These words do imply a double duty; one incumbent on teachers, another on the people who are to be instructed by them.
The teacher's duty appeareth from reflecting on the words of the context, which govern these, and make them up an entire sentence: put them in mind, or, rub up their memory to do thus. It is St. Paul's injunction to Titus, a bishop and pastor of the Church, that he should admonish the people committed to his care and instruction, as of other great duties (of yielding obedience to magistrates, of behaving themselves peaceably, of practising meekness and equity towards all men, of being readily disposed to every good work), so particularly of this, [Greek], to revile or speak evil of no man.
Whence it is apparent that this is one of the principal duties that preachers are obliged to mind people of, and to press upon them. And if this were needful then, when charity, kindled by such instructions and examples, was so lively; when Christians, by their sufferings, were so inured to meekness and patience; even every one, for the honour of his religion, and the safety of his person, was concerned in all respects to demean himself innocently and inoffensively; then is it now especially requisite, when (such engagements and restraints being taken off, love being cooled, persecution being extinct, the tongue being set loose from all extraordinary curbs) the transgression of this duty is grown so prevalent and rife, that evil-speaking is almost as common as speaking, ordinary conversation extremely abounding therewith, that ministers should discharge their office in dehorting and dissuading from it.
Well indeed it were, if by their example of using mild and moderate discourse, of abstaining from virulent invectives, tauntings, and scoffings, good for little but to inflame anger, and infuse ill- will, they would lead men to good practice of this sort: for no examples can be so wholesome, or so mischievous to this purpose, as those which come down from the pulpit, the place of edification, backed with special authority and advantage.
However, it is to preachers a ground of assurance and matter of satisfaction, that in pressing this duty they shall perform their duty: their text being not so much of their own choosing, as given them by St. Paul; they can surely scarce find a better to discourse upon: it cannot be a matter of small moment or use, which this great master and guide so expressly directeth us to insist upon. And to the observance of his precept, so far as concerneth me, I shall immediately apply myself.
It is then the duty of all Christian people (to be taught and pressed on them) not to reproach, or speak evil of any man. The which duty, for your instruction, I shall first endeavour somewhat to explain, declaring its import and extent; then, for your further edification, I shall inculcate it, proposing several inducements persuasive to the observance of it.
I. For explication, we may first consider the object of it, no man; then the act itself, which is prohibited, to blaspheme, that is, to reproach, to revile, or (as we have it rendered) to speak evil.
No man. St. Paul questionless did especially mean hereby to hinder the Christians at that time from reproaching the Jews and the pagans among whom they lived, men in their lives very wicked and corrupt, men in opinion extremely dissenting from them, men who greatly did hate, and cruelly did persecute them; of whom therefore they had mighty provocations and temptations to speak ill; their judgment of the persons, and their resentment of injuries, making it difficult to abstain from doing so. Whence by a manifest analogy may be inferred that the object of duty is very large, indeed universal and unlimited: that we must forbear reproach not only against pious and virtuous persons, against persons of our own judgment or party, against those who never did harm or offend us, against our relations, our friends, our benefactors, in respect of whom there is no ground or temptation of evil-speaking; but even against the most unworthy and wicked persons, against those who most differ in opinion and practice from us, against those who never did oblige us, yea, those who have most disobliged us, even against our most bitter and spiteful enemies. There is no exception or excuse to be admitted from the quality, state, relation, or demeanour of men; the duty (according to the proper sense, or due qualifications and limits of the act) doth extend to all men: for, "Speak evil of no man."
As for the act, it may be inquired what the word [Greek] (to blaspheme) doth import. I answer, that it is to vent words concerning any person which do signify in us ill-opinion, or contempt, anger, hatred, enmity conceived in our minds towards him; which are apt in him to kindle wrath, and breed ill-blood towards us; which tend to beget in others that hear ill-conceit or ill-will towards him; which are much destructive of his reputation, prejudicial to his interests, productive of damage or mischief to him. It is otherwise in Scripture termed [Greek], to rail or revile, (to use bitter and ignominious language); [Greek], to speak contumeliously; [Greek], to bring railing accusation (or reproachful censure); [Greek], to use obloquy, or detraction; [Greek], to curse, that is, to speak words importing that we do wish ill to a person.
