A sermon by Abel-Rodolphe de Ladevèze

If anyone among you considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. James 1:26

Spiritual shipwreck

However weak he may be, we should fear any enemy who strives night and day for our doom. Those who return from India by sea usually think only of protecting themselves against pirates, reefs and violent storms. All their greatest care is directed against these blatant enemies; but how much attention do they give to a kind of worm which attaches itself to the ship in port, and silently gnaws at the wood? Without clamour or noise it never ceases to work at ruining the ship as effectively as those great forces that threaten to tear them apart at sea, and those rocks on which they might founder. 

Such is the fate of many Christians among us: they make a great spiritual effort to avoid glaring sins, which are the sad pitfalls where so many people are shipwrecked. Larceny, murder, false witness, adultery are fearsome enemies from which they flee with all their power; and because they do not succumb to these temptations, they neglect other sins as if they had nothing to fear. They speak with the same confidence as that proud Pharisee, whom St. Luke portrays in chapter 18 of his Gospel, and say with him, O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of men, who are robbers, evildoers, adulterers; nor like the tax collectors; for we mortify our bodies by frequent fasting, and assist the poor with our alms.

However, they have other vices, over which they pass lightly, but which, through long habit, continually corrupt their hearts in secret. The result is that they are shipwrecked as regards their salvation while they believe they are safe.

A 17th century Huguenot preacher
A 17th century Huguenot preacher

It is to awaken these false devotees from their deep slumber that we have chosen the words of St James that you have just heard, and which we will explain to you now. We could not better begin this year than by opposing the torrent that seems to flood this Church. We hear nothing but vain words, dirty speech, poisonous slander, and horrible blasphemies. These are those who sit in the seat of the scornful, ungodly people by their own admission who add crime after crime. But we should not be surprised, because the Holy Scriptures teach us that an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart; words become corrupted in the mouths of these people; everyone is wary of this and so it is easier to avoid such poison. 

Isn’t it pure doctrine and an upright life enough?

But there is another group of people whose life seems to conform to the rules of the Faith, who do not often let themselves fall into this sin that St James condemns. They imagine that by preserving the purity of their religion as regards doctrine and by claiming to lead morally upright lives, any simple words they utter will not endanger their salvation. You’re only half-Christians, you’re deceiving yourselves, you miserable people! For if anyone among you, says St. James, considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. This is what we intend to explain in this homily, with the help of the Holy Spirit. 

Although true devotion is very rare, there are few Christians who do not wish to be seen as sincere; most people in the Church profess this virtue. Some even claim such merit in the eyes of God. But it is difficult to find a sincere piety without any fault. For, if this freedom of speech, by which we so often insult our neighbour, is by itself capable of rendering our whole religion worthless, what should we make of the many other sins we commit, which seem far greater than those verbal punches that we refer to as clever gibes, so as to avoid the odious term they deserve: slander? We must therefore correct this false prejudice and show you with strong arguments from Christian morality that if anyone among you considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless, and that he is nothing but a false disciple.

But, you say, is it possible that our wit, our tendency to pronounce hasty judgements on whatever we hear, can render our religion vain? Is this the vice that St. James denounces when he writes against those who do not know how to keep a tight rein on their tongue? No, that cannot be his intention. These great torrents of words may be a weakness; but if they offend neither the honour owed to God nor brotherly love, surely one cannot say of these great talkers that their devotion is vain. They may tire their listeners, they may suffocate, so to speak, the conversation, but since their words are not poisonous, they do not impair charity, and all that happens is that a useless sound fades into thin air.

But I insist that St. James condemns such false mockers, those indiscreet critics from whom nothing escapes, those dangerous mouths which spread a poisonous breath.

Three aspects of slander

But to make this argument clearer, note that slander has these three characteristics. One is to impose on the innocent; this calumny is a fruit of those who do not know how to keep a tight rein on their tongue. Then, their excessive passion to speak so much – these blind people – makes them often blurt out black deceptions as if they were the greatest truths. And the other trait of an evil spirit is to publish weaknesses that should be covered by charity; we sin when we magnify objects to make the persons we accuse appear more odious. 

