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This Page Last Updated:

January 02, 2004

Causes and Cures
of Sins of the Tongue

Abridged from "The Sinner’s Guide"
by Ven. Louis of Granada


Anger is an inordinate desire of revenge. Against this vice the Apostle strongly speaks: "Let all bitterness and anger, and indignation and clamor, and blasphemy be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, merciful, forgiving one another, even as God hath forgiven you in Christ." (Eph. 4:31 -32). And Our Savior Himself tells us: "Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." (Matt. 5:22)  [footnote]

Vanquishing the Vice of Anger

When this furious enemy assails you, let the following considerations help you overcome its movements: Consider, first, that even beasts live at peace with their kind. Elephants do not war upon one another; sheep live peaceably in one fold; and cattle go together in herds. We see the cranes taking by turns the place of guard at night. Storks, stags, dolphins, and other creatures do the same. Who does not know of the friendship between the ants and the bees? Even the wildest animals live united among themselves. One lion is rarely known to attack another, neither will a tiger devour one of his own kind. Yes, even the infernal spirits, the first authors of all discord, are united in a common purpose—the perversion of mankind. Man alone, for whom peace is most fitting, lives at enmity with his fellow men and indulges in implacable hatred. All animals are born with weapons for combat. The bull has horns; the boar has tusks; the bird has a beak and claws; the bee has a sting, and even the tiny fly or other insect has power to bite. But man, destined to live at peace with his fellow creatures, comes into the world naked and unarmed. Reflect, then, how contrary to your rightful nature it is to seek to be revenged upon one of your kind, to return evil for evil, particularly by making use of weapons which nature has denied you.

In the second place, a thirst for vengeance is a vice which befits only savage beasts. You belie your sacred origin, you disgrace your honorable descent, when you indulge in ungovernable rage, worthy only of a wild animal. Ælian tells of a lion that had been wounded by an African in a mountain defile. A year after, when this man passed the same way in the service of King Juba, the lion, recognizing him, rushed among the royal guards, and, before he could be restrained, fell upon his enemy and tore him to pieces. Such is the model of the angry, vindictive man. Instead of calming his fierce rage by the power of reason, that noble gift which he shares with the angels, he abandons himself to the blind impulse of passions which he possesses in common with the brutes.

If it be hard to subdue your anger, excited by an injury from one of your fellow creatures, consider how much more God has borne from you and how much He has endured for you. Were you not His enemy when He shed the last drop of His Blood for you? And behold with what sweetness and patience He bears with your daily offenses against Him, and with what mercy and tenderness He receives you when you return to Him.

If anger urges that your enemy does not deserve forgiveness, ask yourself how far you have merited God’s pardon. Will you have God exercise only mercy toward you, when you pursue your neighbor with implacable hatred? And if it be true that your enemy does not deserve pardon from you, it will be equally true that you do not deserve pardon from God. Remember that the pardon which man has not merited for himself, Christ has superabundantly merited for him. For love of Him, therefore, forgive all who have offended you.

Be assured, moreover, that as long as hatred predominates in your heart you can make no offering which will be acceptable to God, Who has said: "If thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee, leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift." (Malt. 5:23-24). Hence you can realize how grievous is the sin of enmity among men, since it causes an enmity between God and us, and destroys the merit of all our good works. "We gain no merit from good works," says St. Gregory, "if we have not learned to endure injuries with patience." (Moral. 21:16).

Consider also that the fellow creature whom you hate is either a just man or a sinner. If a just man, it is certainly a great misfortune to be the declared enemy of a friend of God. If a sinner, it is no less deplorable that you should undertake to punish the malice of another by plunging your own soul into sin. And if your neighbor in his turn seeks vengeance for the injury you inflict upon him, where will your enmities end? Will there be any peace on the earth?

The Apostle teaches us a more noble revenge when he tells us "not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil by good", that is, to triumph by our virtues over the vices of our brethren. In endeavoring to be revenged upon a fellow creature you are often disappointed and vanquished by anger itself. But if you overcome your passion, you gain a more glorious victory than he who conquers a city. Our noblest triumph is won by subduing ourselves, by subjecting our passions to the empire of reason.

