[A23] The Devil's Perversion of Speech (The Small Catechism)

“The tendency to gossip in some people becomes a passion. Their tongues simply run away with them. It must wag, though it be without either rhyme or reason; and regardless of consequences. Sometimes there is no conscious desire to do any one an injury. But even where there is no evil intent harm is nevertheless often done. The idle talker usually loses the power of perspective so far as truth and untruth are concerned. While there may be a thread of truth in the fabric which comes from his loom, it often becomes lost or obscured in the elaborate design he fashions. He is apt to set forth facts in disjointed relations, to take no account of circumstances, to assume motives or disregard them, to suit the color scheme of the narrative, as his fancy or purpose may suggest. The result is that the hearer usually gets a distorted image of the matter reported.”

Table of Contents

23. The Devil’s Perversion Of Speech

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” — Exodus 20:16.

“If a man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” — James 3:2-10.

In order to appreciate properly the significance and force of our message today it will be necessary to recall the introduction to the preceding one. Everybody recognizes that the tongue is a mighty instrument for evil. But we get to see the real blackness of the many sins of which it is guilty only by contrasting them with the godlike service of which it may be the instrument. Recall, then, that the tongue is one of the members which God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, gave to man. Its mission is one of the noblest and most beneficent, to minister unto the highest functions of the soul. Thought, the human counterpart of the working of the Mind Divine; language, the expression of thought, and the chief mode of its communication; these wonders of the universe the tongue utters in speech — speech which comes from the soul scintillating with the glow of the mind’s activity, vibrating with the intensity of the heart’s emotions.

Through the gift of speech audiences are electrified, as the trained master of speech pours out from the alembic of his mind and heart the garnered treasures gathered from the storehouses of knowledge and emotion. By the gift of speech the ties of friendship and love are cemented and new links welded to the chain. In the use of the same gift man approaches the very throne of God. True, at times, there are feelings in our hearts and anticipations of truths in our minds for which we have not yet been able to find an adequate expression in words, to which we can give vent, as the Apostle says, only in groanings which cannot be uttered. But this King of kings gives audience to his children when they come, as they most frequently do, to hold converse in speech, to own their allegiance, to adore His Majesty, to return their thanks, to plead their need, to renew their vows.

Unfortunately, this is but one side of the story of the tongue; the brighter, the blessed side. There is another, a darker side, dark with the hue of the raven’s wing. Another history has been written, the pages whereof have been sullied by being dragged through the filth of the pit where no light or love has ever penetrated.

As God is the giver of the tongue, the author of thought, language, and speech, so the archenemy of God and man, the devil, is the author of every perversion of these heaven-born faculties. That dread fall, which wounded all nature to the heart, and whence issued all man’s miseries, came from a misuse of the tongue, from a perversion of God’s gift of speech. The devil came with seducing lies, the acceptance of which meant the entrance of the destroying poison into the stream of human life. To this point we trace all the ills to which flesh is heir. Today we are going to confine ourselves to some of the chief of the ills which come from The Devil’s Perversion of Speech.

The Unbridled Tongue

“Every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind; but the tongue can no man tame, it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poisons.”

These are strong words, and there is no compromise about them; but who will say they are overdrawn? Is it possible to put on the color too thickly in describing the depths of depravity to which this little member has often descended? It certainly would be impossible to measure the streams of tears which inconsiderate, cruel words have set flowing. Who would have the time to recount the murders, and bloody wars of which the deceitful, poisoned tongue has been the exciting cause? What a volume we should have if someone could adequately tell the story of the wounded feelings, the broken hearts, the ruined reputations, the blighted lives, the estrangements, the divided families, caused by this restless, ungovernable little member, the tongue. Hearts naturally tender and loving have been steeped in the gall of bitterness, community feuds have been started, governments have been overthrown, churches have been rent in twain, the most laudable projects in all spheres of human activity have been thwarted. How? By the tongue; by ill-advised, ungovernable tongues. And the same kind of history is still everywhere being made. There is no poison more prompt, potent, progressive, painful, and permanent than that which drops from the thrice-barbed tongue. It kills friendship; like a canker, it eats away love, and curses with quarrels and strife the homes alike of prince and peasant.

