This summer I’ve been on a Jane Austen kick. I’ve always loved her books, and my appreciation for her as a writer has only increased. (Such wit! What great characters!) As I was re-reading Emma, I got to that part where Emma and a good number of her neighbors are at a picnic on an outing. One of the women there is known for talking like a running faucet and it tends to produce dread in all those nearby. At the picnic, Emma makes a rude remark about this woman’s blabbering ways. And she realizes rather immediately how hurtful it was, and how awful it sounded, and how terrible it is for someone to be derided in front of an entire group of people. Mr. Knightley chides her for it later (he has the tact to do it in private, unlike Emma) and her face flushes with embarrassment. She decides to make every effort to repair the unkindness in the weeks to come. And she does.
Oh, that the world would be more like a Jane Austen novel.
Unfortunately, I fear we live in a society where people congratulate the very same actions that dear Emma was derided for. “I like him!” they say, “because he speaks his mind!” “He tells it like it is! No more of this PC stuff!” And on and on.
So I thought it might be important to remind ourselves that speaking your mind is not a virtue. In fact, it is the very opposite of virtue. It’s an indicator of bad character, of moral flaw.
This is not a new idea. If the internet is to be believed, the Roman orator Cato the Younger said The primary virtue is: hold your tongue; who knows how to keep quiet is close to God. It makes sense, though, the little I know of Cato the Younger. He was rather persnickety about manners and moral integrity.
James 3:5-10 puts it this way:
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it shouldn’t be this way!
When someone curses human beings made in God’s likeness, which is any language that denies a person’s God-given dignity, I think our first response as Christians should be to pause and recognize a tongue on fire, and call it what it is: sinful, wrong, a bad misstep, a move away from God. And friends, there is a lot of that kind of talk going around. People whose tongues are constantly on fire are not to be lauded. They are to be considered as lacking in virtue, not to mention kindness. They are people who set the whole world on fire.
I hope we don’t take that warning lightly. I don’t want to have anything to do with a restless evil full of deadly poison.
From the same mouth, we can choose either to bless or to curse. I’ve been thinking a lot about blessings and curses lately (it comes up a lot in my new book Original Blessing). When I think about my own life, I think the times I’ve chosen to hold my tongue, to fall on my own sword, to say nothing when BOY did I have something to say to defend myself or justify myself or clarify something or point out a rather obvious flaw in the other person, those are the times when I feel I did the right thing. It didn’t ever feel triumphant, but it felt right. Those are the times when I remember learning that blessing is sometimes a word kindly said, but more often it’s an unkind word that remains unspoken.
I still regret those times when my tongue caught fire.
And look, here’s the rub: nobody is going to give you any reward for not saying anything. Nobody will ever know. There is a whole mountain of unsaid things we should all receive medals for keeping unspoken. So we will have to be content with practicing the virtue of a chastened tongue instead. It will have to be its own reward, because it’s not going to bring us our own TV reality show, or more Twitter followers. It’s not going to bring us much of anything other than silence and even, potentially, misunderstanding. Nowadays, it seems like the more virtue you have the more you’re likely to get run over by people who don’t have any, and don’t care to try. If we’re going to hold our tongues, we’re going to do so only because we’re convinced the book of James is onto something wise and right and good.
If we’re lucky, when our tongues do catch fire, we will have a Mr. Knightley in our lives who rightly chastises us and says, “You’re better than that. I’m disappointed in you.” Because we are. And if we aren’t yet, there’s always next time.