Set a Watch Before my Mouth

Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.

  • Psalm 140:3


This week I had an outburst.  I lost my temper with someone who has been treating me badly for the last three years.  He’s been disrespectful of me publicly.  And on Tuesday, he interjected himself into a private conversation to accuse me of trying to do something that I simply wasn’t doing.  He had heard a snippet of conversation from a distance, assumed something that was simply wrong, and decided to jump into this conversation to tell me what he thought of me and the plan he wrongly thought I was trying to put into action.  And I lost it.

I shouted at him.  I questioned his intelligence.  I told him what I thought of him and his interference.   I pretty much chased him back to where he came from and got in very close quarters with him to express my feelings.  And it felt great.  After being publicly demeaned by him, after nothing but criticism over my volunteer efforts, it satisfied my carnal needs to let him know exactly what I thought of him and how little regard I had for his opinions.

That is until I realized what I had done, and how it can’t really be repaired.  I gave in to my passions – anger, pride, ego.  I gave in and let the demons in.  They won that evening.  As St. John Climacus says, the “[r]emembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger.”[1] My anger flowed from my memory of past wrongs.  My conduct was unbecoming not just a priest or bishop, but any Christian.  In the face of dishonor, I demanded honor.  In the face of verbal assault, I demanded vengeance.  Given the opportunity to practice the ascetic discipline of humility, I chose to ridicule and demean my attacker.  I did it publicly in the sight and hearing of more than a dozen people.

And no matter what I do now, this cannot be repaired.  The words I spoke to him cannot be unheard, just as I remember the sting of his words when he publicly demeaned me three years ago.  But he didn’t deserve to hear them.  The organization is tarred by my outburst since I held a position of leadership.  (I resigned that evening in order to minimize any harm to the group.)  And my reputation is damaged by anyone who saw my outburst.  No matter how much I may desire to ameliorate the damage, I can’t repair it.

St. John Chrysostom wrote: “let us discipline our tongue to be the minister of the grace of the Spirit, expelling from the mouth all virulence and malignity, and the practice of using disgraceful words. For it is in our power to make each one of our members an instrument of wickedness, or of righteousness.”[2]  Virulent, malignant and disgraceful aptly describe the words I chose to use and the way I used them.  In no way were my words designed to heal any breach between us.  In no way were my words designed to impart lofty ideals.  I can’t even claim some lofty theological purpose such as defending a hard truth.  No, my words were intended to shock, hurt and offend.

It’s almost as if I were trolling on the internet!  Perhaps if writing today the Psalmist might say “Set a watch, O Lord before my keyboard; keep the door of my fingertips.”  Since I had this experience, I’ve been in a state of melancholy, shamed by my conduct, feeling that I fall short of repenting, and mostly sorrowful for the things I said and the way I said them.  Sorrow and shame are two different things, and I feel them both.  But as the week has gone on, my melancholy has been deepened by watching the ease at which professing orthodox Christians attack with virulence and malignity those that they disagree with.  And while sometimes these attacks are over religion, and sometimes even could be called a “defense” of the faith, more often they are over worldly and banal matters such as politics or modern culture.

In his same homily quoted above, St. John draws our attention to a dichotomy found in the Psalms. He compares the man whose “mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” with he whose “mouth shall speak of wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.”  Likewise, he ponders men whose “[i]niquities are in their hands, and their right hand is filled with gifts” with those who “had hands practised in nothing but in being stretched out towards heaven. Therefore he said of these too, The lifting up of my hands, (let it be) an evening sacrifice.”[3]  No matter how righteous we might perceive our political cause to be (as if justice can be found in the governments of men), when we choose to make our point through inflammatory words, memes and insults our mouth is clearly not speaking of wisdom and the meditation of our heart is not toward understanding.  You are just me in the parking lot chasing after my accuser with nasty words and a self-satisfied ego.

Rude and borderline vulgar nicknames, condescending language, questioning intelligence: if these are marks of your online interactions, I’m going to suggest that you examine your heart as I’ve had to do this last week.  You see, the real impact of our online behavior is rarely internalized in the same way that face to face interactions are.  Without that check on our behavior, it is easy to detach ourselves from the responsibility we have for our speech.  There is a saying often attributed to Sai Baba, an Indian guru and yogi, that proposes that all speech should pass through three gates: is it true; is it kind and is it necessary? You might end up in a pretty good place with those tests, but I am going to propose a slightly different test for online interactions by Orthodox Christians.  Before you post, ask yourself: will this post move me, and those who read it, closer to working out our salvation?  If the answer is not yes as to both you and your readers, then don’t post it.  If your post feeds your own passions – to be right, to be recognized, to win an argument – then don’t post.  If it only serves your ego, don’t post.  If your post is intended to hurt or embarrass the intended recipient, then don’t post it.  This does not preclude you from making necessary defenses of the faith – though it may govern how you make that defense!

I’ve been applying this test to my own online world for a couple of years.  Sometimes I am far more successful than others.  But I am even more aware of it today than I was before the events of the past week.  Without question, the number of “political” posts I have made over the last two years have declined probably 95%.  At the end of the day, the need to share my political positions derives almost completely from my own ego.  Even if I correct incredibly ignorant writings from people who understand neither economics nor government, I haven’t moved either them or myself any closer to the Kingdom.  There is no salvation in our institutions of men.

Likewise, the number of comments I have made on the cultural preferences of others, be it music, theater, television or movies, have declined precipitously.  Your choice of concert event is unlikely to impact my soul in the least.  And while I suppose some people might entertain such dangerous options, a comment would be called for, the extremis situation sets the exception, not the rule.

Whether meeting our brother face to face or in the ether of cyberspace, our conduct will impact both our own salvation and that of the people we interact with.   Be guided by a desire to further your own salvation and that of others.  Examples of saints or even Christ speaking harshly are unavailing.  You are not Christ and likely flatter yourself with any comparison to one of the holy saints.  The shocking or out of character actions of a beacon of faith are not intended to establish normative behavior for the rest of us, and frankly that excuse is almost always a post hoc rationalization.

Let us instead set a watch.  Set a watch before our lips, our fingers, our mouths, our phones and our keyboards.  Controlling our own desire to be heard in the cacophony of cyberspace is a tremendous challenge.  But that need to be heard almost always is born of the passions, and if we intend to strive toward dispassion we must identify the logismoi urging us toward passion before we act on it.  When you are called to speak, speak the truth in love. Deliver a message designed to save the recipient, not pummel them.  Then, with God’s help, your mouth shall speak of wisdom, and the meditation of your heart shall be of understanding.  I should have applied my online rule to the conversation interloper I lost my temper with this week.  Nothing I said was designed to edify or build him up.  It was all an exercise in ego on my part.  Join me, if you will, in setting that guard, be it on flapping lips or fingertips.  Even if nobody ever reciprocates, we will be the better for it.

[1] St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 9.2-4

[2] John Chrysostom. (1842). The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Statues, or to the People of Antioch (pp. 88–89). Oxford; London: John Henry Parker; J. G. F. and J. Rivington.

[3] Id. at p. 89.

1 thought on “Set a Watch Before my Mouth

  • Thank you, Your Eminence, for this excellent rule. “…will this post move me, and those who read it, closer to working out our salvation?” May Our Lord help me to remember it in the moment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *