Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Psalm 141:3.
There’s a proverb that says “A word rashly spoken cannot be brought back by a chariot and four horses”.
Graphically put! And even though such a vivid illustration wouldn’t naturally occur to most of us, we know immediately just what it means - and, I’m pretty sure, we whole-heartedly agree with it. Hands up anyone who has never regretted something thoughtlessly or foolishly said. I thought not.
It’s the same with the psalmist’s prayer. The idea of the mouth as a door that needs a guard seems a little strange, but we get the point.
When we think of our mouth we probably think mainly of what goes into it, and that’s natural enough - what we eat and drink is important. But the Bible’s emphasis, here and in many other places, is what comes out of it.
Listen again to Jesus. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew12:34). “What goes into someone’s mouth does not make them ‘unclean’, but what come out of their mouth, that is what makes them ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:11). “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a person ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:18).
In that last quote Jesus explicitly connects the utterances of the mouth with what goes on in the heart. And it is the heart, the seat of our deepest thoughts, emotions, motives and desires, that God is concerned about. Quite possibly someone with really iron self-discipline (or of course somebody who chooses hardly to speak at all) can give a good impression to the world around. But God knows the heart, and that’s what matters.
When politicians and others get into trouble through what they say they tend to excuse themselves by claiming they were “misquoted” or their words were “taken out of context”.
And sometimes no doubt that is the case - our news media are not particularly scrupulous about how they report people’s words: anything for a good story, after all. But very often it’s hard to avoid the embarrassingly glaring nature of those damaging, incriminating and self-revealing words which are now beyond the reach of even that chariot and four horses. And are we supposedly ordinary people any better?
What does all this mean in practice? Well, we all have our own weaknesses, even leaving aside obvious things such as out-and-out lies, blasphemy and foul language. Here are a couple of possibilities - I imagine both of them might apply sometimes to most of us.
Gossip... it’s been said that what poison is to the blood-stream, gossip is to communities. It can be devastatingly destructive. It can ruin reputations. It can destroy relationships. It can cause deep wounds and hurts. Yes, the person who spreads gossip has a lot to answer for - and let’s not forget that the person who listens to it is not much better. Remember another saying: “Be sure that whoever gossips to you will also gossip about you.”
Inappropriate humour... I wrote in my last post about the joy of laughter (even though I briefly feared for my life!). But there is no doubt that laughter, and humour in general, are two-edged swords. Much of what makes us laugh most can be categorised as either crude or cruel.
Perhaps the best Bible antidote to crudeness is Paul’s beautiful list in Philippians 4:8 (“whatever is true... noble... right... pure... lovely... admirable...think about these things”). And as for cruelty, we need go no further than the mockery thrown at Jesus at the crucifixion (“Hail, king of the Jews! ...Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God”, Matthew 27:29, 40). All great fun, of course.
Different Christians will have different levels of tolerance over what might or might not be appropriate humour. Mild sarcasm, jibes, faintly sexual innuendo, even humour with a religious undercurrent - one person might be offended, while another sees it all as innocent. (I’ve just re-read what I have written and I find that twice I have used sarcasm - I wonder if anyone was offended as they read?)
Perhaps the only safe rule is to err, if at all, on the side of caution. I know that the expression “good clean fun” seems a bit dated - but is there actually anything wrong with it?
Whatever, whether we’re thinking of gossip or of inappropriate humour, it won’t do any of us any harm to echo the psalmist’s prayer - the one we started with, and the one below. Does your mouth need a stronger guard? Does mine?
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.