In order to get an idea of the magnitude and blackness of the service to which the tongue can be put, and often is put, let us recount but a partial list of the evils mentioned by inspired writers in which the tongue is the chief instrument: talebearing, slander, backbiting, lying, blaspheming, per jury, bearing false witness, deception, calumny, cursing, tattling, quarreling. The list might easily be much extended. Indeed, there are but few sins to which the tongue is not an accessory. But these are enough to cause one to stand aghast at the possibilities of the tongue for evil. No wonder St. James, speaking of the uncontrolled tongue, says:

“The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity, and it is set on fire of hell. The tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

Even Christian people are not always so free from this evil as they ought to be. It is an insidious evil. There are so many excuses which apparently justify these dagger thrusts of the tongue. In our text St. James is speaking chiefly to and of Christian people, of such as had made at least a beginning in the Christian life. It is therefore, first of all, to church members, frequenters of the house of God, that these words of his apply:

“With the tongue bless we God, even the Father, and there with curse we men, which are made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”

We are all ready to grant the unseemliness of such conduct, but, in spite of our knowledge and better feeling, it still occurs.

The Gossip

We will now consider a little more in detail a few of the more common faults of speech condemned by this commandment. First of all there is gossiping. Very few of us, perhaps, have altogether escaped the attacks of these wagging tongues. May I not go further and say that, in all probability, there are few of us who have not, at some time, forgotten ourselves and used our tongues in the thoughtless, useless way which may be termed gossiping?

There are many new things in the world, but gossiping is not one of them. Virgil, led on by the flights of his vivid imagination, thus describes this disturber of the peace:

“The gossip, than whom no pest on earth is more swift, by exerting her agility grows more active and acquires strength on the way; small at first through fear, soon she shoots up into the skies and stalks along the ground. A monster, hideous, immense, who, wonders to re late, for as many plumes as are in her body, numbers so many watchful eyes beneath, so many babbling mouths, pricks up so many listening ears. By night, through the mid-regions of the sky, and through the shades of earth, she flies buzzing, nor inclines her eyes to balmy rest. Watchful by day, she perches either on some high housetop or on some lofty turret, and fills cities with dismay.”

Long before this versatile Roman penned his scathing denunciation of the gossip, the Hebrew seers set upon him the stamp of God’s strong disapproval. Moses, the great law-giver, gave the wandering tribes of Israel this command of God:

“Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people” (Lev. 19:16).

And the great son of the greater David added these observations:

“A froward man soweth strife, and a whisperer separateth chief friends” (Prov. 16:28).

And again:

“The words of a talebearer are as wounds, they go down into the innermost parts” (18:8).

The tendency to gossip in some people becomes a passion. Their tongues simply run away with them. It must wag, though it be without either rhyme or reason; and regardless of consequences. Sometimes there is no conscious desire to do any one an injury. But even where there is no evil intent harm is nevertheless often done. The idle talker usually loses the power of perspective so far as truth and untruth are concerned. While there may be a thread of truth in the fabric which comes from his loom, it often becomes lost or obscured in the elaborate design he fashions. He is apt to set forth facts in disjointed relations, to take no account of circumstances, to assume motives or dis regard them, to suit the color scheme of the narrative, as his fancy or purpose may suggest. The result is that the hearer usually gets a distorted image of the matter reported.

Excuses are often made for the gossip on the ground that this is but a fault, a human frailty. True, it is but a human frailty; but so is theft, adultery, and murder. Sometimes the gossip deals with matters so inane, so inconsequential, that no evil could come from it, save to the dawdler who wastes his time in the recital. But when one be comes a confirmed gossip the matter with which he deals is not usually harmless in its nature. There is not enough of spice, of excitement, in that kind of gossip to suit him. Choice subjects for him are the character and conduct of his neighbors. And the more of harm he can find or thinks he finds, the better he likes it. He becomes full of innuendos. “I have heard,” “it is rumored,” “it looks as if,” are favorite formulas of the gossip. Here is where reputations are injured and hearts wounded beyond cure. This is the reason that in all our Scriptures this and kindred sins of the tongue are pursued with all the energy of multiplied and scathing denunciation. But in spite of all that God and men have said against gossip it is still rife. In social life there are circles where all interest would be lost if every exaggeration, every confidentially whispered rumor about neighbors, were taboo. This is evidence of a very low moral tone. And we, as Christians, by word and example, should set our faces against it.

