If you didn’t restrain yourself
In an instance where we were unable to restrain ourselves and said what we said, what should we do? How can we take these words back? Having said something unpleasant to your neighbor and immediately realizing it, it would be best to immediately ask forgiveness: “Forgive me, brother, I shot my mouth off.” If your friend didn’t hear the insulting words you said to him, it would be a big mistake to say: “You know, brother, I was with some friends yesterday and said some judgmental things about you.” In this situation, it would be better not to tell him about it so as not to lead him into temptation, but to repent of this sin privately before the Lord, to mourn over your fall and pray. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man (Jas. 3:2), says the Apostle. But who among us is perfect? One way or another, every one of us can lose control of ourselves at some point.
The fight against idle talk is hampered by fatigue
Another factor that hinders our battle with idle talk is fatigue. After all, when a man is exhausted, it’s hard for him to control himself. Therefore, all those who don’t lead an active spiritual life should be careful not to allow themselves to become so critically fatigued. Because, as one Athonite ascetic said: “I can carry 200 pounds, but if someone adds even another pound to my load, I won’t be able to bear it.” It’s important for us all to remember this, because our life in the world is filled with all sorts of worries, constant anxiety about our time, about the things we have to do, and so on. We’re always stressed from all of this, and we get tired physically, mentally, and spiritually. And when we’re in such a state, we come across some man, and we go off on him. Let’s take familial relations for an example. Your husband comes home from work, and if you see that he’s tired and doesn’t want to talk, don’t pester him, because he’s so exhausted both physically and mentally that he has no strength to have a conversation with you.
One woman, a saleswoman in a shoe store, told me that she has to have enormous patience at work with so many customers coming to her. Sometimes very pretentious people come—bring me these shoes, now these, and now those over there, and all this presses down on her, and so on. She tries to hold back her irritation and politely serve these people. However, when she gets home, she explodes at the slightest thing from her own child. Why does this happen? Because fatigue accumulates throughout the day, and then at home, when you feel freer, you vent all those accumulated feelings. We must always remember this—both in relation to ourselves, and in relation to our loved ones.
When a man’s tired, upset, or overly joyful, he shouldn’t talk a lot or make any decisions in this state. Because in a joyful state, he might make a promise he won’t be able to keep later. It’s the same when he’s tired: He might say something that he’ll really regret later. I’m not talking about the great ascetic fathers who, thanks to their spiritual feat, were able to overcome their fatigue. I’m talking about those of us living in the conditions of a worldly life, so that we don’t push ourselves to the limit—because in this state we can do and say things that we’ll be really sorry about later. Fatigue is a bad adviser.
“I’m looking at them and I can’t understand what their hearts are filled with”
A man who considers himself religious, pious, and God-loving, will curb his tongue. And whoever doesn’t want to restrain it, as the Apostles says, deceives himself, thinking that he’s pious. It turns out that all his going to church is useless. A man daily reads and hears the Gospel, but does he actually understand its meaning? Does he understand what the Lord wants to tell him? We see how he behaves, how he talks: Contempt for others and egotism slip into his words; he ignites like a match with the slightest pretext. As long as you stroke his head, praise him, tell him how wonderful he is, you have wonderful relations with him. But as soon as you say something against him, he turns into a cat ready to scratch your eyes out. And here the question arises: Have there been any changes in this man at all? Where has his connection to Christ led him? Where are the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
One day, a certain elder, seeing some young monks cheerfully discussing something and laughing, started weeping. Then someone asked him: “Abba, what happened?” And the elder responded: “I’m looking at them and I can’t understand what their hearts are filled with.” That these young monks were so easily given over to idle talk speaks to the fact that their minds were scattered and that they didn’t understand their purpose. Our tongue is our mirror.
A very common reason for an unleashed tongue is the lack of spiritual labors, but it could also just be out of habit. If a man’s used to talking boastfully, praising himself or belittling others, he might not realize he’s doing anything wrong because he’s so used to it. He harms himself and others without realizing it. For example, a son complains: My father constantly laughs at me, humiliates me; he doesn’t value anything I do. Then we meet this father and we understand that he’s not a bad guy. He has a good disposition towards people, he simply never learned how to speak well with others and treat them with respect. It turns out that even though he wants to support his child, he gives him a kick instead. That’s how he was taught. It’s important to be aware of this and learn how to communicate with people correctly. It’s important to be polite and attentive, not curious or arrogant, constantly emphasizing your “I.” For example, in a house where the parents speak kindly and respectfully to each other, the children learn it too. Of course, children today are very much influenced by school and TV, but there should be a good example at home.
You know, I’ve encountered many good examples both in secular and spiritual families. I remember, when I lived on the Holy Mountain, I saw various people: elders, middle-aged monks, young novices, and they were all very kind people, polite, and gentle in conversation. No matter what you said to them, it didn’t cause an intense reaction from them or curiosity. There was one case when our elder decided to move together with the brethren from the monastery to a skete. We wanted to travel around Athos to see the free cells and choose the most suitable one for us. At that time, we were being given space in one skete. They had a large truck for working in the fields, which these monks graciously offered for our needs. And so, every day for five days they took us somewhere, although no one asked even once what specifically we were looking for and why we wanted to leave our monastery. That is, not a single question of curiosity. This is all because the elder of this community taught his successors this, and they taught their disciples, and so on. It’s the same in our families. If the parents don’t swear, don’t say bad words, if they’re not rude or harsh, this is transmitted to the children as well. And in turn, the children will teach it to their children.
Pay heed to yourself!
One time we had a visit at the monastery from a monk that they say never condemned anyone, and we decided to put him to the test. As we were talking with him, we started bringing up different people, saying: “You know, this guy said this… And this guy went there…,” trying to get at least the smallest word of condemnation out of him. But no such words were forthcoming. He slipped away from us like a fish, because he was very attentive to himself. He learned not to seek consolation in the condemnation of others, in gossip, in verbosity, or in joking. But there are people who, on the contrary, poke their noses even where they weren’t invited. For example, two people are talking, and then a third gets involved, and then no one can get a word in edgewise. Such symptoms indicate that a man isn’t laboring spiritually.
It’s sad to realize this especially with regard to Church people. After all, it’s not uncommon that a man seems to go to church, listens to the homilies, participates in Church life, but turns out to be condemned by his own words. After all, non-Church people look at us, surprised by our behavior, that we can’t restrain ourselves in gossip, in condemnation, and making fun of others. Such behavior becomes a temptation for them. Seeing us this way, they might think: “Maybe all this Church stuff is in vain?” You might say, what’s it to us what others think?—after all, I can repent for what I said or did. That’s true, but the other person doesn’t see this process that takes place in your heart. He only sees what’s on the surface.
I think this is exactly what the Apostle meant by “vain religion”—because he who lives in the Holy Spirit has the fruits of the Spirit within himself. If we don’t have any fruits, then we should at least have repentance. A man who truly repents of his deeds won’t condemn others. If we really see all our own mistakes and imperfections, could we really think about concerning ourselves with someone else, if we’re 100 times worse? If you understand this, you won’t want to condemn others anymore. But if you continue to condemn others, it means you haven’t come to know your own self yet, and therefore, you can’t repent and change.
The Holy Fathers say that a repentant man is like a man whose close relative died at his house, and he’s sitting and crying about it. Now imagine there’s a coffin in your house with a departed relative—do you have any desire to condemn what your neighbor said or did? No, you won’t care about that, because the grief overrides everything else. It’s the same with a man who sees himself dead because of his sins, sees his errors and weeps over them. If he’s truly grieving, he won’t start condemning anyone else.
All of this is connected in a single chain. If you’ve developed a proper relationship with God, then you’ll live the spiritual life, you’ll bridle your tongue, you’ll pay heed to yourself, and take note of your mistakes—not the mistakes of others. But if the Church is something superficial for you, then you’ll be easily given over to idle talk with all the ensuing consequences. You’ll be like a man who works all day but didn’t get paid, or who got paid, but the money turned out to be counterfeit. In the same way, all our spiritual labors are in vain if we don’t restrain our tongues.