Such is the language we are prohibited to use. To which purpose we may observe that whereas, in our conversation and commerce with men, there do frequently often occur occasions to speak of men and to men words apparently disadvantageous to them, expressing our dissent in opinion from them, or a dislike in us of their proceedings, we may do this in different ways and terms; some of them gentle and moderate, signifying no ill mind or disaffection towards them; others harsh and sharp, arguing height of disdain, disgust, or despite, whereby we bid them defiance, and show that we mean to exasperate them. Thus, telling a man that we differ in judgment from him, or conceive him not to be in the right, and calling him a liar, a deceiver, a fool, saying that he doeth amiss, taketh a wrong course, transgresseth the rule, and calling him dishonest, unjust, wicked, to omit more odious and provoking names, unbecoming this place, and not deserving our notice, are several ways of expressing the same things whereof the latter, in relating passages concerning our neighbour, or in debating cases with him, is prohibited: for thus the words reproaching, reviling, railing, cursing, and the like do signify, and thus our Lord Himself doth explain them in His divine sermon, wherein he doth enact this law: "Whosoever," saith He, "shall say to his brother, Raca" (that is, vain man, or liar), "shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire;" that is, he rendereth himself liable to a strict account, and to severe condemnation before God, who useth contemptuous and contumelious expressions towards his neighbour, in proportion to the malignity of such expressions.
The reason of things also doth help to explain those words, and to show why they are prohibited because those harsh terms are needless, mild words serving as well to express the same things: because they are commonly unjust, loading men with greater defect or blame than they can be proved to deserve, or their actions do import; for every man that speaketh falsehood is not therefore a liar, every man that erreth is not thence a fool, every man that doeth amiss is not consequently dishonest or wicked; the secret intentions and habitual dispositions of men not being always to be collected from their outward actions; because they are uncharitable, signifying that we entertain the worst opinions of men, and make the worst construction of their doings, and are disposed to show them no favour or kindness: because, also, they produce mischievous effects, such as spring from the worst passions raised by them.
This in gross is the meaning of the precept. But since there are some other precepts seeming to clash with this; since there are cases wherein we are allowed to use the harsher sort of terms, there are great examples in appearance thwarting this rule; therefore it may be requisite for determining the limits of our duty, and distinguishing it from transgression, that such exceptions or restrictions should be somewhat declared.
1. First, then, we may observe that it may be allowable to persons in anywise concerned in the prosecution or administration of justice, to speak words which in private intercourse would be reproachful. A witness may impeach of crimes hurtful to justice, or public tranquillity; a judge may challenge, may rebuke, may condemn an offender in proper terms (or forms of speech prescribed by law), although most disgraceful and distasteful to the guilty: for it belongeth to the majesty of public justice to be bold, blunt, severe; little regarding the concerns or passions of particular persons, in comparison to the public welfare.
A testimony, therefore, or sentence against a criminal, which materially is a reproach, and morally would be such in a private mouth, is not yet formally so according to the intent of this rule. For practices of this kind, which serve the exigencies of justice, are not to be interpreted as proceeding from anger, hatred, revenge, any bad passion or humour; but in way of needful discipline for God's service, and common benefit of men. It is not, indeed, so much the minister of justice, as God Himself, our absolute Lord; as the Sovereign, God's representative, acting in the public behalf; as the commonwealth itself, who by His mouth do rebuke the obnoxious person.
2. God's ministers in religious affairs, to whom the care of men's instruction and edification is committed, are enabled to inveigh against sin and vice, whoever consequentially may be touched thereby: yea, sometimes it is their duty with severity and sharpness to reprove particular persons, not only privately, but publicly, for their correction, and for the edification of others.
Thus St. Paul directeth Timothy: "Them that sin" (notoriously and scandalously, he meaneth), "rebuke before all, that others may fear:" that is, in a manner apt to make impression on the minds of the hearers, so as to scare them from like offences. And to Titus he writes, "Rebuke them sharply, that they may be found in the faith." And, "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins," saith the Lord to the prophet. Such are the charges and commissions laid on and granted to His messengers.
