O God, Who hast prepared for them that love Thee good things unseen: pour into our hearts such love towards Thee, that, loving Thee in all and above all, we may obtain Thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.
—From the Collect for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
What is the most powerful and damaging muscle we possess? It’s not our legs or our bicepses. It’s our tongue. The tongue has the ability to destroy lives and souls; it also has the ability to bring people to salvation. Scripture contains many warnings against the misuse of the tongue.
For example, both readings for Sunday’s Mass warn against the dangers of evil speech and the importance of guarding the tongue. St. Peter writes, “For he that will love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile” (1 Peter 3:10). Guile, in the biblical sense, refers to using deceit for one’s own advantage. The world may see guile as a useful quality, but it is the enemy of the truth. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, tells us, “Guile … is the friend of the enemy of truth, that is, Satan, the father of lies. Believers are advised to avoid his influence and to prefer the things of God, who is truth” (Catena).
Being guileless may not always help us advance in this world, but it is vital to the spiritual life. When Our Lord first meets Nathaniel, he exclaims, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47). For Christ, having “no guile” is of utmost importance and worthy of great praise. In fact, this is one of the few times in the Gospels we encounter Jesus praising someone, underscoring how highly Our Lord valued the virtue of truthfulness.
In Sunday’s Gospel, which comes from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warns against specific examples of misusing the tongue. He says, “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mt. 5:22). Using the tongue to attack or insult others is so egregious that it puts one’s eternal soul in jeopardy. Traditionally, attacking others in speech is considered a violation of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill,” for doing so can be as harmful as a physical attack.
In an age where a falsehood can spread across the globe in a matter of minutes, the biblical warnings against the misuse of the tongue take on greater significance than in previous times. A false accusation put on the internet can lead to destroyed lives, and even wars between nations. As Catholics, we are to “decline from evil and do good … seek after peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11). We are to use our tongues to lift up others and to bring about peace between people.
But, it’s important to note, using the tongue for peace isn’t a call to stay quiet while evil runs rampant. Using the tongue properly means using it not only to lift others up, but also to oppose evil when it is in our midst. As we see from the example of Our Lord, who harshly condemned the hypocritical Pharisees for leading people astray, we are called to use our tongues, when necessary, to fight evil, for only by overcoming evil can we achieve true peace.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.