It is into these pitfalls that those of whom St. James speaks fall. They even imagine that their devotion gives them the right to censor all things with impunity. 

Shouldn’t one correct a wrongdoer?

But these avid critics ask: Should we close our eyes to everyone’s conduct? Will our silence not give new boldness to the wicked? And aren’t we working for their salvation by exposing all the shame of their evil deeds, as a brake which holds them back when we see them running blindly to their ruin? 

The claim is attractive, the intention grand, but let us lift the veil with which hypocrisy conceals itself in this matter, and we shall find that correcting sinners is not the prime motive behind the language of these critics. These criticisms have much more to do with vainglory, envy and hatred than Christian charity. The merit that raises our equals by birth above us, the privileges of a lineage more noble than ours, the goods and honours which put some distinction between men – these are the great motives behind this sad and slanderous spirit which makes us so much magnify the smallest mote in our brother’s eye.

We take a secret pleasure in mortifying them, at least by our words. An evil person rejoices in being able to harm the reputation of someone who overshadows him, without risking any danger to himself. He imagines he is rising in the world by destroying his brother. By his deceptions, he begs in a cowardly way for esteem, which he would have no right to expect from his merit, and tries to cover his shame by turning our eyes to the slight faults in the conduct of our neighbours.

But if a man has indeed failed in his duty, who has given you the right to criticise his conduct so highly and to blacken his reputation? Are you authorised to set him right when he has fallen into some fault? Do so, but do it in the spirit of Christianity, and by adhering closely to the maxims which the Gospel prescribes for you in a matter which must be regulated by prudence and charity. Study the lesson which the Lord Jesus gives you on this subject in chapter 18 of St. Matthew, which is of great use in Christian life, though it is not well known or, at least, very much neglected among us today: If your brother sins, go, says the Saviour of the world, and point out their fault, just between the two of you.

The right way to respond when someone maligns you

The Son of God does not want your neighbour to insult you with impunity; he gives you the freedom to complain and to ask whoever insults you for the restitution he owes you; but it should be done quietly, without any fuss. Point out their fault, he says, just between the two of you, i.e. in secret. Is that how you do it? Do you approach those who annoy you with a view to bringing them gently back to their obligation? No, it seems to you such an approach would show too much weakness on your part. It is here that you fail to keep a tight rein on your tongue.

You are determined, at least to express your passion in words. You criticise, you openly tear apart your brother’s life, and trample underfoot one of the most holy laws of our Lord Jesus Christ, who cries out to you: Wretched sinner, why do you vomit so much gall against your brother for a slight insult you have received? Where are you heading? Where is your passion taking you? In your reaction to him, imitate the way I have behaved towards you: Correct him, but without anger.

Aim for correction and not vengeance. Do not expose his misbehaviour to everyone at first. Try to correct him alone, and only if this proves unsuccessful, use the further liberty Jesus Christ gives you: Take one or two people with you to give more weight to your cause and your exhortations; and only if this approach fails, tell the Church. These three steps are marked out for you to be used for the correction of your neighbour. But it should always be done with gentleness; for if any man fails to keep a tight rein on his tongue, and is sour and quarrelsome, even if his complaint is justified and however devout he may seem, his religion is worthless.

Self-deception

We have shown you some sources of this mocking attitude, this biting spirit which is revealed in the words of these habitual critics. St. James mentions another reason when speaking of such people; They do not know how to keep a tight rein on their tongue, he says, because they deceive themselves. And in fact you will find that most of these clever critics are great hypocrites who pass lightly over their own faults, in order to dwell on those of others; they imagine they are immune to all reproach, and although their hearts are very corrupt, they flatter themselves with having extraordinary merit. This is what St. James calls self-deception, because it is true that by this tolerance of one’s faults, one falls into sinful slumber, which is the most dangerous of all deceptions. 

