I love the Epistle of James. It’s short, but full of powerful and practical ethics in the Jewish wisdom tradition, and dovetails very nicely with the Gospel of Matthew.
As someone who tries and fails, and tries and fails, and tries and fails, to guard his speech and proclivity towards using a sharp tongue, I do well to remember and heed these words from St. James in Chapter 3:
Power of the Tongue
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot's inclination wishes. In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.
The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine figs? Neither can salt water yield fresh.
Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.
One of the best self-help books I’ve ever read, which also seems to be written in the Jewish wisdom tradition, is Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul, by Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg. It is a wonderful little treatise on the malicious power of gossip and the harm that unguarded speech can do. At the very least, it should be required reading in the workplace, rather than the silliness that gets foisted on employees nowadays like Who Moved My Cheese?
I appreciate this anecdote from the book:
A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a man who went about slandering the town's wise man. One day, he went to the wise man's home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, scatter the feathers to the wind and return when done to the wise man's house.Palatnick and Burg’s Ten Pathways of Positive Speech:
Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be let off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers and returned to the house.
"Am I now forgiven?" he asked.
Just one more thing," the wise man said. "Go now and gather up all the feathers."
"But that's impossible. The wind has already scattered them:" "Precisely," he answered. "And it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak."
1 . Speak No Evil. Say only positive statements. Let words of kindness be on your tongue.
2. Hear No Evil. Refuse to listen to gossip, slander and other negative forms of speech.
3. Don't Rationalize Destructive Speech. Excuses like "But it's true" or "I'm only joking" or "1 can tell my spouse anything" just don't cut it.
4. See No Evil. Judge people favorably, the way you would want them to judge you.
5. Beware of Speaking Evil Without Saying an Evil Word. Body language and even positive speech can bring tremendous destruction.
6. Be Humble; Avoid Arrogance. These will be your greatest weapons against destructive speech.
7. Beware of Repeating Information. Loose lips sink ships. Even positive information needs permission before being repeated.
8. Honesty Really Is the Best Policy-Most of the Time. Be careful to always tell the truth, unless it will hurt others, break your own privacy or publicize your accomplishments.
9. Learn to Say "I'm Sorry:" Everyone makes mistakes. I f you've spoken badly about someone, clear it up immediately.
10. Forgive. If you have been wronged, let it go.
Moreover, pay no attention to everything men say, lest you hear your own servant disparaging you, for your own conscience knows that many times you yourself disparaged others.