Besides these, reflect on the fatal blindness into which this passion leads man. Under the cover of justice or right, how often does it drive him to excesses which cause him a lifelong remorse!

The most efficacious, the sovereign remedy against this vice is to pluck from your heart inordinate love of self and of everything that pertains to you. Otherwise the slightest word or action directed against you or your self-interests will move you to anger. The more you are inclined to this vice the more persevering you should be in the practice of patience. Accustom yourself, as far as you can, calmly to face the contradictions and disappointments you are likely to encounter, and their effect upon you will thus be greatly diminished.

Make a firm resolution never to speak or act under the influence of anger, nor to heed any suggestions, however plausible, which your heart may urge at such moments. Never act until your anger has subsided, or until you have once or twice repeated the Our Father, Hail Mary, or some other prayer. Plutarch tells of a wise man who, on taking leave of a monarch, advised him never to speak or act in anger, but to wait until he had repeated to himself the letters of the alphabet. Learn a lesson from this, and avoid the evil consequences of acting from the impulse of anger.

Though there is no time more unfavorable for action, yet there is no time in which we feel ourselves more strongly impelled to act than when in anger. This is an additional reason for opposing, with all our strength, the suggestions of this passion. For as a man intoxicated with wine is incapable of acting according to reason, and afterwards repents of what he has done in such a condition, so a man beside himself with passion, intoxicated with anger, is incapable of any action of which he will not repent in his calmer moments. Anger, wine, and sensuality are evil counselors. "Wine and women," says Solomon, "make wise men fall off." By wine he means not only the liquor which stupefies the intellect, but all violent passion which blinds the judgment. Bear in mind also that you held responsible for sins committed in such a state.

Another very salutary remedy is to turn your thoughts to other things when excited to anger, and to endeavor to banish from your mind the subject which irritates you; for if you take away the fuel of a fire the flame soon expires. Endeavor also to love him with whom you are forced to forebear, for patience which is not accompanied with love, being only exterior, is often changed into hatred. Hence, when the Apostle tells us that charity is patient, he immediately adds that it is kind; for true charity loves those whom it patiently endures. Finally, if you have excited the anger of your neighbor, quietly withdraw until his passion has subsided, or at least answer him with mildness, for "a mild answer breaketh wrath."

Detraction and Calumny

The abominable sin of detraction is so prevalent at the present day that there is scarcely a society, a community, a family, or an individual not guilty of it. There are some persons so perversely inclined that they cannot bear to hear any good of another, but are always alive to their neighbor’s faults, always ready to tear his character to pieces.

To excite in your heart a salutary hatred of this detestable and dangerous vice, consider the three great evils which it involves. First, it always borders upon mortal sin, even when it is not actually such. From criticisms and censures, with which people generally begin, we easily fall into the sins detraction or calumny. Detraction is committed when we tell another’s real faults; calumny, when the fault we mention is not real, but the invention of our malicious lies. Thus, though we may not be guilty of calumny, how often does it happen that a person, from criticizing the failings of others which are generally known, is gradually led to mention some hidden and grave sin which robs him of his reputation and his honor! That the fault revealed is true in no manner saves the detractor from the guilt of mortal sin.

The descent to such a crime is easy; for when the tongue of the detractor is started, and a desire to embellish his story seizes him, it is as difficult to restrain him as to extinguish a fire fanned by a high wind, or to stop a horse when he has taken the bit in his teeth and is dashing madly on. It is the fear of this evil which led the author of Ecclesiasticus to cry out: "Who will set a guard before my mouth and a sure seal upon my lips, that I fall not by them, and that my tongue destroy me not?" He keenly realized the difficulties in the way, knowing, as Solomon says, that "it is the part of man to prepare the soul, and of the Lord to govern the tongue."

The second evil of this vice consists in the threefold injury which it inflicts—namely, on the one who speaks, on him who listens with approval, and on the victim who is assailed in his absence.

