"Holy One, set a guard at my mouth, a watcher at the gate of my lips." - Psalm 141: 3
There is a time to speak up and to speak out; and there is a time to be quiet, to refrain from speaking — even though we may wish with all that is in us to speak. So, here the Psalmist asks God to, "Set a guard at my mouth, a watcher at the gate of my lips."
That's quite an image, a holy mouthguard. A little sentry at our lips, upon our tongue.
In what circumstances might we need such a mouth guard?
Is it when we are just babbling on, without saying anything of consequence? Perhaps. Or is it when we are inclined to say something malicious about another person? That too.
But most of all, I need the holy mouthguard when I am tempted to justify myself, to make my case for my own rectitude or innocence, my own virtue or significance. The theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, observed that, "Self-justification is the most prevalent source of error."
In the face of accusations or personal attack, or in the midst of conflict, it is difficult to not want to make our case, to explain ourselves and put ourselves in a good light. We long to protest that we are right or in the right. But it may be precisely then, when we ache to justify ourselves, that we need to be cautious, to call upon God to set, "A watcher at the gate of my lips," and to refrain from self-justifying remarks.
In the 141st Psalm, the author faces a time of just such provocation. What does the Psalmist do instead of speaking? "To you Lord God, I turn my eyes. I take shelter in you, do not leave me exposed!" The Psalmist turns to God for his justification, for her solace, for security and serenity. In the face of provocation, the Psalmist prays, turning it over to God.
One of the core truths of the Christian faith, as I understand it, is that we are "justified by God's grace." We cannot, in the end, make our case or justify ourselves. And to attempt to do so, at least sometimes, only makes things worse. Better to trust that we are held in God's love, justified by God's grace, and that some things are best left unsaid.
Grant, Holy One, the wisdom to discern when is the time to speak and when is the time to be silent. And if the latter, help me. Amen.
Tony Robinson, a United Church of Christ minister, is a speaker, teacher, and writer. His newest book is Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day. You can read Tony's "Weekly Meditation" and "What's Tony Thinking?" at his website, www.anthonybrobinson.com.