Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception. But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, that is how we speak, not as trying to please men, but rather God, who judges our hearts.
Thessalonians 2: 3-4
Today is the Feast of the Passion of John the Baptist. In the first reading from Thessalonians and in the familiar gospel story from Mark about the beheading of John, we hear much that calls us to reflect on the honesty and truthfulness of our words. We hear John himself courageously confront Herod with the sinfulness of his marriage to his brother’s wife; we hear of how, despite the challenging nature of what John would say to him, Herod “liked to listen to him;” and finally we hear of how the rash oaths of Herod lead to John’s murder. Most of us speak many words in a single day, words that come out of our mouths from a variety of motives. How do we appraise those motives? How do we practice honesty and integrity in our speech, that we may speak “not as trying to please human beings, but rather God, who judges our hearts”?
“Right Speech” is part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. He described it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.” The practice of right speech is a very difficult one for us, both because we do so much speaking on a daily basis but also because we put our speech at the service of so many varying motivations. In the reading today from Thessalonians, Paul says that he spoke, or at least certainly attempted to speak, in service of the gospel. We might assume that to speak as one entrusted with the gospel is to speak for the sake of awakening and encouraging the authentic call of those we are addressing. We are speaking in the hope that our words might serve their greater authenticity and fidelity to their own unique call from God. We are not, first of all, attempting to persuade or convince them of any truth of ours, but only the truth that is of God.
This may be why Paul speaks of the distinction between trying to please human beings and trying to please God. In the gospel today, we hear of how John the Baptist’s speech actually did please Herod, even in its more challenging and prophetic aspects. So, why does Paul seem to suggest that pleasing God and pleasing other persons are contraries. The reason is that when we are speaking to please others it is usually for our own benefit. Much of our speech is for the purpose of self and mutual gratification. We seek to please the other by what we say in order to receive from the other our desired response. So, the proverbial used car salesman wins us over in an attempt to manipulate us into buying the car he wants to sell us. Yet, there is something of the used car salesman in all of us. In much of our spoken communication, what constitutes the truth of our words is the outcome that we seek. If, for example, the group we enter is slandering an absent other, we tend to be pulled into uttering expressions of agreement about the deficient ways of that other person. Our words are in service of ingratiating ourselves, of being accepted and liked, rather than in service to the gospel and the truth of the other. This is the malicious speech of the Buddha.
At other times we speak in hyperbole in order to make our point or advance our reputation. This is an everyday example of false speech. Of course there are times when the falseness of our speech is even more stark. There are times when, like Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest, we deny the Lord by the denial of the truth of ourselves or others. There are multiple moments in life when the truth seems to be far too much a threat to our own safety or well being, and so we lie. Of course, all human beings have secrets. And it is not always appropriate to express all of who we are in every situation. Yet, we all know the crippling life effects of maintaining in speech and action a basic untruth about who we are. We can even find ourselves unable to be totally honest with God about ourselves. Although it may be appropriate to “hide ourselves” to varying degrees in social situations, it is never good to attempt to hide ourselves from God and ourselves, as well as from all others. We find places to confess our truth, not because there is some kind of magic forgiveness in the process, but rather for the sake of maintaining some ground in the truth, some level of integrity within ourselves about who we really are.
Our speech becomes harsh when we are threatened and when we seek to retaliate on one who has, somehow or other, hurt us. Our propensity to speak harshly is significantly related to our capacity for compassion. Our lack of self-knowledge, or true humility, is what leads us to speak harshly to and of others. Interestingly enough, John the Baptist would speak hard truths, but it appears he did not speak harshly, even to Herod. Reading between the lines of the gospel, we might conjecture that in speaking John challenged Herod but he did not attempt to hurt him.
One of the harshest ways we tend to speak in everyday discourse is by humiliating others. Far too often, we would like to shame one who angers or provokes us. We can sometimes cloak this in the guise of “truth telling.” When I was a young man in scholastic formation, there was a practice among the team of directors of giving semi-annual “evaluations.” I can still recall one such evaluation in which a person, who really did not know me at all, wrote of me in what were very misbegotten and pain inflicting words. As painful as that was, and truthfully how unhelpful it was as it merely reinforced the self-depreciation from which I already suffered, I far too often forget the experience as I, in turn, far too glibly judge or evaluate others. Persons are not diagnoses, psychological or otherwise. To label people in an attempt to assert our power and superiority over them potentially inflicts wounds that hinder rather than foster the person’s human and spiritual unfolding.
Finally the Buddha calls on us to abstain from “idle chatter.” Because speech is such a large part of our daily lives, we are prone to relate to it as if it were autonomic rather than willed and deliberate. It is easy and typical not to examine the purpose or end for which we are speaking. As we were being trained as graduate students in counseling, our teacher would often quote to us the words of St. John of the Cross: “Be silent for the love of God.” Because we are somewhat “programmed” to speak reactively at the words of another, it is often necessary when attempting to serve another that we practice abstinence in speech. Much of what we say is reaction, self-assertion, and self-promotion. To speak primarily for the love of God and in service to the gospel, which is service to the authentic spiritual identity of the other, may often first require of us that we not speak.
Which leads us finally to reflect of the connection between silence and speech. I recall many years ago telling a friend that if I were to truly attempt to practice “right speech,” to speak only the truth that was called for and needed in the situations of each day, I would need to spend much more time in silence. It is in silence that we learn to listen: to ourselves, to the world, to God. Silence is the “training ground” for the developing of our capacity to speak the word that is to be spoken, rather than the chatter that seems so often to constitute the majority of our words. It is in silence that we learn our own truth and the truth of the world as God’s world, and the others as God’s children. To speak in service to the gospel requires that it be the gospel that forms our hearts. In Romans 10:17, Paul says that “faith comes through hearing the message.” Perhaps the greatest aid to our growing in “right speech” is to speak far less and to listen much more.
A true Christian, then, may almost be defined as one who has a ruling sense of God’s presence within him. As none but justified persons have that privilege, so none but the justified have that practical perception of it. A true Christian, or one who is in a state of acceptance with God, is he, who, in such sense, has faith in Him, as to live in the thought that He is present with Him, —present not externally, not in nature merely, not in providence, but in his inmost heart, or in his conscience. One is justified whose conscience is illuminated by God, so that he habitually realizes that all his thoughts, all the first springs of his moral life, all his motives and his wishes, are open to Almighty God. Not as if he was not aware that there is very much in him impure and corrupt, but he wishes that all that is in him should be bare to God. He believes that it is so, and he even joys to think that it is so, in spite of his fear and shame at its being so.
John Henry Newman, Sincerity and Hypocrisy