Bishop's Message

Custody of the tongue

“How can we use our tongues to sing the most sublime praises to God, and then go for lunch after church and enjoy slandering a brother or engage in coarse speech, or go to work on Monday and lie about the products we are selling?”

AN EGYPTIAN DESERT FATHER (in the early centuries of the church) said: “It is impossible to advance in virtue without custody of the tongue. Custody of the tongue is the primary virtue.”

He spoke with wisdom for, as a spiritual athlete, he gave heed to the words of the apostle Paul, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).

The taming of the tongue is one of the most difficult of spiritual exercises. In fact, the apostle James, who wrote much on this matter, observed that “no man can tame the tongue” (Jam. 3:8). Without the help of God, trying to sanctify the tongue is a Herculean task. This is because the tongue is connected to the heart and mind, and unless these are redeemed and made to grow into Christlikeness, the tongue may be dressed in civilised clothes, but beneath would be the stench of the gutter.

Even Christian leaders may find it difficult to control and make their tongues holy. James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways”, noting that one has to be perfect, “able to keep his whole body in check” if he is to be “never at fault in what he says” (Jam. 3:2).

The tongue, though small, has big effects on our spirituality. Like the tiny bit in a mighty horse’s mouth or a small rudder of a big ship, the tongue has tremendous power to alter the course of our lives. Like a tiny spark that can set a whole forest on fire, the small human tongue can bring down what is precious and has been carefully preserved over the years (Jam. 3:3-6).

Strangely, the tongue can be spiritually bilingual. It can master two entirely opposed vocabularies. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (Jam. 3:10). James underscores the fact that this should not be. How can we use our tongues to sing the most sublime praises to God, and then go for lunch after church and enjoy slandering a brother or engage in coarse speech, or go to work on Monday and lie about the products we are selling?

If the heart belongs to God, then the tongue’s output must be congruent with that fact. How can the heart produce two opposite languages for the tongue? A man who is redeemed will begin to master a new language and vocabulary, and seek to forget his former language that did not bring glory to God or health to the soul and its relationships. In the Kingdom of God, its citizens must be intentionally monolingual, if they are to grow into Christlike maturity.

If the taming of the tongue is essential for our spiritual health and maturity, how can we go about doing it?

There is a spiritual discipline developed in the Benedictine monastic tradition following the practices of the desert fathers. It is also called “keeping custody of the tongue”. It involves being conscious of all that we say, and to ensure that our words bring honour to God, health to our souls, and blessings to others.

The day begins with the prayer, “Dear Lord, please help me today to use my tongue in your service by uttering words of love, kindness, praise and encouragement. Help me to take custody of my tongue so I do not utter words of hate, disrespect, criticism, gossip, or slander.”

We do not need to go the way of the Trappist monks who go on a long and total fast from speech that can last for years. If the tongue can do so much damage, better not use it. But we remember that the tongue is connected to the heart and mind, and need not be totally silenced, but is better off being trained to be godly.

We can, of course, learn a thing or two from the Trappists. We can still go on periodic fasts from all or unnecessary speech. Richard Foster has helpfully shown the negative effects of the uncontrolled tongue and excessive or neurotic speech. The periodic fasting from speech can strengthen the soul. We sin by talking too much, and there is a place for godly silence. But silence is not always the godly thing to do. There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7).

can be a sign of a proud or anxious person, silence can be a sign of sinful cowardice and indifference (as when we need to speak up for a truth or someone who is mistreated). The tongue also has its sins of commission and omission.

We would do well to study the Bible’s teachings on a wise spirituality for the tongue. Just read Proverbs and you will find much practical wisdom. Custody of the tongue is a necessary part of coming under the lordship of Christ, and has to be practised daily. Not only are we to show in public a tongue that is in submission to Christ and being civilised by the ways of the Kingdom, but we must show the same especially in private – when we are speaking to friends, and our conversations are not under public scrutiny.

We must remember what our Lord taught about the dangers of the untamed tongue. “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks … I tell you that men have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt. 12:34-37). The output of our tongues will be used as evidence one way or the other.

The tongue must be rescued from its “restless evil” and “deadly poison” (Jam. 3:8). A clean heart produces a clean tongue. It is important to ensure that the tongue is baptised and belongs to the Lord, and that its output is “pure speech” (Zeph. 3:9, ESV). Then, its words will not be tainted by that which is arrogant, ungracious, hurtful, slanderous, coarse, unwholesome, flippant, false and ungodly. Instead it will emulate Jesus when He said, “I do nothing on my own but say only what the Father taught me” (Jn. 8:28, NLT). It is important that the Christian has custody of his tongue, for its use or abuse will steer the course of his life.