The Slanderer

The slanderer is the gossip, grown to man’s estate. The gossip may be a harmless nobody. The slanderer is one who gossips with intent to injure; he goes about with tongue or pen, or both, dipped in vitriol, murdering reputations. His work may be done by raising false reports, by magnifying a man’s failures, or by spreading reports which have a basis in fact, but which, in charity, ought not to be made public. Slandering is the particular sin against which the Eighth Commandment is directed.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” is a law of God frequently broken in public life; and often by those who, in a special way, have obligated themselves to uphold truth and justice. When lawyers, for a fat fee, attempt to make the guilty appear innocent, or fasten guilt on innocent persons because, perchance, they may not be able to defend themselves, or even besmirch the names of the dead, they are bearers of false witness. When judges prostitute their sacred of fice, as the result of the influence of the rich or great, to defeat justice, setting the guilty free or condemning the guiltless, they break this law of God. When witnesses, for similar or other reasons. suppress or distort facts, or fabricate statements, to the end that their friends may be cleared or their enemies punished, they break this holy law of God and man.

In other spheres of public life also this command is broken. It is a matter of constant experience that when a man of good reputation comes into public notice, as a candidate for public office, for instance, a thousand people begin to dissect his life’s history. All his foibles, which nobody ever heard of before, are exploited. A score of skeletons are supposed to lie hidden in the closets of his private life, and everybody feels called upon to try and expose them. All kinds of base motives are attributed to him. In political life, especially, is this supposed to be an excusable, if not an honorable, expedient for ruining the prospects of a rival. In most instances it is nothing less than defamation of character. It is a violation not only of the law of love, but, most frequently, of truth as well. And those guilty of it prove themselves unworthy of confidence.

This disease is found even among ministers of the Gospel. Professional jealousy often gets hold of them. Not only do they, at times, become affected with a species of theological madness, which leads them to rail with the greatest rancor and ill-will against the views and the honesty of those in other religious communions, but the brethren of the same household of faith are often made to feel the keen edge of the same weapons.

In private life also this sin is frequently committed. How often do people become envious of the possessions or gifts of their neighbors, or for some other reason come to dislike them; then the process of detraction begins. All kinds of insinuations as to the secret of their success are set in motion. Veiled hints are thrown out as to the revelations which could be made if the person speaking was only minded to do so. In this way the reputation, which is the ripe fruit of a life time of duty honestly performed, of service willingly rendered, of lofty ideals tenaciously held and progressively realized, is often irreparably injured. What deed can we think of more dastardly than the injury to a good person’s reputation by the malicious thrusts of a vile detractor. And yet there are many who take a fiendish delight in this kind of work.

There is something in the natural human heart which makes us loath to give due credit for worth of character or achievement to any one save ourselves, or our own particular circle of intimates. How often we have all been in circles where the characters or work of excellent persons was under discussion. And nearly always there is someone who is ready to get out his little hammer, or his bucket of cold water. It is hard for us to praise people, to speak well of them. And even when nothing positively derogatory can be said, how often, in the words of Pope, people will:

“Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike.”

Why is it that we cannot be more generous, rejoice more in other people’s honest and deserved success, and speak the word of praise and encouragement rather than of detraction? Why, even when there is not so much to praise, do we not have the happy faculty of looking for the good qualities of people rather than the faulty ones? Let us change our glasses, friends, and the miracle will be wrought! When we look through green glasses the world looks green. The reason we look so largely for faults and see so many faults, is ac counted for by the medium through which we look. If we had the right kind of heart — the heart Christ would fain give us — we should see more beauty and goodness in the world. And where we could not but see the evil we should not proclaim it from the housetops; but, if we had to speak of it, we should go to the source and in the spirit of Christ, seek to correct it.

