On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled the disciples of Jesus and they spoke with “other tongues” so that the multitude from every nation heard them speaking the “wonderful works of God” in their own languages.
Although I think many Christians have experienced moments of Grace-filled speech, very few of us have been so filled with the Holy Spirit that Grace-filled speech, speech such that others actually hear us telling the wonderful works of God, is rare. Such Grace-filled speech, tongues of fire, enables the hearers to hear the wonderful works of God even if they do not speak your language. And in my experience I have found that very few people actually speak my language–and those who do speak my language don’t do so very well.
What I mean is that even brothers and sisters who have grown up in the same home, without the Grace-filled speech of the Holy Spirit, misunderstand each other, cannot communicate what they really think and feel to each other, and more often than not completely fail to understand and appreciate what is most important to each other. Just because two people use the same words, doesn’t necessarily mean they speak the same language. This is particularly the case when speaking about spirituality and religion. Without the Grace-filled speech of a heart filled with the Holy Spirit, I might as well be speaking Swahili to my neighbour, I might as well be speaking potatoes while he is speaking corn.
And the real tragedy in this is that although I have been filled with the Holy Spirit, I have quenched, squandered, buried, lost, and despised it. Most of what comes out of my mouth is at best ineffectual, and at worst death-dealing. Instead of tongues of fire, I speak with tongues of ice. I speak from my own insecurity and to maintain my own self-induced persona.
Like the prodigal son, I too am returning to my Father having squandered the riches He gave me. And as I am returning, as I am slowly learning to attend to the Gift of the Holy Spirit, I find that I still must speak even though I know my words are probably not (or are not very) Grace-filled. In this condition, the condition of a mud-stained, repenting son of the Most High God, a son who has squandered the riches of My Father in heaven; in this condition, I must be very careful with what I say–ironic words from a man who writes an essay several times a week and posts it on the internet.
Because I am not very good at attending to the Holy Spirit, or at least knowing whether what I am attending to is the Holy Spirit or some self-made delusion, I have found three criteria helpful in determining what I should say when I think I must say something. These are truth, love and necessity. Usually pose these to myself in the form of a question: is what I am about to say true, loving and necessary?
Is it true? I do not confuse true with factual. Jesus told parables that were not necessarily factual, but were true. What is true reveals what is. Facts often obfuscate. I do not mean to say that one should have a wanton disregard for facts in the name of truth, but what I am saying is that one must never have a wanton disregard for truth in the name of facts. Truth requires that one be true. Truth seeks what is true in the other.
Is it loving? I have, to my shame, in the name of love destroyed others. When “love” means merely “for your own good,” as if I actually knew what was good for another (I seldom know what is good for myself) this kind of love is no love at all. It is merely self justification. I find it most helpful not to use the word love at all when I ask myself this question. I find it best to use St. Paul’s definition of love. Before I speak, I want to ask myself: is it patient, is it kind, is it without envy, does it not focus on me, am I saying this because I will feel better if I do, is it polite, is it seeking the good of the other, is it not motivated by provocation, is it not assuming evil in the other?
Is it necessary? A teacher must teach, and so teachers receive the greater judgement. But even teachers, probably, speak much more than is necessary. Words so often get in the way. And really, at best, words can only point the way. Words are not the way.
Each day I hope I am growing in the Grace of the Holy Spirit–glacial movement is still movement. Someday I hope, when I speak at all, to speak in the tongues of fire. And maybe I have, briefly, in the past spoken in this Grace-filled way and I am too dull to realize it–or maybe it was just a lucky choice of words. God knows. In the mean time, when I think I must speak, I hope before I do, I will remember to subject my speech to these few criteria.