Such were the Scribes and Pharisees who asked Jesus Christ to pronounce a death sentence on a woman who had been caught in adultery (John 8). The Lord was well aware that this was a capital crime, and He had no intention of minimising its severity by His answer, but He wanted to reveal the malignity of those determined accusers, by telling them that he who is without sin should be the first to throw a stone at her. They were doctors who deceived themselves by convincing themselves that their lives were blameless, and that they could condemn this woman who had transgressed the law of God, without realising that no one was seeking to punish their own crimes.

When one’s heart is convinced of the vain idea that it is pure, that it is innocent, one is no longer master of one’s tongue. It claims an absolute right to judge human behaviour; it attacks all kinds of people, it stings, it bites and even tears everything apart with its words. That’s why we say that such people’s religion is worthless, whatever appearance of piety there may be in their behaviour.

Can simple words be so evil?

But is it possible, they will ask, that simple words – not motivated by strong hatred and not expressing themselves in bad deeds – are capable of rendering one’s religion worthless? If it is a sin, it is surely only one of those human weaknesses for which God easily forgives His children? For can a wrongly conceived thought, a too sharp remark against our neighbour invalidate all the other Christian virtues we practice? Yes, do not doubt it, if anyone among you considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Here are the reasons.

Slander is incompatible with true charity. Do not claim that your faith is pure, that it is based only on the grace of God, only on the merit of the Saviour of the world; that you openly profess that faith, and that you will never deny it: If you lack charity towards your brethren, your faith is only an illusion of the spirit. Never in the Church has there been a saving faith detached from love of one’s neighbour. It can be said of anyone who sins in this point that he is denying every other article of the Christian faith, for if anyone who claims to love God yet hates a brother is a liar (1 John 4:20).

Hypocritical worship

The service we render to God in His temple forms a considerable part of our religion, yet you wretched people who do not know how to keep a tight rein on your tongue. God despises your attendance in the holy assemblies, He rejects your offered prayers and praise, because it comes from an unclean mouth, corrupted by the venom of slander. You do not even keep a tight rein on your tongue in this holy place. Your malicious eyes often search for subjects which could provide a justification for vain words, for cruel mockery, for black accusations, which form the subject of your conversations; their religion is worthless, however beautiful their expression of religious worship may be, which they offer to God in this house of the Lord, since they desecrate it by their evil speech.

Hypocrisy usually arises from a satiric attitude, and this sin alone is enough to make our religion worthless. If a man were able to see himself clearly, he would be very cautious about judging others; the weakness he would find in his own life would keep him busy enough, without him taking the trouble to go and seek out his neighbour’s. Where, then, does this passion come from, that many of you have for spoiling the reputation of your brothers? It no doubt comes from a secret spiritual bias that persuades them that they are better than others.

The Pharisees were the most rigid critics among the Jews, and they took note of even the smallest things. If the disciples of Jesus Christ took their meal without washing their hands, that was a crime they could not forgive. When the Lord Jesus ate with tax collectors and worked miracles on the Sabbath, they called Him an enemy of God, who loved people who led evil lives. These are people who claim to be devout; but they are nothing but great hypocrites. Even today we see people among us with such a character, who do not know how to keep a tight rein on their tongue. They close their eyes to their own conduct. They want to appear as great disciples. But they are hiding under a false pretext; there is deep hypocrisy in all their behaviour, and this is what makes their religion worthless, as St. James says, who knew perfectly well all the sad consequences of this sin.

Are all sins equally bad?

I know that there is no sin that does not in some way damage our piety; but not all kinds of sins make our religion worthless. The faithful often fall into faults which we call weakness; they are sometimes swept away by the violence of their passions, which overcome their reason and confound them; but when we see them in this state, we do not say that they no longer have faith, because they still retain its true principles, even though they may transgress some of its holy maxims for a little while.

When we are wounded in the hand or in the foot, that part suffers, our health is somewhat impaired, but it cannot be said to be extinguished. It is different with wounds that come from the mouth of a viper; its venom first spreads through all the blood, the whole body suffers, and life is suffocated. Such are the swift effects of slander. This bitter venom, concealed under a poisonous tongue, communicates itself to all the Christian virtues. The devotion of a man who does not know how to keep a tight rein on his tongue languishes, it withers, his faith weakens, it becomes useless and vain by this mortal poison which he has cultivated through slander.