A man’s good name is one of his most priceless possessions. To preserve this to him is one of the chief objects of this Eighth Commandment. To know that we deserve a good name is essential to our own self-respect and peace of mind. To have a good name in the eyes of others is necessary to the full enjoyment of what we deserve and essential to our social well-being. The value of a good name has always and everywhere been recognized. The sacred writer says:

“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Prov. 22:1).

You all remember the lines of the bard of Avon:

“Who steals my purse, steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

These sayings of the inspired writer and of the keenest observer of human conditions express the feelings of all honorable men. Probably just because a good name is such a precious and un-purchasable possession, so many people are trying to rob others of that which they themselves do not possess, and are too indolent and evil-minded to obtain. Some will even stoop to the basest trickery, and the baldest kind of lying in order to blacken fair names and cast upon reputations which have required for their establishment long years of the most painstaking care a life-long and intolerable burden, and all because someone out of spite and resentment broke the Eighth Commandment.

To speak of a person as an ordinary, everyday liar is considered to express very nearly the limit of human depravity, but the willful slanderer is one who aims the envenomed darts of his lying tongue at that which is most vital to the wellbeing and peace of his fellowman — his reputation, his character. This vice often so completely obsesses a person that no tie, no relationship, is sufficiently strong to safeguard one from these attacks. “Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son” (Ps. 50:10).

One of the names of the devil is slanderer, and human slanderers are, in a special sense, his offspring. They are also likened to that most universally detested of earth’s creatures — the serpent. Men of God have given to this brood the following description:

“There is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre, with their tongues have they used deceit; their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. The poison of asps is under their lips. Destruction and misery are in their ways” (Ps. 5:9; Rom. 3:13ff.).

If people have not a sufficient measure of Christian faith and love to restrain their tongues; if they have not enough humanity to be held in check by the mental suffering caused by the slanderer’s tongue, they ought to be held in restraint by the thought of God’s anger and punishment.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” “Lying lips are abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 12:22). “The false witness shall not go unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape” (Prov. 19,5).

If bearing false witness against a neighbor or misinterpreting his character or deeds, is such a crying sin, what must be said of those who break this commandment in their treatment of God Himself? And this is the sin of which men are guilty when they pervert God’s Word. God has given us His Word as an outline of His own character and the working plan of His dealings with man. To deny, or misrepresent, this Word is a species of slander against God Himself. It leads men to have a false understanding of God Himself, and of His dealings with men. The consequences are much farther reaching than the slander directed against man. To slander a man injures his standing among men, it stands in the way of advancement in life and often injures his body by destroying his peace of mind. This is bad enough. But to lead a man to believe the slanders directed against God, the disbelief of His Word, the misrepresentations of either the person or the work of God, endangers, if it does not completely destroy, his soul. It is in a special sense this sin of which St. James is speaking.

The Positive Requirement

The Eighth Commandment is, in form, prohibitive: it forbids false and evil speaking; but it includes a positive requirement. As we have seen from Luther’s explanation, it does not only mean that we are not to “deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor; but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

The requirement of this command is absolute truthfulness in all things. God abhors lying. So do truthful people. But one need not go a whit beyond the truth and still violate the spirit of this commandment. We are never, under any circumstances, to excuse, or make light of, sin. But we should not publish our neighbor’s faults to the world. In the best regulated families there are occasional slips of conduct. Someone says or does something which should not have been said or done. But if the other members of the household have the right spirit these errors are not blazoned abroad. Efforts are made to correct them; but the erring member is not humiliated or made obdurate, by making his weakness public property. The neighbor should receive the same treatment. He is a brother, only a short step farther removed in relationship.

The poet spoke the truth when he said of un-regenerate human nature:

“There is a lust in man no charm can tame,
Of loudly publishing his neighbor’s shame.”

But this ought not be true of a child of God; and it is not true if he is a faithful, considerate child of God. The true Christian considers other people’s feelings, and other people’s welfare as well as his own. If no harm is done thereby, he would much rather cover a neighbor’s fault than reveal it. Every fault of man spread abroad adds only that much more to the shame and burden of the common humanity.

