A gossipmonger once said to Socrates, “Have you heard, O Socrates…” Socrates cut him short and asked, “Are you sure what you’re going to tell me is true?” “No!” replied the man, “I just heard it from others.” Socrates continued, “Is it something good about someone?” He replied, “No, on the contrary…” Socrates added, “Will what you tell me help us to be better persons?” The man said, “No!” Socrates finally said, “Then, let’s not waste time over things neither true, nor good, nor helpful for us.”
One of our greatest God-given gifts is speech, which enables us to communicate effectively. However, this gift is often misused due to our lack of restraint and reflection; so much so it’s said, “A dog is such a loveable creature because it wags its tail and not its tongue!” Among the Biblical references to tongue and language, let’s reflect upon two.
First, there’s the story of the “Tower of Babel” where humankind — with arrogance and pride — tries to reach heaven, so to say, by building a tall tower. “Babel” literally means “gate of God”; but in Hebrew “balal” means “to confuse”. The story ends with God confusing the language of the people. Thus, striving to reach God’s gate (Babel), the people end up scattered and confused (balal).
Second, the Acts of the Apostles describes the feast of Pentecost — meaning “50th day” (after Easter) — when God’s spirit comes upon Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had promised his disciples that they would be energised, empowered and enlightened upon receiving God’s spirit after his resurrection. This spirit-experience totally transforms them.
Central to the Pentecost narrative is the Greek word “glossa”, which means both “tongue” and “language”. The miracle at Pentecost is that when God’s spirit comes upon Jesus’ disciples in symbolic “tongues of fire”, these terrified, tongue-tied disciples (fearful at his death) suddenly receive the “gift of tongues”. They begin to preach in one “language” that is comprehensible to all.
Pentecost is a reversal of Babel where “God confused the language of all the earth”. Now, in the power of God’s spirit, “the disciples begin to speak various languages” and people “hear them speaking in their own languages”. However, God’s spirit also leads believers into deep silence while ever inspiring, guiding and teaching them to produce the “fruits of the spirit”, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”.
Socrates once said: “Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, but only one tongue — so that we should hear and see more than we speak.” Our religious scriptures reveal profound truths about God, life, death and afterlife. But beyond their words and our speech, can’t we all cultivate the fruits of the spirit?