“The next day the whole Israelite community murmured against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the Lord’s people,” they said.” -Numbers 16:41
“Although they rarely get the respect they deserve, our tongues really should be numbered among our most prized bodily members. With them we sing of love, we broker peace, we passionately preach, and we attempt to express our very selves. They are nothing less than the tools that build up humanity and the kingdom of God. The psalmist sees the tongue as the instrument of God’s praise: “my tongue shall tell of thy righteousness and of thy praise all day long” (Ps 35:28). Our tongues, as a part of our human bodies, are destined for eternal glory, for union with God. At the Resurrection of the body, the whole of the human person will be united with God, and our tongues will perform their part in the eternal worship of God.
However, while we are still journeying toward our final rest and joy, our instrument of praise can be turned away from its purpose. Our current culture does not make many allowances for the virtues of the tongue; According to many, the tongue is for the advancement of man, by any means necessary. Lies are permitted, even practically encouraged, among certain professions and having the wit to spin the truth is even considered a virtue.
In addition to the temptation to violate the truth, directly or indirectly, we also face the temptation to use the truth as a weapon at the wrong time. St. Thomas sums up these sins of the tongue: “the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides” (ST II-II q. 75, art. 1).
The first, reviling, uses the truth as a direct and open attack upon another. One of your coworkers is receiving praise for her great performance at her job and you openly decry her drinking problem. When we revile another, we cast down the excellences of a person’s life by revealing embarrassing and unnecessary information in his or her presence.
Backbiting also kills a person’s reputation, but it does so in secret, undermining his or her position in the eyes of others. This is the person who pretends to be friends while secretly detesting us or hoping to make himself greater by climbing over our fallen name.
Tale-bearing is telling something bad about someone in order to disrupt relationships. This includes telling old stories about someone so that a couple will break up or telling the boss some unflattering details of a coworker’s past mistakes so that they will get passed over for a promotion. It can express itself as a refusal to allow the “old you” die or to prevent the flourishing of good relationships.
The last, what St. Thomas calls deriding, can be good or bad. In its good aspect, derision can be directed at the evil actions of another. Mocking the evil someone has done in order to show them it is shameful could be helpful in some situations, but usually it isn’t. On the other hand, derision is always evil when it is employed in the mockery of what is good. This occurs when people are made to feel ashamed for doing good, such as when they defend the faith or refuse to participate in immoral activities. Derision can also be aimed at people themselves, so that they feel they should be ashamed for existing and that they aren’t worthy of our care or love. This is always evil.
One can find examples of these sins or privations of the tongue by scanning almost any Internet article or comment box. But more illuminating than any example is the penance given by St. Philip Neri to a gossip. For her penance, St. Philip Neri told the woman to pluck a chicken outside of the church and bring him the plucked chicken. Puzzled, she obeyed. He then sent her back out to collect the feathers, but the wind had scattered most of them, so she only returned with a handful. “Sins of the tongue are like the feathers,” he said, “once uttered they cannot be recaptured.”
What can help us to be aware and stop these sins of the tongue? Silence. If we do not spend time in silence, how can we know the value of words? In silence, we come to greater awareness of the presence of God. We spend our mental words on the Lord and He shows us His peace. When we are with someone we love very much, words are unnecessary. They know what we think with a glance. In coming to deeper knowledge of God through this prayer of silence, we come to greater love of Him who will tame our tongues through His grace.
In the words of St. Augustine: “Your God, your Redeemer, your Tamer, your Chastiser, your Father, instructs you [and your ungovernable tongue.] For what purpose? In order that you may receive an inheritance where you will not have to bear your father to the grave, but where you shall have your Father Himself for your inheritance. In view of this hope, you are being instructed. Do you therefore murmur?””