By Mary J. Moerbe
People value speaking. It is a favored form of communication that can be sensitive, timely, and beautiful. Speaking well is praised so highly that it can qualify as a job requirement! Even for those who might stumble over words on occasion—myself included—it can be a small offering of our presence when others suffer. Not all speech, however, is so praised. Speaking to oneself is more likely to elicit a raised eyebrow than a nod of approval, but perhaps it, too, has a place.
There is more historical precedence for talking to yourself, even with full voice, than you may realize. The ancient Greeks and Romans who sought wisdom read out loud to themselves. And although their practice of doing so certainly offered subject matter to others around them, those men were primarily doing it for themselves to help them grapple with the material in a holistic, rather than silently mental, way.
For those more curious or influenced by biblical accounts and trends among Israel, there is Hannah’s prayer. Deeply distressed by her barrenness and grief from Peninnah (her husband’s other wife), she turned to God in prayer and received a quite shocking response from Eli, the priest, who was visiting. It was so unusual to speak “in [your] heart” (1 Samuel 1:13) rather than aloud, Eli took Hannah to be drunk!
Moving her lips while thinking her thoughts, perhaps mumbling her prayer softly, stood in direct contrast with common practice of the time. In ancient cultures, including Israel, Greece, and Rome, reading, praise, and prayer were always aloud.
We needn’t go so far as to say the Ancients had an ideal system. Eventually the times caught up with them and it became socially necessary to have reading rooms: rooms where one could read aloud without disturbing others. However, we can still consider what changes may have crept in from the change of practices. How might reading aloud impact our reading selections? Education? How might praying full-voiced affect us and those around us? Would reading Scripture be different?
Talking to yourself, it seems, has more complicated ramifications than those with raised eyebrows might have considered. If talking to yourself serves your neighbor, intentionally or otherwise, it is a vocational activity.
I would argue that any time your lips are wrestling with your brain for the good of your neighbor, such speech falls within vocational service. What if you break the silence to try to shift focus back to a task? That serves your neighbor. What if you repeat that grocery list or a planned order of errands until someone looks at you funny? You are still using your God-given voice to serve your neighbor well within the parameters God has given us.
Now imagine, if you will, two figures, one on each shoulder: one speaks for good, the other for ill. As Lutherans, we know that there really are two words out there: truth and lying distortion, God’s and the devil’s. Both clatter around our thoughts and days, hovering just within our ears, affecting us powerfully every day.
In particular, the devil aims my focus onto reflections of myself, my work, my abilities, and all my weaknesses thereof. While he is pleased to lie about God, he delights to accuse me based entirely on myself.
One error in particular that so many of us make is to cut ourselves apart through our silent thoughts and fears. If only it were always God’s Law, cutting through to reveal truth. Many of my own self-directed judgments reek more of the lies of the devil. Here, too, speaking aloud can serve a child of God.
When my mind speaks the devil’s words, there is still the mind and words of Christ. Whether I’m with others or alone, I can try to use my mouth to speak a better word, countering evil with the good. Said simply, speaking to yourself out loud can function within your vocation to be a baptized child of God!
The Ancients knew that speech had power, even when they spoke to themselves. We similarly find that repeating facts, figures, and lists helps us to remember them. When we use our ears as well as our lips, we may be better positioned to catch an error either in style or substance.
Speaking with oneself out loud can certainly serve our neighbor, but it is also often part of our efforts and struggles to live the vocations given to us by our Lord. Yes, sometimes we need to speak the Law to ourselves, but we can also, more generally, speak the truth to fight against the distortions.
“[T]he tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:5a). I want to discipline tongue toward good and useful service!
May God renew within me the mind of Christ! And, as I live in the daily cycles of repentance and forgiveness, may my speaking out loud bear testimony to myself and others that the Holy Spirit battles my temptations and the lies within and around me.
Think about it. Talk about it. What’s to stop you? Reset the parameters of your self-consciousness and see whether talking to yourself a bit proves helpful. Try praying, reading, and rehearsing aloud. Mutter in the grocery aisle. Or, encourage yourself—and unintentionally others—toward godly perspective and the neighbors God calls you to serve.
Mary J. Moerbe is an LCMS deaconess and writer. She blogs to encourage Lutherans to write at “Meet, Write, and Salutary,” and her next book, Blessed: God’s Gift of Love, will be published by Concordia Publishing House this summer.