Faith without charity

A watch is one of the most beautiful inventions of the human spirit, and a masterpiece of art; but if the main spring is missing from such a device, all the other parts are useless. The same goes for the Christian religion: it is a masterpiece of God’s wisdom, a body made up of many parts. But if charity, which is the most important component, is missing, that faith is nothing but confusion, and this disorder spills over onto all the other Christian virtues. Thus, it is all too true that religion claimed by a slanderous man who lacks charity is a worthless religion, which he misuses.

This vice is all the more dangerous because it appears extremely free, and conceals itself in many forms. Praise given in a wrong way is fine satire; an awkward silence when we hear a laudable action being praised also stems from that evil spirit which only finds real pleasure in slander. For people who have this character, the blessings God bestows on their neighbours are a matter of sorrow. They are always looking for some pretext to offset their good qualities. They easily overlook their virtue in order to expose their weaknesses as much as possible. We see this disorder and rightly grasp its sinister consequences. We are therefore obliged to warn you of the danger in which you find yourselves by saying: Beware, bitter spirits, satirical spirits, slanderous spirits, who do not know how to keep a tight rein on your tongue, you are rendering your religion worthless by this wicked habit.

Slanderers are dogs

Slanderers want to appear to be people of spirit, but they usually accomplish exactly the opposite of what they claim to be. Their character is not like that of honest people in the world, even when they judge things sanely. It needs more strength, more substance, and above all a lot of good faith that is not found in the words of these wicked mockers. These vicious and biting spirits are extremely barren; they do not find enough in themselves to provide for reasonable conversation; they are dogs, as was once said, but of a wicked kind, since they only know how to bark and bite.

St James does not say that those who cannot keep a tight rein on their tongue have no religion, like atheists and godless people; on the contrary, he assumes that they try to pass themselves off as devout and more religious than other people; but theirs is only a phantom devotion, a false humility, an inflated zeal that renders all their religion worthless and as useless for salvation as the ungodliness of those who do not even have the appearance of true faith. So they will be punished on the last day more severely than others, because they had more knowledge, and corrupted the light God had given them by an evil and slanderous spirit that poisons everything they say and everything they are. Let us conclude that if anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

Satan sows his weeds 

Dear Brothers, we warned you at the beginning of this sermon that it was with a premeditated intention that we chose the words of St James to explain to you the matter I have just dealt with. Many sins abound in this Church. You are often justly reproached, your consciences are aroused by strong exhortations, you are not flattered, you are threatened with all the horrors of hell to make you give up lust, drunkenness, blasphemy, usury and many other scandalous habits which occupy the best part of your life. But what happens when we work openly to pluck these cursed plants from the Lord’s field? Satan comes, this enemy, and sows his weeds by night. He quietly spreads the seeds of many other vices, which rise up and burden this Church. They are concealed under a beautiful façade. They need to be made more visible, so that those who are guilty of them become aware of them. Such is the acrid mood and the satirical spirit that is taking new roots among us day by day.

Children learn from their parents

It is not among ordinary people that this vice is most prevalent: the craftsman is quite busy with his work, and slander usually arises from idleness. People do not boast about it, and this sin is considered as an enrichment of one’s speech, a skillful touch, and this wicked habit has become established among people who want to rise above their brethren, as if it were a virtue that should do them honour. 

No sooner do your children begin to speak than you train their tongues in this dangerous skill by domestic examples, and you have a poor opinion of them if they do not quickly learn the dirty, sharp words which please you and which you see as a sign of a sophisticated spirit when they get older. What care do you take to train their souls in the fear of God and in the respect which they should have for their elders?

