This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when the Church celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Acts 2:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 NASB)
The Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles and they spoke in tongues. Thus was introduced to the Church a spiritual gift which would create controversy from the First Century to the Twenty-First. The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the confusion the early Church had about the gift of tongues. In our world today, I’ve known people who have thought that speaking in tongues was the only proof that one was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve also known people who’ve insisted that such a gift was no longer given to the Church. In my experience, both of these extremes have been untrue. God does still choose to give this gift to individuals within the Church, but it is one of many signs or fruits of the Spirit, and to each member of the Church, different gifts are given. We’re not all called to speak in tongues. The desire to speak in tongues is admirable because it is a desire to yield control of our speech to God. But we would do well to ask: What does it really mean to have our speech controlled by the Holy Spirit? Is speaking in tongues the only form Spirit-controlled speech, or are there others which are more accessible to everyone?
Perhaps Spirit-controlled speech looks less like “speaking in tongues” and a lot more like “taming the tongue.” When Paul says “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words with a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19 ESV), he’s indicating that our language should be used to benefit others. “Prophesy” is superior to tongues for Paul because “one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3 ESV). That sort of speech requires wisdom and deliberation. Control is still yielded to God, but that giving up of control may mean choosing to speak less. I think Paul’s exhortation to pursue prophesy agrees with James’ calling to tame our tongues:
If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of pilot directs. (James 3:2-4 ESV)
The taming of our tongues is a sign that we are growing in sanctification. “Self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:23, and exercising self-control with our speech is surely a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our hearts. In the long run, a lifetime of careful, discerning, wise speech may be just as profitable and equally indicative of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues.
The great spiritual writers of the early Church understood this. For them, discerning and careful speech was more indicative of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian asks the Lord not to give us a spirit of “idle talk”, but instead to give us “a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.” St. Diadochos of Photiki saw talkativeness as dissipation of the Holy Spirit. He uses the imagery of a sauna to explain:
When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts. (“On Spiritual Knowledge” no. 70 in The Philokalia vol. 1 p. 276)
Similarly, John Climacus wrote this in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:
Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off. Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer. (p. 158)
The sort of careless speech that Climacus is criticizing here isn’t speaking in tongues, but it’s something that’s much more relevant to everyday life. The mindless speech which we engage in every day can detract from our spiritual lives. Pursuit of holiness, on the other hand, will both be aided by and will produce greater discretion in what we say.
So how do we pursue tame tongues? I’ve found it helpful to make Psalm 141:3 a regular prayer: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Whether before writing, preaching, speaking in a group, or counseling people, this simple verse has helped me yield more of my speech to the Spirit’s control, though I certainly have a long way to go. I’ve also found that it’s helpful to question my motives for saying (or writing, or tweeting) something. Why do I want to say this? Will it benefit others? Am I simply trying to attract attention to myself? Am I trying to control or manipulate others by what I say? The answers to such questions usually quickly reveal whether it’s right to speak up or keep my mouth shut. The challenge is learning to slow down and examine one’s thoughts closely enough to ask such questions before saying something regrettable.
This Pentecost, let us pray that God would grant us the grace of increasingly tamed tongues:
Set a guard, O Lord, over our mouths, and keep watch over the doors of our lips. Purge us of idle talk and fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may speak with soberness, humility, patience, and love. Tame our tongues as we yield them to your control, in order that you would be glorified, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.