When teaching through a particular subject, I find that everything suddenly relates to it. One co-worker alleges that I mentioned Dante in every conversation, while I was teaching through the Renaissance recently. I suppose there could be worse things to mention.
My current subject, rhetoric, though a respected member of the Trivium, is not always well-reputed among Christians nor scholars. The time after his conversion in which Augustine had to continue teaching rhetoric was merely a torment to him, since he felt that rhetoric only taught the students to lie beautifully. The Greek Gorgias suspected rhetoric as not quite above-board, in his dialogue with Socrates written down by Plato. Scripture warns against those whose words are smooth as butter, but whose heart and mind are poison. God save us from such, and keep us from being so.
However, smooth words are not the problem. Scripture praises the tongue of the wise, a word in due season, and gracious and well-seasoned speech. James condemns those who do not control the tongue. Consider how professional counselors make a good living just by speaking good words in due season. (Consider how many ministers do this without making a good living.) Gracious speech has amazing healing potential.
What about the influence of our own disciplined tongue upon our own life? My rhetoric teacher during college told the class to consider what James says about the tongue, as we prepared to begin the course. I was familiar with the idea that the heart influences the tongue; that is, if you say angry words, it’s because your heart is angry, and so forth—important beliefs. But, this instructor pointed out, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, the steering portion; the “cause” portion, not the result portion. He calls it also the little flame that sets on fire all of nature. What effects do we see personally from controlling our words?
First off, our speech is a good indicator of the subtle issues of the heart. Usually, I’m aware when I’m in a blazing rage, or an ungrateful mope, or any other major heart-maladjustment, even before I actually blow up or burst into tears. But the more subtle issues can evade us. They become the very wallpaper of the mind, until the words we speak come back to us and make the heart clear. If my words sounded just a bit out of tune, jangling harshly, it’s because of some place where I need to grow in discernment or in kindness. If “gimme that” is just “the way I’ve always done it,” my heart has just made itself known. Is a sarcastic answer the first thing that comes to my lips? Or maybe all my sentences trail off and interrupt one another. It’s because I haven’t taken the time to organize my thoughts. Maybe my lips saying “Duh!” at that exact moment wasn’t wise (maybe it never is). Heart, take notice. Maybe you shouldn’t say it either. Our own words ring loudly in our ears at times. (The words I’m writing now ring loudly.)
But this is still in the realm of “words indicate the heart.” It’s also true that “words influence the heart.” Does not praising God when the heart is heavy actually lift the spirits? Learning to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” is a great way actually to learn respect. They say that even a feigned smile makes a person feel happier. Apparently we are beings integrated enough that it’s unnatural for our bodies not to affect our souls.
Furthermore, we can’t really think something clearly until we have words to express it. Thus, if we discipline the tongue, we are reigning in the intellect as well, preventing it from being flabby and careless. Conversely, we can push our minds to go further when we have to set down a certain amount of words on a subject. Rhetoric was once the capstone of education, because clear expression means clear thought.
All these principles converge in the discipline of prayer. Just because I don’t feel like praising, doesn’t excuse me from it. And, thanks be to God, soon I do feel like it. Am I having a hard time saying the confession? The Litany? This indicates something about my heart (alas!). Furthermore, and here is the most mysterious and fascinating part, by praying the words of Scripture and of the saints before, my conception of the Heavenly Father is able to grow more than it could without these words. I didn’t have those thoughts before I had those words. Perhaps I really couldn’t.
And where do our words matter more than before the King of Heaven? Though silence seems to be the safest course, it is not an option for believers. We have to praise God, and by consistently praying the words of Scripture and of holy ones before us, we bring the best that we have before the Heavenly Father. In addition, these words shape our minds and hearts in the very saying of them. If we are willing, our heart will soon echo our mouth.