You give them bad examples every day, fathers, mothers, children: everything is unleashed against the honour of your neighbour. You imagine that these sharp features are only fine taunts and appropriate to people of good standing. Your sons and daughters who have sucked this domestic venom spread it everywhere, these blows of the tongue are the ornament and the salt of most of your conversations. You find conversations sad and languid if they are not seasoned with a satirical touch. Serious talk burdens you. Christian thoughts are not to your taste. Good entertainment needs to be at the expense of others, and no matter where the pleasure comes from, no matter how impure the source, your hearts are always open to this profane joy which will cost you dearly.

Recognise your weakness

I also have this tendency. I know that this inclination is my weakness. But, you say, I do so many good deeds, I am very diligent in my acts of devotion, both in my family and in this temple. I have pity on the poor and help them with my means; the misfortunes of the afflicted touch me greatly. Is it possible that after all this my religion is worthless, because I do not know how to keep a tight rein on my tongue? Yes, and this is a heavenly truth, which you should reflect on today. For all your good deeds cannot compensate for the evils that are engendered by your slander. It is not for you to make up for it with God; you must know your duty; it is not enough to be strong in one area, if you are weak in other essential aspects such as this one. You lose all the honour of that rich reward that God has promised to his faithful servants.

It matters little to Satan how he advances his reign. As long as he loses us, he is always satisfied. The world’s road is wide, the Gospel says. There are crowds running along this unhappy path; its spirit animates sinners in a variety of ways: there are thieves, lustful people, corrupt people, but slanderers also follow this path of perdition, and their end will be no less sad than that of the others, their religion is worthless, and that is enough to make them eternally unhappy.

A New Year resolution

Make a holy resolution on this day – the start of a new year – to renounce this wicked habit in which many of you have become adept. Perhaps you have not been well aware of all its consequences. Its prevalence among us is like a torrent which has drawn you in, and its appeal has apparently held you captive in this vice. Open your eyes today to the mortal danger which threatens you if you persevere in this mood. From now on, pour the oil of holy consolation into the wounds which your tongue has made; think of your own salvation; strive with gentleness for that of your brothers and sisters; let a spirit of charity appear in all your conduct; bear with the weaknesses of your neighbour; reach out your hand to raise him up if you see him fall; learn from his failure so that you do not trip over the same obstacle. If anyone thinks he is standing firm in his faith, let him be careful, let him pray, let him watch out that he doesn’t fall.

Let fathers and mothers be more diligent than they have been up to now in the education of their children. Study their nature well, and if you see that they have a tendency to slander, tackle this malignant inclination, correct them, chastise them; it is a holy duty that you must exercise in such an important matter. When you see weeds growing in your gardens, you attack them by hand or, if necessary, with an iron tool to cut their roots. Look on any vicious temper, any evil or mocking spirit in your children as a weed that could bear abundant fruit in the form of all sorts of evil deeds. Prune it early, pluck it out if you can, down to the smallest fibre. But, above all, beware of being a bad example to them; there is nothing so dangerous as domestic examples, for it takes a miracle of God’s grace to persuade a child that he is sinning when he is merely following in the footsteps of those from whom he was born.

On this day, you are accustomed to make mutual wishes for a happy course of this new year. The fulfillment of your vows depends in part on you: change your way of living and you will see that God’s blessings will follow His judgments; be sober at your mealtimes, restrained in your speech, and chaste even in your thoughts; reflect especially in your homes on the exhortations we have given you; do not be so profane as to make of them a mental game and to laugh about a terrible subject, which concerns nothing less than your eternal condemnation, if you continue in the hardness of your hearts, or the salvation of your souls if you obey the voice of the Saviour of the world. May God grant an extraordinary effectiveness to His Word this day, so that it may be a service of reconciliation and peace for you, a service by which you receive the graces of the Holy Spirit, who changes you into new creatures, formed and fashioned in the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honour, glory, dominion and majesty for ever. 

Amen.

This is a lightly redacted translation of Deux Sermons prononcés à Castres les premiers jours des années 1681 et 1682. It is intended to give an impression of faithful Huguenots’ concern for personal holiness, as they faced increasing state hostility shortly before Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes.

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