“Thy Speech Reveals Thee”


L. Tom Perry
Just as a passport photo, a signature, or a thumbprint can identify an individual, Peter’s speech revealed who he was and where he had been reared. Just as surely, the words you speak can classify and categorize you.

“Thy Speech Reveals Thee”

One of the great characters of the New Testament who has always held a special fascination for me is Peter. Peter had to struggle so hard to overcome the things of the world and prepare himself to be a real witness and teacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is an interesting lesson to be learned in the relationship between the Savior and Peter during those final few hours before the Savior’s trial and crucifixion.

The scriptures tell us they had been together at the Last Supper, and after they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives:

“Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.

“But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee.

“Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.

“Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

“Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee” (Matt. 26:31–35).

Then came those fateful hours where Peter did not identify himself with the Savior, but still his love for him demanded that he be present at those trials to see what occurred.

“Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee.

“But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest.

“And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and said unto them that were there, This fellow was also with Jesus of Nazareth.

“And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.

“And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.

“Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.

“And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly” (Matt. 26:69–75).

Just as a passport photo, a signature, or a thumbprint can identify individuals, Peter’s speech revealed who he was and where he had been reared. Just as surely are you classified and put in a special category by those who hear the words you speak.

My Fair Lady has always been one of my favorite Broadway shows. In one scene Professor Higgins said he could identify people’s stations in life and their countries of origin by the way they spoke. As you remember, he accepted the challenge of taking one of the street people, a young lady named Eliza, and through consistent preparation and training change her style of speech so that she could be passed off as a woman of nobility.

As the show depicts, we find a truism. Our speech reflects the kind of person we are, exposing our background and our way of life. It describes our thinking, as well as our inner feelings. Today, probably more than in any other period of history, we find more profanity and vulgarity being used. It seems to stem from our television and movie presentations. Many are filled with language that can only defile the minds of men.

My wife had a birthday a few months ago. Being a dutiful husband, I determined we should go out to a movie together. We scanned the movie advertisements in the newspaper to find one that had the proper rating we thought we could enjoy watching. We picked out one with a PG rating, only to find after just a few minutes in the movie, the language was such that we could not tolerate it. I was embarrassed to come out and see the crowd standing in line. I didn’t want them to observe me coming out of a movie that had such vulgar language.

I had a particular experience in my life that showed me how using the wrong word can shock those who do not expect such an utterance to come from you. I was in boot camp in the Marine Corps during World War II. Of course, the language among my fellow Marines was not of the caliber that you would want to repeat. Being a recently returned missionary, I determined I should keep my language above the level which they were using. I endeavored consistently to keep from saying even the simplest and most common of swear words.

One day we were on the rifle range firing for our final qualification scores. I had done well in the 100-, 200-, and 300-yard positions. Now we were back at the 500-yard position. All I needed was a reasonable score—just hitting the target without even having to hit the bull’s-eye, and I would make Expert Rifleman. We had been charged up with the desire to excel and be the top platoon in firing for qualifications. I tensed up at the 500-yard standing position, and on my first shot threw my shoulder into the rifle. Of course, the flag waved—I had missed the target. And likewise, I missed the opportunity of being named an Expert Rifleman.

Out of my mouth came a little four-letter word that I had determined never to use. Much to my shock and chagrin, suddenly the whole range stopped firing and everyone turned and looked at me with their mouths open. Any other Marine firing from that position that day could have used the word I used without anyone paying attention. Because I had determined that I would carry the standards of the mission field into the Marine Corps, everyone was shocked when I forgot myself.

Men in all ages have been strong in their criticism of those who would use vulgarity and profanity in their speech. Let’s look at the words of just three. First from S. H. Cox, who said:

“Of all the dark catalogue of sins, there is not one more vile and execrable than profaneness. It commonly does, and loves to cluster with other sins; and he who can look up and insult his Maker to his face, needs but little improvement in guilt to make him a finished devil” (Tyron Edwards, comp., The New Dictionary of Thoughts, USA: Standard Book Co., 1961, p. 521).

From Shakespeare we have, “Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word” (New Dictionary, p. 521).

George Washington enlightened us, “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low, that every person of sense and character detests and despises it” (New Dictionary, p. 521).

Church leaders have instructed and counseled and pleaded with us to use the right language. From President Spencer W. Kimball we read:

“When we go to places of entertainment and mingle among people, we are shocked at the blasphemy that seems to be acceptable among them. The commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ (Ex. 20:7.) Except in prayers and proper sermons, we must not use the name of the Lord. Blasphemy used to be a crime punishable by heavy fines. Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1974, p. 7).

President Stephen L. Richards has written, “How regrettable it is that man, seemingly oblivious to this honorable and sacred relationship, should profane his holy name and blaspheme Christ. Do you think that a son can damn his father and love him?” (Where Is Wisdom? Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955, p. 238).

The Savior Himself instructed us in these words concerning the use of our speech. He said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man” (Matt. 15:11).

Many times in our effort to refrain from improper speech, we find words to substitute. Sometimes they are so close to vulgar phrases everyone probably knows that we are substituting words and have not really improved our vocabulary.

I have been appalled at times as I have listened to missionaries give their homecoming addresses and heard the phrases, sentences, or words they have picked up in the mission field that were really substitutes for vulgarity, demonstrating their inability to master a proper vocabulary and give the correct impression of what they had been doing on their mission.

To anyone who has followed the practice of using profanity or vulgarity and would like to correct the habit, could I offer this suggestion? First, make the commitment to erase such words from your vocabulary. Next, if you slip and say a swear word or a substitute word, mentally reconstruct the sentence without the vulgarity or substitute word and repeat the new sentence aloud. Eventually you will develop a non-vulgar speech habit.

I think the instructions Paul gave to the Ephesian Saints would be of value to all of us.

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

“And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:29–30).

My dear young brothers and sisters, have the courage to keep your speech clean and wholesome. Improve your vocabulary—it will place you among those who will be found serving the Lord.

In conclusion, let me quote this statement from the Savior, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).

May your mouth speak out of the abundance of that which is good in your heart is my prayer for all of you, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen.

[photos] Facial casting impression by Craig V. Lee, D.D.S. Photography by Jed Clark

[illustrations] Paintings by Carl Bloch