G.K. Beale said that the tree of life in Revelation signifies the “life-giving presence of God” (Beale, Book of Revelation, 235). Proverbs 15:4a says that “A gentle tongue is a tree of life.”
I don’t know if John’s reference to “the tree of life” was also drawing upon Proverbs 15 (he is surely drawing upon Genesis 2-3). What I do know is that the Holy Spirit, in Proverbs 15, places incredible importance upon, what the Vulgate calls, the lingua placabilis – the gentle tongue. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the Christian’s lingua placabilis can be the catalyst for the “life-giving presence of God.”
Current political rhetoric, theological debate and the general depiction of being assertive, disciplined and successful, leave a small place at (or should I say, under) the table for the gentle tongue. Even in Chrisitan conversation over a meal, we are all familiar with the innate desire to speak more, be heard and thump our opinions down like a stack of dusty books. I, for one, am ashamed to say that I have discussed even the most beautiful of truths with the most ignorant and prideful of hearts. The doctrine of Christ’s humanity – perhaps something that should bring us to tears each time we consider it – has been made fodder for “theological conversations” that are really just platforms to display personal acumen. Rather than worshipping our God for His voluntary condescension to meet us in our muck, theologians, like myself, if I can use the term loosely, brandish the knowledge of this condescension as a means for our own elevation. This is not the lingua placabilis.
Like the leaves of the tree of life which “bring healing to the nations” (Rev. 22:2), the Biblical teaching regarding the gentle tongue is a balm to my soul because the non-gentle tongue causes consternation. An assertive or dominant tongue is quite a bit of work to maintain. The mind must constantly rehearse past conversations in order to locate instances where words could be said with more force or cunning. Thoughts are frequently preoccupied with future conversations in order that the tongue might be given the best chance of appearing intelligent and attractive. Augustine said the human predicament is such that we are constantly being pulled between the past and the future – unable to live in the present. Each “current” moment we are in, as soon as we begin to think about it, is actually the past. We might seek solace by thinking about the future, but this prevents us from living in the present.
Like a diamond, Jesus’ words are often, if not always, multifaceted. When He said, “follow me, my yolk is easy and my burden is light,” I think part of what He meant was that His disciples do not need to keep their tongues continually sharpened in order to achieve greatness. Jesus’ was a tongue of gentleness. How often did the creator of all things – the eternal logos – remain silent at the hands of His accusers?
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)
The fact that the all-powerful creator of heaven and earth tells me that the tongue of gentleness is a tree of life and that He Himself exemplified the lingua placabilis, is a balm to my weary soul because it is irrefutable proof that I do not need to take part in the world’s rat-race of self-exaltation. Conversations in which my body is present but my words are absent are closer to the heart of Jesus than theologically piercing words flung from a tongue of harshness. What a relief it is to be reminded that I do not need to premeditate my conversations! If silence is golden, an awkward silence should not be run from. And, perhaps most importantly for theologians, the lingua placailis gives us all the freedom to utter the four words marked blasphemous by the cult of self-exaltation: “I do not know.”
It’s bewildering to me that so many people see Biblical revelation as stultifying and oppressive. Oppression is feeling societal pressure to say something funny when you feel depressed. Stultification is putting on a face that matches not your own. Christianity, on the other hand, allows the tongue to match the heart in unison. We are allowed to say the things that the world cannot. Arguably the best Christian that ever lived felt the freedom to exclaim, “Oh! Wretched man that I am!” So, we don’t need to hide it. The world does, but we do not. Wretched men are persona non grata in the world. In God’s kingdom, they are the King’s cupbearers. With tongues made gentle by the gentle Lamb of God, Christians have been given the great honor of speaking the life-giving presence of God into the lives of those around them, with gentleness and respect. And if we feel pressure to anxiously premeditate our words so that others will be persuaded by our words and embrace God, we are reminded: “do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11). The freedom of the Cross bids anxious words goodbye.