Thus we may observe that God's prophets of old, St. John the Baptist, our Lord Himself, the holy apostles did in terms most vehement and biting reprove the age in which they lived, and some particular persons in them. The prophets are full of declamations and invectives against the general corruption of their times, and against the particular manners of some persons in them. "Ah, sinful nation; people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that are corrupters! They are all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men; and they bend their tongues like their bow for lies. Thy princes are rebellious and companions of thieves; every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come before them. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their means. As troops of robbers wait for a man, so the company of priests murder in the way by consent, and commit lewdness." Such is their style commonly. St. John the Baptist calleth the Scribes and Pharisees a "generation of vipers." Our Saviour speaketh of them in the same terms; calleth them an "evil and adulterous generation, serpents, and children of vipers. Hypocrites, painted sepulchres, obscure graves ([Greek]), blind guides; fools and blind, children of the devil." St. Paul likewise calleth the schismatical heretical teachers "dogs, false apostles, evil and deceitful workers, men of corrupt minds, reprobates and abominable." With the like colours do St. Peter, St. Jude, and other apostles paint them. Which sort of speeches are to be supposed to proceed, not from private passion or design, but out of holy zeal for God's honour, and from earnest charity towards men, for to work their amendment and common edification. They were uttered also by special wisdom and peculiar order; from God's authority, and in His name; so that, as God by them is said to preach, to entreat, to warn, and to exhort, so by them also He may be said to reprehend and reproach.
3. Even private persons in due season, with discretion and temper, may reprove others, whom they observe to commit sin, or follow bad courses, out of charitable design, and with hope to reclaim them. This was an office of charity imposed anciently even upon the Jews; much more doth it lie upon Christians, who are obliged more earnestly to tender the spiritual good of those who by the stricter and more holy bands of brotherhood are allied to them. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him," was a precept of the old law: and, [Greek], to admonish the disorderly, is an evangelical rule. Such persons we are enjoined to shun and decline; but first we must endeavour by sober advice and admonition to reclaim them; we must not thus reject them till they appear contumacious and incorrigible, refusing to hear us, or becoming deaf to reproof. This, although it necessarily doth include setting out their faults, and charging blame on them (answerable to their offences), is not the culpable reproach here meant, it being needful towards a wholesome effect, and proceeding from charitable intention.
4. Some vehemency, some smartness and sharpness of speech may sometimes be used in defence of truth, and impugning errors of bad consequence; especially when it concerneth the interest of truth, that the reputation and authority of its adversaries should somewhat be abased or abated. If by partial opinion or reverence towards them, however begotten in the minds of men, they strive to overbear or discountenance a good cause, their faults (so far as truth permitteth and need requireth) may be detected and displayed. For this cause particularly may we presume our Lord (otherwise so meek in His temper, and mild in His carriage towards all men) did characterise the Jewish scribes in such terms, that their authority, being then so prevalent with the people, might not prejudice the truth, and hinder the efficacy of His doctrine. This is part of that [Greek], that duty of contending earnestly for the faith, which is incumbent on us.
5. It may be excusable upon particular emergent occasions, with some heat of language to express dislike of notorious wickedness. As our Lord doth against the perverse incredulity and stupidity in the Pharisees, their profane misconstruction of His words and actions, their malicious opposing truth, and obstructing His endeavours in God's service. As St. Peter did to Simon Magus, telling him that he was in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. As St. Paul to Elymas the sorcerer, when he withstood him, and desired to turn away the Deputy Sergius from the faith; "O," said he, stirred with a holy zeal and indignation, "thou full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?" The same spirit which enabled him to inflict a sore punishment on that wicked wretch, did prompt him to use that sharp language towards him; unquestionably deserved, and seasonably pronounced. As also when the high priest commanded him illegally and unjustly to be misused, that speech from a mind justly sensible of such outrage broke forth, "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall." So when St. Peter presumptuously would have dissuaded our Lord from compliance with God's will, in undergoing those crosses which were appointed to Him by God's decree, our Lord calleth him Satan; . . . . "[Greek], "Avaunt, Satan, thou art an offence unto Me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that are of men."