In addition to this, the person who complacently listens to detraction is frequently a talebearer. To ingratiate himself with the victims of the detraction he carries to them all that has been said against them, and thus excites enmities which are seldom extinguished, and which sometimes end even in bloodshed. "The whisperer and the double-tongued is accursed," we are told in the Sacred Scriptures, "for he hath troubled many that were at peace."

To teach us the baneful effects of this insidious vice, the Holy Ghost compares it at one time to the swift blow of a "sharp razor"; at another time to the bite of the poisonous asp, which disappears, but leaves its venom in the wound. With reason, then, did the author of Ecclesiasticus say: "The stroke of a whip maketh a blue mark, but the stroke of the tongue will break the bones."

The third evil of this vice is the horror it inspires and the infamy which it brings upon us. Men fly from a detractor as naturally as they would from a venomous serpent. "A man full of tongue," says Holy Scripture, "is terrible in his city, and he that is rash in his word shall be hateful." Are not these evils sufficient to make you abhor a vice so injurious and so unprofitable? Why will you make yourself odious in the sight of God and men for a sin from which you can reap no advantage? Remember, moreover, that in no other vice do we so quickly form a habit, for every time we speak with others we expose ourselves to the danger of relapsing.

Henceforward consider your neighbor’s character as a forbidden tree which you cannot touch. Be no less slow in praising yourself than in censuring others, for the first indicates vanity and the second a want of charity. Speak of the virtues of your neighbor, but be silent as to his faults. Let nothing that you say lead others to think that he is other than a man of virtue and honor. You will thus avoid innumerable sins and much remorse of conscience; you will be pleasing to God and men; and you will be respected by all as you respect others. Put a bridle upon your tongue and learn to withhold an angry word when your heart is moved. Believe me, there is no control more difficult and at the same time more noble and advantageous than that which a wise man exercises over his tongue. Do not think yourself guiltless because you artfully mingle your malicious insinuations with words of praise. In this respect the detractor is like the surgeon, who soothingly passes his hand over the vein before piercing it with the lancet: "His words are smoother than oil, and the same are darts."

To refrain from speaking ill of others is always a virtue, but it is a still greater virtue to refrain from reviling those who have injured us; for the greater the injured feeling which prompts us to speak, the greater is our generosity in resisting it.

Nor is it sufficient not to indulge in detraction; you must also endeavor to avoid hearing it. Be faithful to the counsel of the Holy Spirit, who tells you to "hedge in thy ears with thorns, and hear not a wicked tongue." Observe that you are not told to hedge in your ears with cotton, but with thorns, that you may not only repel the words of the detractor, but that you may pierce him, and, by showing him a grave countenance, teach him how displeasing to you is his conduct.

"The north wind driveth away rain," says Solomon, "as doth a sad countenance a backbiting tongue." Impose silence, therefore, upon the detractor, if he be your inferior or one whom you can reprove without offense. If you cannot do this, prudently endeavor to turn the conversation, or show by the severity of your countenance that his conversation is not pleasing to you. Beware of hearing the detractor with smiling attention, for you thus encourage him, and consequently share in his guilt. It is a grievous offense to set fire to a house, but it is scarcely less culpable to stand idly by witnessing its destruction instead of aiding in extinguishing the flames.

But of all detractions, that which is directed against virtuous persons is the most sinful. It not only injures the person assailed, but tends to discourage others who are beginners in virtue, while it confirms the cowardice of those who will not risk our censures by striving to do good. For what would be no scandal or stumbling block to the strong may prove an insurmountable obstacle to the weak. If you would appreciate the evil of this kind of scandal, reflect upon these words of Our Savior: "He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea." Avoid, therefore, as you would a sacrilege, all scandalous reflections upon persons consecrated to God. If their conduct furnish matter for censure, nevertheless continue to respect the sacred character with which they are invested, for it is of them that Our Saviour has said: "He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of my eye."

