Refuge from the Hurt of Tongues
J. R. Miller, 1912
"You shall hide them in the secret of Your presence from the pride of man; You shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues!" Psalm 31:20
The writer of this Psalm had suffered from people's talk. It had broken upon him like missiles of war, like arrows shot through the air. The evil that is in the human tongue is described in the Psalms in very strong language. "Under his tongue is mischief and vanity." "Your tongue frames deceit." "They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent." The writer had heard the slanders of many who took counsel together against him. He speaks here of the "strife of tongues"—a continual warfare of words going on about him.
"The strife of tongues!" How expressive the phrase! We all know more or less about it. Few people escape the hurt of tongues in their own life. Who is there that is not hurt at some time by slander! No name is pure enough to be forever safe against vile insinuations, cruel aspersions. Even the Lord Jesus, whose life was perfect, holy, harmless, did not escape the slanderer's tongue.
It is strange how many bitter and unloving words are spoken in this world. The tongue is a little member—but it is a source of much evil! James tells us that while all kinds of animals have been tamed—no man can tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison! We do not live long in this world, until we find that this is true. On the smallest provocation, men become angry and speak violent words. There are homes in which the chief talk is strife—the strife of tongues. There are children, children with gentle souls, who have to grow up in the midst of such a strife, hearing scarcely ever a loving word. The hurt of such sharp, bitter words is very sore!
"The ill-timed truth we might have kept—
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung!"
Even the truth about us, may be so told as to be inhumanly cruel in its effects. Then, often, it is falsehood which barbs the arrow. The human tongue often secretes gall. You have heard envy talk. You have heard the mad ravings of jealousy. You have heard the invectives of anger. You have heard the bitter threatenings of revengeful passion. And every word is a damaging missile.
There is a strife of tongues about us—even when the words are not spoken against us. Think of all the speech one must hear as the days go by—speech that is not loving, not helpful, not encouraging, not comforting. The gift of speech is one of the noblest that God has given to man. It was meant to be loving, true, wise, enriching, and full of blessing. God gave us our tongues that with them we might speak to Him in praise and prayer—and to our fellow men in love, in hope—in all gracious, helpful, encouraging words.
But what is the major part of the conversation that goes on in parlors, in clubs, during walks and rides? Is it wise, good, wholesome, useful talk? Does it instruct, edify, inspire, uplift? Is it upon important subjects? We know how idle much of it is. People chatter on forever—and say not one wise word. How much of the social talk of any day or evening, is worth writing down, worth remembering, worth printing? Yet we cannot get away from this strife of tongues.
The speech about us is full of misrepresentations, too; reflections on others, innuendoes, suspicions, criticisms, censures. It is strange how much of the talk we hear is about the absent—and with what ruthless abandon, do people say evil things of those who are not present. Characters are discussed and dissected, as if they were nothing more than bits of clay. Names are taken up and gossiping tongues whisper their hints of scandal, even concerning those whom an hour ago they were speaking kindly to. It is the rarest thing that a full, hearty, honest word—is spoken of any absent one. Evermore this sad and cruel chatter about people, goes on in society. You cannot but hear it, for you are not deaf. But if you are honorable, true-hearted, and charitable, these words hurt you, and you need a refuge from them.
"The pride of man—and the strife of tongues!" How truly these words picture the life which is about everyone of us! And men and women with sensitive spirits grow weary of it, and long to flee away to some quiet retreat, where they shall no longer be hurt by the unending strife of tongues. They grow weary of angry words, of false words, of censorious words, of words of suspicion and backbiting, of words of wrangling and quarreling. So much inharmonious talk hurts us. We grow tired of hearing criticism and faultfinding. It worries and frets us to be nagged at continually.
The words of the Psalm tell us of the refuge we want from all this strife and confusion of words: "You shall hide them in the secret of your presence from the pride of man: you shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues." A refuge has been provided into which we may flee, where we shall not be hurt by this strife. How may we find it?
It is not by falling in, ourselves, with all this stream of talk—that we escape its hurt. That is our danger. When we are with those who have only idle words, empty chit-chat forever on their tongues—it is easy for us to join them in the frivolous speech. When we hear others gossiping about their neighbors, telling bits of news, repeating derogatory stories, hinting suspicious things—we find it very natural to find a sort of pleasure in it all, and then add our portion to the common stock. When we are with people who are saying unkindly things of someone, casting arrows of censure, sneer, or aspersion at the good name of an absent person, making his faults a subject of conversation, holding a sort of clinic over his character and dissecting it for their own cruel delight—how easily we slip into the same groove of talk, unless we are most watchful!
Have you ever caught yourself doing this, even laughing at the things people were saying about some dear friend of yours, and even adding little savory bits which your confidential relation of friendship had permitted you to learn about your friend? Or when you find yourself among those who are wrangling about questions, or quarreling about creeds, politics, or something else—it is not hard for you to take a side and contend and wrangle as vigorously as the others.
In a home where there is strife, we are always in danger of taking part in it and adding to it the bitterness of our own excited and exciting words. This is not the refuge from the strife of tongues which God provides. It is no refuge at all. It may be the easiest thing, just to drop into the stream and drift along with it; but we are only hurt if we join in sin ourselves, to save ourselves from the evil of other men's sins. This is only deserting our colors and going over to the enemy. It pleases the evil adversary—but it grieves the gracious Savior.