These sort of speeches, issuing from just and honest indignation, are sometimes excusable, oftentimes commendable; especially when they come from persons eminent in authority, of notable integrity, endued with special measures of Divine grace, of wisdom, of goodness; such as cannot be suspected of intemperate anger, of ill- nature, of ill-will, or of ill-design.
In such cases as are above mentioned, a sort of evil-speaking about our neighbour may be allowable or excusable. But, for fear of overdoing, great caution and temper is to be used; and we should never apply any such limitations as cloaks to palliate unjust or uncharitable dealing. Generally it is more advisable to suppress such eruptions of passion than to vent it; for seldom passion hath not inordinate motions joined with it, or tendeth to good ends. And, however, it will do well to reflect on those cases, and to remark some particulars about them.
First, we may observe that in all these cases all possible moderation, equity, and candour are to be used; so that no ill- speaking be practised beyond what is needful or convenient. Even in prosecution of offences, the bounds of truth, of equity, of humanity and clemency are not to be transgressed. A judge must not lay on the most criminal person more blame or contumely than the case will bear, or than serveth the designs of justice. However our neighbour doth incur the calamities of sin and of punishment, we must not be insolent or contemptuous towards him. So we may learn by that law of Moses, backed with a notable reason: "And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault by a certain number. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed; lest if he should exceed, and beat him above those stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee." Whence appears that we should be careful of not vilifying an offender beyond measure. And how mildly governors should proceed in the administration of justice, the example of Joshua may teach us, who thus examineth Achan, the cause of so great mischief to the public: "My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto Him; and tell me now what thou hast done, and hide it not from me." "My son;" what compellation could be more benign and kind? "I pray thee;" what language could be more courteous and gentle? "give glory to God, and make confession;" what words could be more inoffensively pertinent? And when he sentenced that great malefactor, the cause of so much mischief, this was all he said, "Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord will trouble thee;" words void of contumely or insulting, containing only a close intimation of the cause, and a simple declaration of the event he was to undergo.
Secondly, likewise ministers, in the taxing sin and sinners, are to proceed with great discretion and caution, with much gentleness and meekness; signifying a tender pity of their infirmities, charitable desires for their good, the best opinion of them, and the best hopes for them, that may consist with any reason; according to those apostolical rules: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted;" and, "We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves:" and, more expressly, "A servant of the Lord must not fight, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves." Thus did St. Peter temper his reproof of Simon Magus with this wholesome and comfortable advice: "Repent, therefore, from this thy wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee."
Thirdly, as for fraternal censure and reproof of faults (when it is just and expedient to use it), ordinarily the calmest and mildest way is the most proper, and most likely to obtain good success; it commonly doth in a more kindly manner convey the sense thereof into the heart, and therein more powerfully worketh remorse, than the fierce and harsh way. Clearly to show a man his fault, with the reason proving it such, so that he becometh thoroughly convinced of it, is sufficient to breed in him regret, and to shame him before his own mind: to do more (in way of aggravation, of insulting on him, of inveighing against him), as it doth often not well consist with humanity, so it is seldom consonant to discretion, if we do, as we ought, seek his health and amendment. Humanity requireth that when we undertake to reform our neighbour, we should take care not to deform him (not to discourage or displease him more than is necessary); when we would correct his manners, that we should also consider his modesty, and consult his reputation; "curam agentes," as Seneca speaketh, "non tantum salutis, sed et honestae cicatricis" (having care not only to heal the wound, but to leave a comely scar behind). "Be," adviseth St. Austin, "so displeased with iniquity, as to consider and consult humanity;" for, "Zeal void of humanity is not," saith St. Chrysostom, "zeal, but rather animosity; and reproof not mixed with good-will appeareth a kind of malignity." We should so rebuke those who, by frailty or folly incident to mankind, have fallen into misdemeanours, that they may perceive we do sincerely pity their ill case, and tender their good; that we mean not to upbraid their weakness or insult upon their misfortune; that we delight not to inflict on them more grief than is plainly needful and unavoidable; that we are conscious and sensible of our own obnoxiousness to the like slips or falls, and do consider that we also may be tempted, and being tempted, may be overborne. This they cannot perceive or be persuaded of, except we temper our speech with benignity and mildness. Such speech prudence also dictateth, as most useful and hopeful for producing the good ends honest reprehension doth aim at; it mollifieth and it melteth a stubborn heart, it subdueth and winneth a perverse will, it healeth distempered affections. Whereas roughly handling is apt to defeat or obstruct the cure: rubbing the sore doth tend to exasperate and inflame it. Harsh speech rendereth advice odious and unsavoury; driveth from it and depriveth it of efficacy; it turneth regret for a fault into displeasure and disdain against the reprover; it looks not like the dealing of a kind friend, but like the persecution of a spiteful enemy; it seemeth rather an ebullition of gall, or a defluxion from rancour, than an expression of good-will; the offender will take it for a needless and pitiless tormenting, or for a proud and tyrannical domineering over him. He that can bear a friendly touch, will not endure to be lashed with angry and reproachful words. In fine, all reproof ought to be seasoned with discretion, with candour, with moderation, and meekness.
Fourthly, likewise in defence of truth, and maintenance of a good cause, we may observe that commonly the fairest language is most proper and advantageous, and that reproachful or foul terms are most improper and prejudicial. A calm and meek way of discoursing doth much advantage a good cause, as arguing the patron thereof to have confidence in the cause itself, and to rely upon his strength: that he is in a temper fit to apprehend it himself, and to maintain it; that he propoundeth it as a friend, wishing the hearer for his own good to follow it, leaving him the liberty to judge, and choose for himself. But rude speech, and contemptuous reflections on persons, as they do signify nothing to the question, so they commonly bring much disadvantage and damage to the cause, creating mighty prejudices against it; they argue much impotency in the advocate, and consequently little strength in what he maintains; that he is little able to judge well, and altogether unapt to teach others; they intimate a diffidence in himself concerning his cause, and that, despairing to maintain it by reason, he seeks to uphold it by passion; that not being able to convince by fair means, he would bear down by noise and clamour: that not skilling to get his suit quietly, he would extort it by force, obtruding his conceits violently as an enemy, or imposing them arbitrarily as a tyrant. Thus doth he really disparage and slur his cause, however good and defensible in itself.
A modest and friendly style doth suit truth; it, like its author, doth usually reside (not in the rumbling wind, nor in the shaking earthquake, nor in the raging fire, but) in the small still voice; sounding in this, it is most audible, most penetrant, and most effectual; thus propounded, it is willingly hearkened to: for men have no aversion from hearing those who seem to love them, and wish them well. It is easily conceived, no prejudice or passion clouding the apprehensive faculties; it is readily embraced, no animosity withstanding or obstructing it. It is the sweetness of the lips, which, as the wise man telleth us, increaseth learning; disposing a man to hear lessons of good doctrine, rendering him capable to understand them, insinuating and impressing them upon the mind; the affections being thereby unlocked, the passage becomes open to the reason.
But it is plainly a preposterous method of instructing, of deciding controversies, of begetting peace, to vex and anger those concerned by ill language. Nothing surely doth more hinder the efficacy of discourse, and prevent conviction, than doth this course, upon many obvious accounts. It doth first put in a strong bar to attention: for no man willingly doth afford an ear to him whom he conceiveth disaffected towards him: which opinion harsh words infallibly will produce; no man can expect to hear truth from him whom he apprehendeth disordered in his own mind, whom he seeth rude in his proceedings, whom he taketh to be unjust in his dealing; as men certainly will take those to be, who presume to revile others for using their own judgment freely, and dissenting from them in opinion. Again, this course doth blind the hearer's mind, so that he cannot discern what he that pretends to instruct him doth mean, or how he doth assert his doctrine. Truth will not be discerned through the smoke of wrathful expressions; right being defaced by foul language will not appear, passion being excited will not suffer a man to perceive the sense or the force of an argument. The will also thereby is hardened and hindered from submitting to truth. In such a case, non persuadebis, etiamsi persuaseris; although you stop his mouth, you cannot subdue his heart; although he can no longer fight, yet he never will yield: animosity raised by such usage rendereth him invincibly obstinate in his conceits and courses. Briefly, from this proceeding men become unwilling to mark, unfit to apprehend, indisposed to embrace any good instruction or advice; it maketh them indocile and intractable, averse from better instruction, pertinacious in their opinions, and refractory in their ways.
"Every man," saith the wise man, "shall kiss his lips that giveth a right answer;" but no man surely will be ready to kiss those lips which are embittered with reproach, or defiled with dirty language.
It is said of Pericles, that with thundering and lightning he put Greece into confusion; such discourse may serve to confound things, it seldom tendeth to compose them. If reason will not pierce, rage will scarce avail to drive it in. Satirical virulency may vex men sorely, but it hardly ever soundly converts them. "Few become wiser or better by ill words." Children may be frightened into compliance by loud and severe reprimands; but men are to be allured by rational persuasion backed with courteous usage; they may be sweetly drawn, they cannot be violently driven to change their judgment and practice. Whence that advice of the apostle, "With meekness instruct those that oppose themselves," doth no less savour of wisdom than of goodness.
Fifthly, as for examples of extraordinary persons, which in some cases do seem to authorise the practice of evil-speaking, we may consider that, as they had especial commission enabling them to do some things beyond ordinary standing rules, wherein they are not to be imitated: as they had especial illumination and direction, which preserved them from swerving in particular cases from truth and equity; so the tenor of their life did evidence that it was the glory of God, the good of men, the necessity of the case, which moved them to it. And of them also we may observe, that on divers occasions (yea, generally, whenever only their private credit or interest was concerned), although grievously provoked, they did out of meekness, patience, and charity, wholly forbear reproachful speech. Our Saviour, who sometimes upon special reason in His discourses used such harsh words, yet when He was most spitefully accused, reproached, and persecuted, did not open His mouth, or return one angry word: "Being reviled, He did not," as St. Peter, proposing His example to us, telleth us, "revile again; suffering, He did not threaten." He used the softest language to Judas, to the soldiers, to Pilate and Herod, to the priests, etc. And the apostles, who sometimes inveigh so zealously against the opposers and perverters of truth, did in their private conversation and demeanour strictly observe their own rules, of abstinence from reproach: "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it;" so doth St. Paul represent their practice. And in reason we should rather follow them in this their ordinary course, than in their extraordinary sallies of practice.
In fine, however in some cases and circumstances the matter may admit such exceptions, so that all language disgraceful to our neighbour is not ever culpable; yet the cases are so few and rare in comparison, the practice commonly so dangerous and ticklish, that worthily forbearing to reproach doth bear the style of a general rule; and particularly (for clearer direction) we are in the following cases obliged carefully to shun it; or in speaking about our neighbour we must observe these cautions.
1. We should never in severe terms inveigh against any man without reasonable warrant, or presuming upon a good call and commission thereto. As every man should not assume to himself the power of administering justice (of trying, sentencing, and punishing offenders), so must not every man take upon him to speak against those who seem to do ill; which is a sort of punishment, including the infliction of smart and damage upon the persons concerned. Every man hath indeed a commission, in due place and season, with discretion and moderation to admonish his neighbour offending; but otherwise to speak ill of him, no private man hath just right or authority, and therefore, in presuming to do it, he is disorderly and irregular, trespassing beyond his bounds, usurping an undue power to himself.
2. We should never speak ill of any man without apparent just cause. It must be just; we must not reproach men for things innocent or indifferent; for not concurring in disputable opinions with us, for not complying with our humour, for not serving our interest, for not doing anything to which they are not obliged, or for using their liberty in any case: it must be at least some considerable fault, which we can so much as tax. It must also be clear and certain, notorious and palpable; for to speak ill upon slender conjectures, or doubtful suspicions, is full of iniquity. "[Greek], "They rail at things which they know not," is part of those wicked men's character, whom St. Jude doth so severely reprehend. If, indeed, these conditions being wanting, we presume to reproach any man, we do therein no less than slander him; which to do is unlawful in any case, is in truth a most diabolical and detestable crime. To impose odious names and characters on any person, which he deserveth not, or without ground of truth, is to play the devil; and hell itself scarce will own a fouler practice.
