes with laughter. He turns to the Almighty and says: "I am surprised at you. It is amazing how easily you are duped. I know Job is outwardly decent, but it is because you are paying him a big salary. You are protecting him and feeding him bonbons. Does Job serve God for naught?" The devil explains away all goodness. That is what makes him such a success as a devil. Just in proportion as we pursue his course, we become kinfolks with him.
4. But our supreme asset in the subduing of our tongues is pointed out by the author of the hundred and forty-first Psalm. He had evidently had trouble with his tongue. He had, possibly, spent more than one sleepless night brooding over the havoc it had wrought. At last, despairing of ever gaining the victory in his own strength, he turned to God and poured out this wise prayer: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips" (Psa. 141:3). And we may be sure that the God who answers prayer was not deaf to the appeal of this tongue-tortured man. No more will he be deaf to your appeal and mine. In our conflict with our tongues he can make us more than conquerors.
How will he do it? He will not do it by putting a padlock upon our mouths, but by taking captive our hearts. He will not compel us to silence, but cause us to speak according to the law of love. This is the great need. For the tongue, of course, is not an evil in itself. It may be an unmeasured good. It all depends upon how we use it. If it can sting like an adder, it can also heal like a mother's kiss. If it can steal our courage and leave us limp, it can also breathe battle into us and send us out to fight where the victory is to the brave. If love rules, there is nothing to fear. "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor," (Rom. 13:10) not even the ill of an unkind word. Let us therefore join with this struggling psalmist in his victorious prayer: "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips."