#30 of a Series on Psalm 50
The Fruits of Repentance – Words of Truth, Singing Praises of God
The thoughts formed in the mind expressing the depths of the human soul seek to find an outlet. God has fashioned a tool[i] for such expression – the Mouth. From the first moments of our life in the world at birth, this expression tool engages – a LOUD scream. The mouth effectively captures attention (ask Mom!), being immediately impactful, and capable of expressing both concepts and especially (!) emotions.
Literature and now electronic media are visible forms of what our mouths express (and vice versa), but there is something more powerful and personal[ii] about saying something – we own it. Our mouths serve as the trumpet of the soul, especially in the glory of beautifully sung music, but in conjunction with the tongue can also express the most gross and vile evil emanating from a darkened soul. The mouth and voice are serve are also key utilities. Once the issues of language are overcome, human communication works transactions (bid-offer-confirm-sell), but so much more in terms of human expression – affirmation, consolation, communion of spirit and love.
The Mouth Opens in Worship
As the passageway to the soul, the mouth is essential for human expression in the worship of God. As discussed in the previous reflection, the mouth and lips of the repentant will inevitably find an expression. In the heart, when the chains of sin are broken, this is experienced initially as relief, ‘unbelief[iii]’, and thanksgiving. David’s Psalm 50 is a hymn of thanksgiving – which permeates his words, even those spoken in sorrow.
The bible speaks a LOT about the mouth, and its companion, the tongue, and their profound ability to take that which inside us and externalize it. Hence tragic when a person is mute or a child is severely autistic, where they cannot form some types of expression through words that others can understand. One can only feel the enormous struggle and tension within, trying to bring forth those words that will allow one’s personhood to be heard by others and affirmed as people. It’s in this spirit that the wonderful story of Jesus, opening the ears and mouth of the deaf and mute man, by saying the word, ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘be opened.’ (Mk.7:31ff) The opening of the mouth lays open the human soul.
And what proceeds from the mouth is what in is in the heart. (Lk. 6:45). The mouth serves as the passageway for the listeners of the world to our interior life.
Pretty Dangerous huh?
After the Fall in the Garden, we hear from Adam in his own words. What is curious though is that what we hear is more or less true, but more profoundly, evil. When asked by God how he came to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Genesis says, ‘The man replied, “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” (Gen. 3:12) So these words are factually true. But listening to them, I hear Adam dodging responsibility in his weakened, sinful mindset. He blames the woman for supplying him the source of his sin. But look further and perhaps we even see him blaming God, for giving the woman (whom God gave him) who in the end, he blames for his disobedience! And God gave him the ‘opportunity’ to fail. It’s really God’s fault!
What is perhaps more sinister is that the accusation is duplicitous. Adam is just ‘stating the facts’ but lurking in his heart are the fruits of his sin and the inability to deal with it, because he has not repented. In repentance we learn to listen to our own words, and hear how well we’ve learned to lie to ourselves, and accuse others, even as we seemingly speak ‘the truth.’ Of course, while God knows Adam’s heart, Adam himself does not, nor does he accept it or look at his inner darkness. We should realize that perceptive people can do the same thing – being able to see through us (Mom?) when we veil with a verbal smoke screen of facts when confronted with our own shortcomings. In this scenario, we are really just trying to both insulate ourselves, and misdirect a conversation, to maintain self-justification of ourselves and shortcomings.
So, we see here how, like everything in human life, the mouth and tongue can be used simply and beautifully, or in a twisted and deceptive way. This is part of our fallen way of living and communicating – some of it is learned behavior.
So the Lord will open my lips, and out will come praise? Perhaps the praise should proceed only when we’ve learned to be silent?
I recall as young college student that I was struggling in a computer class and needed a good grade to pass a course and knew I had ‘blown the final.’ I was distraught for several days. Eventually the mimeographed grade sheet came in the mail with the grade scores and I dreaded opening it. When I saw the fuzzy letter on the page I looked at it again, and said,
It turns out the inevitable D grade (or worse) came out as a ‘B’ on the gradesheet. I couldn’t believe it – the grading computation device must have made a mistake! But then again, I wasn’t going to argue…
But then I heard my own words and was ashamed. I had used the Lord’s name in exactly the opposite way that I should have. I had been coming to believe more personally in Jesus Christ as my Lord, yet these were the words that mirrored my heart? I realized I lacked the inner vocabulary of thanksgiving and praise of God as the basic orientation in my heart.
I’ve struggled with this from time to time, and only in grace finding appropriate words on similar occasions. Over the decades, I’ve come to see in myself and others a pattern of inner fear and frustration, leading to anger which then colors everything that one says. I think my experience reflected the culture of our times and since. In those days, harsh work places like the steel mill were places where men spoke in coarse language and using it seemed, for boys, a sort of badge of honor and manly thing.[iv] Girls were more refined – cleaner and kinder language was expected of them, which is why when such language came from the mouth of a girl they were doubly punished for it.[v] Language with sexual content, was banned as unworthy of common societal use because speaking so would lead to a degradation of society. (Check)
Now today we live in a very different world when what used to be called the ‘F-bomb’ now is no longer even a dud firecracker. Even if it was once effective as the ultimate attention-getting word in the English language, the continued coarsening of language, culture and the human soul leaves us unable to communicate even with stunning language, effectively leaving people dumb (in its original meaning ) This is especially true in some subcultures where the victims of poverty[vi], social decline, broken family life and the loss of spiritual orientation lead to a deep frustration because words can no longer describe the inner plight. Acting out becomes necessary. Our words have failed us.
Repentance and the Word
The Good News is that Jesus, who is the Word of God, can restore the inner turmoil wherein we find ourselves psychologically trapped and renew not only our hearts, but also our mouths. The Christian Way is one of self-control – “Let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:2) and as the Apostle Peter taught, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” (1Pt3:10)
One of the most effective remedies that Christian discipleship brings is the reading of Holy Scriptures. Scripture is Holy. The reading of scripture not only leads to an understanding of God, but the good, holy and life-giving words of God become the language of the mind and heart and mouth. In the Book of Samuel, there is something marvelous about the image of the prayer of Hannah,[vii] from her heart, but silently yet moving her lips. This is why monks are so encouraged to read the psalms and why it’s such a full part of their daily life and worship. Their constant repetition of the psalms leads to an internalization of their meaning, so the monk (or lay Christian) fashions her own words in the same spirit and ‘language’[viii] of the scriptures. This is also why the holy Fathers teachings were laced with truth, because they imaged scripture.
In Christian conversion the inner process of repentance frees the heart and the tongue as well of spiritual death and corruption. This is strengthened by self- control and in that extraordinary pursuit of holiness in monasticism, we learn of the beauty of silence – which is an inner quieting of both mouth and soul. From that place the words that are spoken can be fashioned in a noetic/spiritually thoughtful way – and expressed through praise of God and love of Him, and love of neighbor. Foul language becomes bitterly distasteful again.
As the children of God, the Christians who are being restored in grace will imitate the innocent words of praise of the Hebrew children at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, ‘Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’ The Evangelist Matthew quotes the words of David the Psalmist, ‘Out of the mouths of children, you have fashioned praise.’ (Ps. 8:2, Mt. 21:16)
Words of Worship?
As I write, this we areapproaching Great Lent,[ix] and recently heard in Church the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk. 18:9-14). Here we see the profound contrast of the thoughts expressed in words between the humbled Publican and bombastic Pharisee. It displays the inner heart of repentance contrasted to the proud heart of vainglory. Curiously, as with Adam, the Pharisee’s display occurs in ‘presence of God’, as he, like Adam, addresses God directly. The Pharisee’s words, beginning, “I thank you God…” and the rest of his words of self-praise are foolishness.[x]
To come to a place where we can use the right words of praise (literally in Greek – ‘ortho-doxa’), we must first come to a place where are hearts are right with Him through penance, and where, from a grounding in a still heart, the words of the Spirit become our words. No longer is it, ‘God damn!’ But ‘Praise and thanks be to you, Lord and Father.’ Only God can heal us to do so and the penitent Publican, like David, can show us what we must do. And through our words we will bless and not curse others.
When this process is at work we can worship authentically with ‘all our voice, with all our heart’ and make the ‘offering of peace, the sacrifice of praise.’[xi] Ω
[i] As mentioned heretofore, the Apostle James describes this as a dangerous tool. (James 3)
[ii] We read David’s words in Psalm 50 as scripture, but their very nature is more like something spoken.
[iii] By unbelief here, I mean ‘unbelievable’ or wonderful or beyond imagination. It is a joyful unbelief, that upon reflection becomes true belief – that God has intervened in my world and delivered me from my sin through His forgiveness.
[iv] Except for the fact that my father rarely used profanity save in the worst of times.
[v] This might have been a good thing – a higher standard to live up to often elevates and orientates the soul to higher things. It is no wonder more girls became the women of faith that anchored most Christian communities in the 1960s and since.
[vi] The use of foul language is not unique to the impoverished. In fact, in the spiritual poverty of the rich, the breakdown of culture and language in recent years has been stunning.
[vii] 1Sam1:13 The goodness of the heart reaches the lips. In time the tongue will engage as well.
[viii] By language here I don’t mean Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. but the underlying word meanings and orientation of the soul that express the biblical words in any and every language. To do so is to ‘speak scripture’ in a true way. The words of Scripture are expressed externally, and hopefully, in truth and the right spirit. Said, often enough, word images of scripture even become colloquialisms in society. Note that it’s also possible to ‘speak scripture’ but use it like the Pharisee – for self-praise or to impress people with one’s knowledge of the scripture or personal faith.
[ix] In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is preceded by four Sundays when the themes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are introduced through four thematic Sunday: The Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, The Last Judgment, The Expulsion from Paradise.
[x] St. Andrew Crete in the Great Canon identifies these words as ‘foolishness’.
[xi] From the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.