The courage to use words, putting into practice the Word

9 January 2020
Image: Nik MacMillan/Unsplash.


Words are important. Jesus says we will be held accountable for every careless word. Perhaps we Christians need to listen more carefully to what the Word of God tells us about the use of words.

Certainly, should we Christians better put into practice the Word of God, the tone of many public debates would change. For example, what would our comments and reflections be like if we were to practice this word from St Paul?

“No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. [And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:29-32).

“You bite and devour one another”

Beginning with social media, as well as both new and old forms of media, websites and blogs, we Christians are not setting very good example. Aside from legitimate confrontation, valid criticism, and friendly irony, how many times do we see malicious and disproportionate accusations, mocking, derision, hurtful sarcasm, never-ending slander, (which, in the end, remains mud-slinging even after retractions). How would this style change if we would hear the reproach of the Apostle of the Gentiles?

“For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh”(Galatians 5:14-16).

Does bad news really sell more than good news?

If we Christians were to practice the Word of God, how would our way of communicating change? Would it perhaps not sell as much, since bad news has a larger audience and sells better? Once, a while ago, on a sports show, fans from opposing teams were quarrelling and insulting each other quite a bit…they had been directed to use foul and offensive language. All that just to sell the program. The teams idolised by the fans had nothing to gain by it. Are we Christians truly interested in the Church, this People made up of sinners, all of us, whom God wants to save?

The vanity of words

Of course, even we Christians are not exempt from the sins of self-aggrandising, narcissism, egocentricity, vanity. Often, the focus of our comments is we ourselves, our words, not the Word: we increase and Jesus decreases. We become great like St Paul who called out St Peter about his hypocrisy (we are all a bit like St Paul), we become saints like Catherine of Siena who wrote flaming letters to the Pope (but she called him the sweet Christ on earth), we make ourselves judges, based on the “knowledge, competence, and prestige which [we] possess” (Code of Canon Law, 212 §3) in order to accuse and condemn the “Church’s Shepherds”, we make ourselves interpreters of visions and prophecies, decoding the mysteries of mystical visions, we make ourselves the Lord’s special guests to redeem the Church from its own opprobrium. We make ourselves great and perhaps we merit Christ’s outburst: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8).

Show one another honour

How would the tone of our reflections change if we took into serious consideration this celebrated exhortation of St Paul – even to the point of outdoing one another in showing honour.

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all”(Romans 12:9-17).

Candidness without charity

There are times when parrhesia, that is, candid speech, is necessary. But if it is without love:

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing…Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 4-6).

Knowing how to speak respectfully

Many wars have been waged in the name of truth. But since that is not enough, we continue with verbal violence. How would our language change if we would listen to St Peter?

“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pt 3:15f.).

Words that cut like knives, words that heal

Being careful regarding language is a theme that is insistently present in the Bible, even in the Old Testament. There is a wealth of sources:

From the Book of Proverbs: “The babbling fool will be overthrown” (10:8); “Where words are many, sin is not wanting, but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19); “The babble of some people is like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise is healing” (12:18); “Those who guard their mouths preserve themselves; those who open wide their lips bring ruin” (13:3); “A mild answer turns back wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1); “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse one breaks the spirit” (15:4); “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who choose one shall eat its fruit” (18:21); “Do not answer fools according to their folly, lest you too become like them” (26:4).

From the Book of Sirach: “Do not be called double-tongued; and with your tongue do not slander a neighbour”(5:14); “do not quarrel with loud-mouths, or heap wood upon their fire” (8:3); “Loud mouths are feared in their city, and whoever is reckless in speech is hated” (9:18); “Before you are judged, examine yourself” (18:20); “The mind of fools is in their mouths, but the mouth of the wise is in their mind” (21:26); “When the godless curse their adversary,  they really curse themselves” (21:27); “Slanderers sully themselves, and are hated by their neighbours” (21:28); “Do not accustom your mouth to coarse talk” (23:13); “Those accustomed to using abusive language will never acquire discipline as long as they live” (23:15). When we finish reading such texts, we say: The Word of the Lord.

We will be held accountable for every careless word

Words are important. Jesus says they reveal what is in the heart. We will be held accountable for every single word:

“For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned”(Mt 12:34-37).

Accusations against Jesus: transgressor of the law and demonic possession

When we easily condemn others, let’s remember that Jesus was accused of blasphemy, of subverting tradition, of transgressing the law, even of demonic possession. How would our words change if we were to listen to His Word?

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (…) Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mt 7:1-3; 21-23).

Only in silence can we listen to God’s voice

The risk we Christians run is that of reading, listening, writing and saying countless (useless) words without listening any more to the Word of God. Without that silence which creates the climate in which we can listen to that one necessary Word, our words might seek to defend God, Jesus, Mary, the Pope, the Church, Catholic teaching, but they are not Christian words. Without that silence, those who see evil will continue finding it even in the most beautiful thing on earth. Even then they will find some detail, some small defect, a small dark spot, in order to say that the whole thing is rotten. And they will convince many people that their view is true. We spend so much time in the midst of useless chatter and we lose the power of the Word:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

This leaves us with the question: Do we Christians have the courage to put the Word of God into practice when it comes to how we use words?

With thanks to Vatican News and Sergio Centofanti, where this article originally appeared.


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