The spirit of brotherly conduct requires that we should mention and emphasize rather the good points of our neighbor than his weaknesses. There is a proverb which requires that we speak only good of the dead. It is of much more consequence that we speak only good of the living. The exceptions to this rule being the occasional cases where truth and justice, in the hands of the proper authorities, demand that facts be made known, however much they may hurt. Where good can not be said charity demands, in most instances, that we put a bridle on the tongue and be silent.

The Christian does not cultivate the spirit of suspicion with respect to either the motives or conduct of others. He does not suspect faults. He does not impute evil motives. And when others exhibit such disposition in dealing with neighbors, a faithful brother will defend the one thus suspected and assailed. He will put the best construction on his words and deeds. Suspicious people, if they will not be held in check by the evil they are doing to others, ought to remember that in their suspicion they are only revealing their own conception of the working of the human heart, a judgment based on their own inner experience. Thinking to portray another, they portray themselves.

Father Luther has this to say of this commandment:

“Slanderers are they who, not content with knowledge of sin, presume to judge; and, becoming aware of a trivial offense of another, spread the intelligence everywhere, having such satisfaction in his wrongdoing as have swine in their wallowing and rooting in the mire.

“The sum and substance of this commandment, then, is: none shall do injury with the tongue to his neighbor, be he friend or foe; he shall not speak evil of him, true or false, unless by command, or to effect his reformation. We are to use our tongues to speak only good of everyone, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbor, to overlook them, and adorn him with due honor. And our chief cause for so doing shall be to fulfill Christ’s command, in which are comprehended all commandments concerning our neighbor:

“All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them’ " (St. Matt. 7:12).

Controlling the Tongue

Scientists tell us that the words we utter, as all sounds, set into motion waves of air which keep on undulating to the farthest confines of bound less, limitless space. Their moral effect is some what analogous. An evil word spoken of a person or whispered into the ear of another, may ruin a life. That ruined life will, in all probability, ruin other lives. And so the evil keeps on moving, spreading.

When a person begins to realize how many and great are the evils wrought by an unguarded, en venomed tongue, he is almost inclined to feel that the ancient ascetics were right when they retired from the haunts of men and took their vows of perpetual silence. But sober reflection shows us that such a course is not necessary. The abuse of the tongue is no argument against its proper use. Indeed, there may be a guilty silence as well as a guilty speech. What we need is to learn to control it, to use it for the purposes for which God gave it. The tongue is not to be the master but a servant. And the one of whom this can be said the Apostle declares to be the most perfect of men.

“If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body.”

Who, then, is the strong man? Not the Samson with knotted muscles, and the strength of a team of oxen; the strong man is the one who can hold his tongue.

Who is the wise man? Not the one who has all history, and all the sciences at his fingers’ ends; the wise man is the one who knows when to be silent, when and what to speak.

Let us remember, then, that just as powerful, just as far-reaching, as is the influence of an evil word, so powerful and far-reaching, and still more powerful and far-reaching, is the influence of the good word. On the far off shores of heaven those waves are breaking which have been set in motion by good words, the words of truth leavened with love.

Who is equal to the task of thus governing his tongue, of restraining his tongue from speaking the evil word an angry, or excited, soul may suggest; or of speaking the appropriate word, the needed word, of loving helpfulness? No mere man, not unaided flesh and blood. So the Apostle tells us:

“Every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of man; but the tongue can no man tame.”

These words are spoken of the unregenerate man, and experience demonstrates their truth. But with God all things are possible; and the child of God, if he will, may claim the same help, and make the same declaration as did St. Paul:

“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthened me.”

The tongue, while removed from control of physical forces, is amenable to the influence of the Holy Spirit. Where He has entered the soul and rules the spirit of man, there the tongue becomes His instrument, an organ of grace and truth and love.

“So let our lips and lives express
The holy gospel we profess;
So let our works and virtues shine,
To prove the doctrine all divine.”

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0