I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. – Matthew 12:36-37
My spiritual director once advised me to attend to my use of words during Lent. I was to reflect at the end of each day how I had used my words either to reveal or conceal God. I was also to pray each morning asking God to use my words to good effect throughout the day. He cited Pythagoras’ famous saying: “Be silent, or say something better than silence,” saying this was a good rule to live by. He gave me four pithy Scriptural texts for evaluating my speech:
Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”
Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”
The first quote was to remind me to avoid deception and duplicity, and practice truthful sincerity. The second counseled me to use my words for building others up and conveying grace. The third placed in stark relief my high calling as a teacher who will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for how I used my influence and walked my talk. The fourth is about the radically public nature of all words and deeds. Sirach 23:18-19 makes a similar point:
The man who dishonors his marriage bed
says to himself, “Who can see me?
Darkness surrounds me, walls hide me,
no one sees me. Who can stop me from sinning?”
He is not mindful of the Most High,
fearing only human eyes.
He does not realize that the eyes of the Lord,
ten thousand times brighter than the sun,
observe every step taken
and peer into hidden corners.
When I spent time on that last quote from St. Luke’s Gospel throughout Lent, it gave me a radically new vantage on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here’s what I wrote:
When I reveal my secret sins to another human being, one who mystically represents Christ, I anticipate right now the all-disclosing nature of the Final Judgment in the world to come when all will be known to all. Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko said it this way: “Confession is a Sacrament of the Age to Come, when even the secrets of the heart will be revealed to the whole of creation. Which is why it demands brutal honesty. I say to those who confess: get it all out now and expose it to the mercy of God, who will swallow up all your perverse words and deeds in forgetfulness.” Over the years, I have become increasingly aware that every word I speak echoes on into eternity. I often think that each and every one of my words will become a song in His presence: either a hymn of blessing or a dirge of cursing.
Scripture scholar N.T. Wright says that humanity, made in the divine image, is given the vocation of making audible and visible God’s “countenance” toward the world. All living and non-living creatures are meant to encounter in us God’s provident oikonomia, i.e. the manner in which He tends to this vast cosmic garden He has established. Human beings alone of all creatures are made to be priests, mediators between creatures and the Creator; and by the Incarnation, Christ has brought that vocation to perfection. We have been gifted with the singular power of giving voice to God’s Word of blessing toward creation and, in turn, the power to bless, praise and thank the Creator on behalf of all creation. This is why Jesus says, “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Being made in the image of a Speaking God means no word is a throwaway word.
So let’s get to it. By our words, at every moment, let’s become the eloquence of God.