Best of Daily Reflections: The Three Gatekeepers
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
I learned the lesson of the three gatekeepers from my mother-in-law, who learned them from a book now forgotten. An Arabic proverb begins, “The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers.”
The first gatekeeper asks, “Is it true?”
The second, “Is it kind?”
The third, “Is it necessary?”
These three questions hold extraordinary power. Often we might ask one of the questions, but rarely all three. If it’s true, we should be able to say it, so we skip past kindness and necessity and spill truth regardless of context. Or we assume something we are about to say is kind, but we don’t consider if it’s true. (And I would argue, that makes it not kind but nice, which is simply saying something happy-sounding to fill a void where meaningful things cannot be said.)
We like talking about gossip, especially abstractly, because it’s an easy term to throw around. We like talking about being careful with our words if they contain profanities or something unpleasant sounding, a saccharine interpretation of what it means to use our words well.
But sometimes Jesus used words in anger. Sometimes God’s prophets had some graphic things to say. (See, for example, Ezekiel.)
The three gatekeepers of speech may help us move beyond overly-simplistic Christianese toward honest, hard, but meaningful work by our words. The three gatekeepers permit us to speak out against abuse in the church, to denounce false teaching, to defend those in need of defense.
When we ask if something is true, first and foremost, we let go of speculation. We do not speak about abstract maybes or could-bes, but matters we have not only knowledge of but also the certainty that will let us stand confidently before Jesus on the last day.
When we ask, then, if the thing we want to say is kind, we must do the hard work of understanding what kindness is. As I mentioned, kindness is not niceness. Kindness asks not if the truth is pleasant but if the truth is in true service of building up. Sometimes the kind thing to do is to denounce the abuser for the sake of the abused, like Nathan coming to David after his rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah.
When we ask then, at last, if it is necessary, we ask questions about our context. Who can hear these words? Who can see them? Is this the right place and time to speak, or is another time, a different medium, better?
What if our concern for our words was less about whether or not someone swore and more about whether what they said was true and, if true, kind, and, if kind, necessary? What if we asked these questions of ourselves?
QUESTION FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you practice the work of the three gatekeepers?
PRAYER: Holy Spirit, our comforter and inspiration, preserve each word we speak in your embrace. May every thought be conformed to you, every utterance purged in our holiness, so that our words, in tenderness or anger, would be a reflection of our Lord and brother Jesus Christ, through the power of God. Amen.