We are all aware of the nature of slander. To slander someone is to speak evil of them behind their backs; it is to criticize them and to malign them to others. For St. John, it is spiritually dangerous for two reasons.
First, it is hypocritical. Very often when we slander others we practice the worst kind of deceit. The person whom we are slandering knows nothing of our dislike or disagreement. We say nothing to them. Yet, when they are not around, we speak of them negatively to others. This is duplicity. Putting others down can also be a way that we "build" ourselves up. It makes us look good (pious, intelligent, etc.) to be able to point out the bad in someone else. It often puts us into the good graces of others when we join them in their slander. Notice how we use others for our own gain when we act this way. Our concern is not for them (we would speak to them first if it was), nor is our concern for the safety of the ones to whom we speak . . . Our concern is for ourselves. We look good at the expense of someone else. How far have we strayed from the path of divine love and self-sacrifice. The Bible says: "Love covers a multitude of sins." We, with a malicious spirit, often delight in exposing the mistakes and weaknesses of others.
Secondly, St. John condemns slander because of the attitude which lies behind it. Slander is the fruit of a judgmental spirit. The Apostle James identifies the connection: "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?" (James 1:11). When we judge others we make ourselves equal to God. In so doing, we invite His strict judgment.
To encourage us to refrain from judging others, John points out how very often our judgments our incorrect. Given the finitude of our minds and knowledge, we see all things not as they are in fulfillment but as they are in process. We do not know the end to which a person may come and we certainly cannot read their hearts. In fact, when we judge others, we often condemn those who have already repented and been forgiven by God. We oppose God's mercy with our own justice.
A judgmental spirit also carries with it a spiritual boomerang. "Those who pass speedy and harsh judgment on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion." There are certain "laws" which govern the spiritual realm even as "natural laws" govern the physical. One of these is that what we judge others for we will soon be guilty of ourselves in some form or another.
To all of us who struggle with this dangerous sin, St. John has direct advice: Remain silent and offer prayers for your brothers and sisters in love.
Springing from the previous step which considered the danger of slander and judging one's brother, we now see the primary cause of that vice and how it can be conquered.
Our talkativeness, John argues, imperils our souls, and through it we reveal our vainglorious nature. Rather than expressing our holiness or wisdom, talkativeness in reality reveals a host of different vices. It is "a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, a ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, a cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer." We can see from this list that vocalizing all of our thoughts can lead us to great sin and reveal our ignorance of what is truly valuable.
As spiritual sojourners we are called to the discipline of what John calls intelligent silence. Such silence creates the opposing virtues to the vices arising from talkativeness. In a hidden way, we journey toward God in our prayer, compunction, mourning and recollection, always abiding with him in our silence. Through these virtues we come to recognize our sins and soon learn to hold our tongue. We should be lovers of silence, John tells us, for in it we draw close to God and remember his great mercy to us.
Briefly, John describes three possible causes of talkativeness. First, through leading a relaxed lifestyle we give free reign to our tongue. Like any other member of our body, John states, our tongue requires discipline and often of the most severe sort.
Secondly, talkativeness comes from vainglory. As often happens to those involved in spiritual or intellectual athleticism, there is a tendency to become puffed up through individual achievements or gifts.
Finally, gluttony, if not restrained, will give way to chattering. Through keeping a strict rule over our stomachs it would seem that our tongue loses its strength.
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