All that we have said of detraction applies with still more reason to those who make others the object of derision and scorn; for this vice, besides having all the evil consequences of the first two, presupposes pride, presumption, and contempt for one’s neighbor. In the Old Law God especially warns us against it: "Thou shalt not be a detractor, nor a whisperer among the people." We have no need to insist upon the enormity of this vice; what we have said on the subject of detraction is sufficient.

Rash Judgments

Those who are addicted to detraction and calumny do not confine themselves to what they know, but indulge in suppositions and rash judgments. When they no longer find sufficient matter to censure, they invent evil intentions, misinterpret good actions, forgetting that Our Saviour has said: "Judge not, that you may not be judged; for with what judgment you judge you shall be judged." (Matt. 7:1-2). Here also the offense may frequently be a mortal sin, particularly when we venture to judge in a matter of grave importance upon very slight evidence. If it be only a suspicion, not a real judgment, it may be only a venial sin, because the act has not been completed. Even by suspicion, however, a mortal sin can be committed by suspecting virtuous persons of enormous crimes.

The Government of the Tongue

Here is a subject upon which there is much to be said, for we are told in Holy Scripture that "death and life are in the power of the tongue." From this we can understand that the happiness or misery of every man depends upon the use he makes of this tiny organ.

St. James asserts this truth no less strongly when he says, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man. He is able also with a bridle to lead about the whole body. We put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body. Behold also ships, whereas they are great and are driven by strong winds, yet are they turned about with a small helm whithersoever the force of the governor willeth. So the tongue also is, indeed, a little member and boasteth great things. Behold how small a fire kindleth a great wood. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity." To govern this great instrument for good we must bear in mind, when we speak, four things: of what we speak, how we speak, the time we speak, and the object for which we speak.

In regard to the first point, what we speak, remember the counsel of the Apostle: "Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth, but that which is good to the edification of faith, that it may administer grace to the hearers. All uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be so much as named among you, as becometh saints, or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility." As the sailor always bears with him a chart indicating the shoals and rocks which could wreck his vessel, so should the Christian bear with him these counsels of the Apostle indicating the shoals of speech which could wreck him in his voyage to eternity. Be no less careful in guarding a secret which has been confided to you, for the betrayal of a trust is one of the vilest faults into which the tongue can lead us.

In regard to the second point, how we are to speak, let us observe a just medium between silence and talkativeness, between timidity and self-sufficiency, between frivolity and pomposity; always speaking with becoming gravity, moderation, sweetness, and simplicity. Beware of haughtily asserting and obstinately persisting in your statements, for this fault gives rise to disputes which wound charity and destroy the peace of the soul. It is the part of a generous nature to yield in such contentions, and a prudent man will follow the counsel of the inspired writer: "In many things be as if thou wert ignorant, and hear in silence and withal seeking."

Consider also the necessity of observing when you speak, and always endeavor to select a suitable time: "A parable coming out of a fool’s mouth shall be rejected, for he doth not speak it in due season."

Finally, we must consider the end for which we speak. There are some whose only purpose is to appear learned. Others desire to parade their wit and conversational powers. The first are thus led into hypocrisy and deceit, and the second become the sport of self-love and vanity. It does not suffice, therefore, that our conversation be good in itself—it must be directed to some good end, such as the glory of God or the profit of our neighbor.

In addition to this we must also consider the persons to whom we speak. For example, it does not become the young to dominate the conversation in the presence of their elders, nor the ignorant in the presence of the learned, nor lay persons in the presence of Clerics or Religious. When you have reason to think that your words may be untimely or presumptuous, be silent. All persons are not capable of judging correctly in these points, and therefore, in doubt, the wisest course is a prudent silence. We shall thus conform to all the rules we have been considering; for, as the Wise Man says, "Even a fool, if he will hold his peace, shall be counted wise; and if he close his lips, a man of understanding."

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FOOTNOTE: "From these words it clearly follows that he who is angry with his brother commits a sin, even though he conceals his resentment; that he who vents his wrath outwardly sins grievously; and that he who unjustifiably treats another with harshness, and who utters contemptuous reproaches against him, sins still more grievously." (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Fifth Commandment)   [back to text]


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