There are many organs in the human body – heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys and so many more. All are marvelous in their own way. One organ, though, is distinctly underrated: the tongue.
Just think of what the tongue can do. It’s more flexible than any other part of the body. It can enlarge, it can contract, it can twist itself into any number of shapes.
The tongue is essential to the digestive system. When we eat, it churns food around in our mouths, coating it with saliva. Then, when we swallow, it pushes the food on its way down the throat to the stomach.
The tongue is also home to our taste buds. It tells our brains whether food is sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or that complex taste known as umami. The tongue is an early warning system, helping us avoid foods that are harmful and leading us toward foods that foster health – or, at least, foods filled with sugar and fat. Because fat is flavor.
The tongue resembles a muscle in many ways – it’s composed largely of muscle tissue – but it doesn’t function like any other muscle in the body. It’s not anchored to bone by ligaments, like the muscles that move the skeletal system. The tongue moves freely on its own. Anatomy teachers call the tongue a “muscular hydrostat.” It’s closer to an elephant’s trunk, an octopus’ tentacle or the powerful so-called “foot” of a snail than to any other part of the human body.
Apart from its essential role in the digestive system, the tongue has another, completely different purpose. It’s our principal organ of speech.
There are no fewer than 44 distinct sounds in the English language – linguistics scholars call them phonemes – and the tongue has a role in producing nearly every one. The tongue shapes the air we exhale into words, repositioning itself with each syllable at various locations within the mouth. Those who have the misfortune of losing their tongues – or even a portion of them – are rendered incapable of speech.
The ancients knew how important the tongue is. We can see it in Psalm 52. But there’s no celebration of the tongue’s marvelous capabilities here. To this ancient singer, the tongue is a curse. The tongue is a deadly weapon, “a sharp razor.”
Psalm 52 is what biblical scholars call a “psalm of imprecation.” The target of the singer’s righteous rage is anonymous, but it’s not hard to discern that this enemy – “O mighty one” – is powerful. This adversary is treacherous in spirit and relentless in battling people of faith: a villain who loves evil and delights in “plotting destruction.”
“You love every harmful word, you deceitful tongue!”
What suffering, precisely, this adversary has wrought isn’t specified, but it clearly has something to do with the spoken word. Some bullies pummel others with their fists. This ruffian uses words like a switchblade.
Words are the common coin of our social relationships. Sometimes we belittle them, disparaging political speech as “only rhetoric.” We complain about trivial “small-talk” conversations, not realizing how subtly they function as the glue in many relationships.
Yet, words can be so very powerful. Just think of what it means to hear someone say, “I love you” – or to hear that same person say, “I never want to see you again.” Words can be as airy and insubstantial as dust motes floating in a sunbeam, or they can be deadly daggers, running us through to the very heart.
It’s this lethal use of words the writer of Psalm 52 is concerned about.
The flip side of this, of course, is that the tongue can also unite us with others. Lovers may use a knowing look from their eyes, the gentle touch of a hand, or a powerful embrace to build connections with their beloved. But the communicative power of all these body parts is nothing compared to the words produced by the tongue.
Neuroscientists are learning more about how this works. In a recent TED Talk, neuroscientist Linda Feldman Barrett describes how the words we share with others actually shape their brains – and ours:
“Part of being a social species, it turns out, is that we regulate one another’s body budgets – the ways in which our brains manage the bodily resources we use every day. For your whole life, outside of your awareness, you make deposits into other people’s body budgets, as well as withdrawals, and others do the same for you. …
The power of words over your biology can span great distances. I can text the words ‘I love you’ from the U.S. to my close friend in Belgium, and even though she cannot hear my voice or see my face, I will change her heart rate, her breathing and her metabolism. …
Your nervous system can be perturbed not only across distances, but also across centuries. If you’ve ever taken comfort from ancient texts such as the Bible or the Koran, you’ve received body-budgeting assistance from people long gone.” from Lisa Feldman Barrett, “People’s words and actions can actually shape your brain — a neuroscientist explains how,” TED Talks, November 17, 2020.
Words are a sort of common currency we’re constantly exchanging with our neighbors. Pull out a dollar bill from your wallet. Look at what it says at the top: “Federal Reserve Note.” Observe who has signed it at the bottom: not you, but whoever was Secretary of the Treasury at the time the bill was printed. We’re quick to say, of our current batch of greenbacks, “That’s my money,” but in a certain sense it’s not, and never could be. Money is part of a great common pool that, by social agreement, we freely exchange with others – and by doing so, exert a powerful effect on their lives.
Dr. Barrett’s point is that our words function in a similar way. How we use them can bring our neighbors joy or devastation.
“Truth,” a wise person once said, “is like fine china. If it breaks, it can be mended – but it will never be the same again.”