Then we may not seek a refuge from the strife of tongues, in indifference and contempt. If the talk we hear concerns ourselves and is critical and condemnatory, we would do well first to ask whether it is true, or whether the things said of us may not have at least some shadow of truth in them. There is an element of wholesomeness in living in an atmosphere of criticism. Too much praise is not good for us. If everyone always spoke well of us, commending and flattering us continually, it would make us proud and self-conceited. It is well that there always are those about us who are ready to see our blemishes and to expose them. We would never know our faults if this were not so. Francis Quarles said: "If any speak ill of you, flee home to your own conscience and examine your heart. If you be guilty, it is a just correction; if not guilty, it is a fair instruction. Make use of both. So shall you distill honey out of gall, and out of an open enemy create a secret friend."
Further, the divine refuge from the strife of tongues is not found in flight from the living world. Men have run away to the covert of the rocks and the caverns, to the monastery, to the hermit's cell—to escape the strife of tongues. But that is not the way God wants us to do. He wants us to be in the world—and yet not of the world. He needs us in the midst of society, for He desires us to witness for Him. We are to let our light shine upon the world's darkness, to dispel it. We are to live among those who are ungodly, to show them a pattern of true and beautiful living. Our duty bids us stay where we are. We have a mission there. God needs us in the place where He has planted us. Refuge by flight would be fleeing from duty—and we would both prove disloyal to our Master and fail in our search for shelter, by such a course.
But there is a shelter that we can find in the very midst of the trouble. "You shall keep them secretly in a pavilion, from the strife of tongues." They tell us that when the terrible cyclone sweeps over a country, there is a spot at its very center which is so quiet and still that a leaf is scarcely stirred, where a baby might sleep undisturbed and secure. So at the center of the sorest strife of tongues—you may find a pavilion, a place of peace, where no hurt can come to you.
Take the case of one who must endure abuse, reviling, unjust and bitter words in any form. Few of us go through many years of life without meeting experiences of this kind. Some time the tongue of the slanderer will assail us. There is a story that once three young Hebrews were cast into a furnace of fire—but came from the flames untouched, not carrying on their garments, even the smell of fire. That was better than if God had kept them altogether out of the fire. We may not keep ourselves from the furnace of burning words—but God will keep us from suffering harm in the furnace—if we will accept the refuge.
Part of this refuge must be in the consciousness, that we are blameless of wrong. This is a wonderful secret of peace in the heart, in the time when others are speaking evil of us. If the things they say are true, there is no refuge save in the mercy and grace of God. But when our own conscience testifies that we are innocent, there is a secret peace in our own heart which no false words can destroy.
Another element in this refuge, must be the keeping of love in our heart. Slander or bitter words of any kind can harm us—only when we yield to the feeling of resentment and anger. So long as we continue loving through all the strife of tongues—we are hidden away in a safe refuge. It is impatience that opens the door of the refuge and lets harm in. Sin is not in being tempted—but in yielding to temptation. Our Lord taught us to pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us. While we pray for them—their cruel words have no power to hurt us.
In no other way can this lesson he taught so well, as by looking at the example of Christ. Never about any other life, did the strife of tongues wage as it did about Him. Men's cruelty knew no limit. Poisoned tongues emptied their envenomed bitterness upon Him. But none of this rage and bitterness disturbed Him. You know the secrets. There were two—love and peace. His heart was full of love, and the peace of God guarded Him.
We should understand these secrets. If we truly love men—we will not be affected by cruel words. They will hurt and sting—but they will not embitter us. We will forgive injury and wrong. We will answer back hate—with kindness, rudeness with gentleness. Then if we have love in our heart—we will seek ever to allay bitterness in others. One of our Master's beatitudes is, " Blessed are the peacemakers." We can do much to lessen the strife of tongues, by always speaking gently ourselves.
Parkhurst, in his little book on "The Sunny Side of Christianity," tells this story: "One day on a trolley car there was a door . . . that squeaked every time it was opened or shut. A man, sitting near it, noticed this. Rising, he took a little can from his pocket, let fall a drop of oil on the offending spot, and sat down, saying, 'I always carry an oil can in my pocket, for there are so many squeaky things that a drop of oil will set right.' "
Love carries an oil can and is ready everywhere to lubricate squeaking things. We all know a few men and women who are ever dropping oil to soften friction, and smoothing and quieting strife among others. They have some gentle word, some happy suggestion, some bit of humor, some way of changing the subject, when there is danger of strife. Blessings on the people who carry oil cans in their pockets! Not only do they add immeasurably to the world's sweetness—but they have found a refuge for themselves from the strife of tongues. Love is the secret. It was Christ's secret. Amid hate and cruelty—He loved on. If we keep gentle, patient, sweet, forgiving, and loving—the wildest clamor of harsh and angry voices will not disturb us. Our soft answer—will turn away wrath. Your good—will overcome evil.
The Christian way to resist the strife of tongues—is with love. If anyone speaks evil of you—say something good of him in return. If the other person is angry—keep patient and sweet. If another has bitter words to say of an absent person—your task is to say a kind word of him. It was said of Starr King that if anyone did him an unkindness, or said a hard or bitter word of him—that was the very man he loved. His heart went out to him in yearning, and he would find ways to conquer him by love.
That is what it is to be a Christian. That is the Christian way to quarrel—throw roses for stones; overcome evil with good. O for a Church that would honestly try this way of living with people! If your rights are not quite respected—why, it does not really matter! Just keep on loving. Love is the great secret refuge from the strife of tongues.
The other secret of Christ's quiet—was the peace of God in His heart. Nothing unkind or cruel could reach Him, hidden away as He was in the bosom of His Father, in the secret place of the Most High, under the shadow of the Almighty. When the winds are wildly raging over the sea—far down beneath the surface is a place where perfect stillness reigns.
"You shall hide them in the secret of Your presence from the pride of man; You shall keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues!"