What a powerful yet hidden little muscle, the tongue. Other than the iconic and humorous photo of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out at the photographer, rarely is seen that fleshy, pinkish muscle nestled in the mouth. In photographs, the tongue is hidden by a bright smile, and lovers share it only in the secrecy of a passionate kiss.
This powerful body part is kept safely confined, or so we think. It may be safe from us, but we are hardly safe from it. The tongue is capable of great good but that same power also means that the tongue can do great harm. The same muscle that shares the burdens of the soul is the same one that can reveal parts of ourselves that we want to keep hidden. It exposes some of our innermost self, but that betrayal can call us to greater wholeness.
The Epistle of James (James 3:6-10) points out that the tongue may be small but it is a powerful fire, difficult to tame. Its chief power is found in how it helps humankind form sounds and words and share ideas. The power of language is nearly boundless; words can create completely new things, even if only in the plot of a story. Genesis attests: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). We might not be able to create light from nothingness with just a few words, but how many have created in the imagination the fearsome and burbling Jabberwocky charging from the tulgey wood while reading aloud from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland?
As much as our tongues create new ideas and share them with others, our tongues can also betray us. They betray sometimes the feelings we are hiding for fear of the consequences. How many of us hide our religion, our political beliefs, or our sexuality for fear of what they might think? Add to that the fear that a stray comment or word will sneak past our normally vigilant tongue and will demolish the defensive wall we have built. Once that word escapes our lips, we cannot control the fire it may ignite. You can’t unring a bell, and, as much as you might want to, you cannot eat your words and chow down the evidence.
After Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam’s tongue betrayed their secret. According to Genesis, “Adam said, ‘I heard the sound of you [God] in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ (Genesis 3: 10-11). If Adam hadn’t made that slip-up, if only he hadn’t admitted that he knew that he was naked! If only Adam had had a lawyer present to choose words more carefully!
When we rush our thoughts, then our secrets can slip past our defenses, so thoughtfulness and discretion can be a valuable help. A brief pause can make the difference between action and reaction. Instead of reacting, that pause can assist in letting the tongue and brain act together to say just the right thing.
At work and in public, sometimes one cannot be sure of how one’s sexuality or religion or politics will be taken, and this is especially true of one’s sexuality in the workplace. In many states (including my home state of Idaho), it is perfectly legal to fire someone on these grounds. Sexual orientation is not protected from discrimination, and even if it is protected that does not automatically mean that there will be no hostility.
Maintaining that vigilance over the tongue can be a burdensome task. Who can you trust with this knowledge? What’s prudent and sensible to share, and with whom can we share it? Our soul and tongue both long to be free of this burden, and yet the tongue is only human, too. It can make mistakes, but its betrayal can be costly. It might slip the wrong pronoun or accidentally talk of our date last night, and now the fire is lit. It might end with the person we told or it might spread, but the second our tongue helps form those sounds and words, we have no control over what happens next.
Occasionally, however, this unintentional betrayal can be a blessing, a real Godsend. Once the power of keeping that secret has been lost, sometimes we find that others are not nearly as bad or threatening as we fear. Occasionally we find support and friendship once we have to drop our guard, and the best friendships cannot be built on guardedness. Sometimes the tongue’s betrayal of our vigilance leads us to friendships that otherwise would not have been possible. That thoughtful pause before speaking may spare us from discrimination, judgment or hate, but that same vigilance can close us off from others. We hide ourselves beneath a carefully crafted coat of armor to protect ourselves from hurt, yet others cannot get through that armor.
Beyond the betrayal of secrets, the tongue’s worst use of its powers is in its betrayal of our truest, original nature. God created us in goodness, God created us to be good, God created us to imitate God’s pure goodness. Not good in the sense of behaving correctly, but good in the sense of being fully filled with God, being fully united to God, walking closely with God in all we do and in all we are.
Adam and Eve enjoyed walking in the Garden of Eden with God, no barriers, no worries, yet the tongue of the serpent convinced them to do the one thing that God had asked them not to do, and the tongue of the serpent and the tongues of Adam and Eve started humankind on a trajectory of walking away from God’s original purpose for us. Even today our tongues work mischief and good. Our tongue prays with us and it hurts others with poisoned barbs of truths, half-truths and lies. It builds up a fearful, hesitant child, and it can bully a child into despair. The tongue teaches and preaches the truth, and it teaches and preaches things that are not the truth.
If our speech is harmful or destructive, then it is betraying something wrong inside. We are fallible and perpetually working toward complete holiness, but all of our acts that fall short of that holiness remind us that we still have work to do. Our tongue’s betrayal of a carefully concocted image of perfection can give us the shock necessary to repent of the wrong and to do better in the very next moment. It is an ongoing process, but that betrayal can open up a part of our heart we would rather not see.
The Epistle of James also talks of the tongue as a rudder (James 3:4). Where is our tongue guiding us? Is it guiding us closer to God or guiding us away? When the tongue reveals our secrets, sometimes it is guiding us to greater trust in others. When the tongue speaks words of encouragement and love, then it is guiding us toward living closer to what God calls us to live. When the tongue hurts others, tears down and does not build up, then it is guiding us away from God. Not only does the tongue guide but it enkindles other flames. When we encourage others or praise God, then others might find their own tongues burning to do the same. When we hurt others, deny God’s love for even our enemies, or reject God’s love for us, then our tongues are burning away at the holiness of our soul.
The power of the tongue can take us so far away, but it is not the power that it has that makes it a problem. The problems flow from how we use our tongues and to whose purpose we use them. Do we use our tongues for building up the world, for healing, for caring, for God? Or do we use our tongues for ourselves, for petty politics, for the destruction of someone God deeply loves (and God loves everyone, even the unlovable)?
If we answer those questions, we can start to see what spiritual work we still have to do. Certainly most of our motives are mixed, and individuals do both good and bad. The moment of the tongue’s betrayal, however, can energize us to try again to do just the good. Just as the moment’s pause before speaking can keep us from revealing our secrets, so can that pause give us a moment to decide whether what we say is guiding us toward God.
Our tongues (and our whole being, every part, every piece) are set apart to be holy for God. Everything! No tongue that wants to serve God can serve a heart motivated by anything other than God. A heart that seeks fame, fortune, praise for itself, power, or control cannot serve God at the same time, and the tongue follows the heart’s lead. Let the heart seek first to praise God, and the tongue will follow suit. If the tongue starts with heartfelt praise for God, it will slowly be transformed into the tongue God wants it to be: a tongue of grace, a tongue of truth, a tongue of praise, a tongue of love.
The tongue is such a marvelous muscle even though it is capable of getting us into trouble when we aren’t mindful of it, but it seems that God can use that fact to get us to drop our guard and listen. Sometimes hiding our sexuality, our religion, our identity can help us keep the peace in our lives, but at other times it deprives us of opportunities for friendship in unexpected places.
In those moments when we say things that are harmful, mean, or destructive, then we also catch glimpses of where we are falling short of our God-given nature and can repent and turn again to God. The tongue may be betraying us by doing what we don’t want it to do, but that might just be what we need to live a more authentic life. It’s wonderful that God can use such a mischievous part of our body to help nourish our souls.
“Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed!” (Psalm 126: 2-4).