Do you remember the last time you broke something precious? Maybe you were lifting a china teacup off the upper shelf, and it slipped from your hands, falling end-over-end in the slow-motion way that only precious things can fall, until it met the floor with a crash. Sick at heart, you gathered up the pieces and put them away, out of sight. And now, weeks later, you take the fragments out and glue them together.
It’s never the same again. No matter how expertly you reunite the pieces – no matter how strong the high-tech epoxy you squeeze from the tube – the crack is still there. Even if it’s nearly invisible, you know it’s there. And every time you take that teacup off the shelf, your eye darts perversely to that hairline crack. The cup may be usable, but it no longer delights the heart the way it once did.
Such is the effect lies have on human relationships. Let’s not talk about the so-called “white lies,” those garden-variety deceptions, most of them kindly meant. No falsehood is to be admired, but white lies rarely do extensive damage. Far more devastating are the broken vows, the betrayals of trust.
Perhaps there’s a betrayal of trust lurking behind the psalmist’s complaint about “every harmful word.”
There’s no pain more lingering nor deep than the agony of discovering that a promise made long ago has been habitually and deliberately broken. It’s like the crack in the china teacup. The seam may be repaired, and the cup may be serviceable for years afterward, but never again is it the thing of beauty and delight it once was.
The best advice about lying is not to do it in the first place: “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body,” as the apostle advises in Ephesians 4:25.
“Members of one body.” We belong to each other – in families, in friendships, in church. Out of that mutual interconnectedness comes an obligation to speak – and to live – truth. Now, this is no license to go around spilling our thoughts at every opportunity.
A woman who was known as a harsh critic of other people once told John Wesley, “Mr. Wesley, my talent is to speak my mind.”
“Madam,” Wesley replied, “God wouldn’t care a bit if you would bury that talent.”
There’s a subtle difference between facts and truth. Our words can be factual but may still fail to be true – that is, true to who we’re called to be as followers of Christ.
“The devil sometimes speaks the truth,” as one old saying goes. It’s possible to wound a friend just as thoroughly with facts as with lies. The criticism may be true – and may even be needed – but if it hits the person where self-esteem is weakest, it will tear them down instead of building them up. It was William Penn, the early Quaker leader, who once said, “If thou thinkest twice before thou speakest once, thou wilt speak twice the better for it.”
Speaking the facts is not the same as speaking truth. If it’s indeed true that God is love, then part of the discipline of speaking truly as a Christian is to speak love. Indeed, earlier in Ephesians 4, Paul admonishes us to “speak the truth in love.”
It’s easy to dismiss any remark – our own or another’s – as “just words.” But words are of tremendous importance because of all the ways they function to strengthen the social fabric connecting individuals and communities. The most significant and upbuilding words are those that are fundamentally just – that reflect divine justice.
Sometimes we zero in on and condemn certain words that seem superficially offensive: cuss words, they’re sometimes called. It’s significant that such “four-letter words” – and we all know what they are – are called that. “Cuss” really means “curse,” and in ancient times, a curse could be deployed as a deadly weapon.
Shakespeare’s plays contain curses far more colorful – and dangerous – than the casual four-letter words that spill from people’s mouths these days. In Richard III, while viewing the corpse of King Henry VI, Lady Anne says of his murderer, Gloucester:
“O! cursed be the hand that made these holes;
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!
More direful hap betide that hated wretch,
That makes us wretched by the death of thee,
Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venom’d thing that lives!
If ever he have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view;
And that be heir to his unhappiness!
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the death of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee!”
(Richard III, 1.2.16-30)
Now, that’s a curse!
Ironically, that curse is an example of “just words” because, in uttering it, Lady Anne is protesting a terrible injustice.
Words have the power to offend. The Baptist minister and author Will Campbell was on a call-in talk show to discuss one of his books. A woman called and asked him what – as a preacher – Campbell thought about the bad words his musician friend, Charlie Daniels, sometimes used on television.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” Campbell responded. “What did he say?”
“Well, I couldn’t repeat that,” the woman answered.
Campbell offered to say some bad words and invited her to indicate the bad ones with a yes or no. “Did he say ‘prejudice’?” he asked her.
“War?” “Nuclear bomb?”
“If I don’t know what he said and you can’t tell me, I can’t very well express what I think about it. Those are the worst words I can think of.”
Now hear me. I am not giving you license to casually add cussing to your vocabulary. Crude talk is still to be avoided. But, sometimes, just words – or unjust words – aren’t what we think they are.
The Creator has given us tongues to use as tools of righteousness. The words we fashion, using those tongues, can serve the cause of justice or injustice; of kindness or callousness; of compassion or exploitation; of love or hate. In choosing our words, may we choose wisely!