3. We should not cast reproach upon any man without some necessary reason. In charity (that charity which "covereth all sins," which "covereth a multitude of sins") we are bound to connive at the defects, and to conceal the faults of our brethren; to extenuate and excuse them, when apparent, so far as we may in truth and equity. We must not therefore ever produce them to light, or prosecute them with severity, except very needful occasion urgeth -- such as is the glory and service of God, the maintenance of truth, the vindication of innocence, the preservation of public justice and peace; the amendment of our neighbour himself, or securing others from contagion. Barring such reasons (really being, not affectedly pretended), we are bound not so much as to disclose, as to touch our neighbour's faults; much more, not to blaze them about, not to exaggerate them by vehement invectives.
4. We should never speak ill of any man beyond measure; be the cause never so just, the occasion never so necessary, we should yet nowise be immoderate therein, exceeding the bounds prescribed by truth, equity, and humanity. We should never speak worse of any man whatever than he certainly deserveth, according to the most favourable construction of his doings; never more than the cause absolutely requireth. We should rather be careful to fall short of what in rigorous truth might be said against him, than in the least to pass beyond it. The best cause had better seem to suffer a little by our reservedness in its defence, than any man be wronged by our aspersing him; for God, the patron of truth and right, is ever able to secure them without the succour of our unjust and uncharitable dealing. The contrary practice hath indeed within it a spice of slander, that is, of the worst iniquity.
5. We must never speak ill of any man out of bad principles, or for bad ends.
No sudden or rash anger should instigate us thereto. For, "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil-speaking be put away from you, with all malice," is the apostolical precept; they are all associates and kindred, which are to be cast away together. Such anger itself is culpable, as a work of the flesh, and therefore to be suppressed; and all its brood therefore is also to be smothered; the daughter of such a mother cannot be legitimate. "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God."
We must not speak ill out of inveterate hatred or ill-will. For this murderous, this viperous disposition should itself be rooted out of our hearts: whatever issueth from it cannot be otherwise than very bad; it must be a poisonous breath that exhaleth from that foul source.
We must not be provoked thereto by any revengeful disposition, or rancorous spleen, in regard to any injuries or discourtesies received. For, as we must not revenge ourselves, or render evil in any other way, so particularly not in this, which is commonly the special instance expressly prohibited. "Render not evil for evil," saith St. Peter, "nor railing for railing; but contrariwise bless," or speak well; and "Bless them," saith the Lord, "which curse you;" "Bless," saith St. Paul, "and curse not."
We must not also do it out of contempt; for we are not to slight our brethren in our hearts. No man really, considering what he is, whence he came, how he is related, what he is capable of, can be despicable. Extreme naughtiness is indeed contemptible; but the unhappy person that is engaged therein is rather to be pitied than despised. However, charity bindeth us to stifle contemptuous motions of heart, and not to vent them in vilifying expression. Particularly, it is a barbarous practice, out of contempt to reproach persons for natural imperfections, for meanness of condition, for unlucky disasters, for any involuntary defects; this being indeed to reproach mankind, unto which such things are incident; to reproach Providence, from the disposal whereof they do proceed. "Whoso mocketh the poor, despiseth his Maker," saith the wise man; and the same may be said of him that reproachfully mocketh him that is dull in parts, deformed in body, weak in health or strength, defective in any such way.
Likewise we must not speak ill out of envy; because others do excel us in any good quality, or exceed us in fortune. To harbour this base and ugly disposition in our minds is unworthy of a man (who should delight in all good springing up anywhere, and befalling any man, naturally allied unto him); it is most unworthy of a Christian, who should tender his brother's good as his own, and rejoice with those that rejoice. From thence to be drawn to cast reproach upon any man, is horrible and heinous wickedness.
Neither should we ever use reproach as a means of compassing any design we do affect or aim at; 'tis an unwarrantable engine of raising us to wealth, dignity, or repute. To grow by the diminution, to rise by the depression, to shine by the eclipse of others, to build a fortune upon the ruins of our neighbour's reputation, is that which no honourable mind can affect, no honest man will endeavour. Our own wit, courage, and industry, managed with God's assistance and blessing, are sufficient, and only lawful instruments of prosecuting honest enterprises; we need not, we must not instead of them employ our neighbour's disgrace; no worldly good is worth purchasing at such a rate, no project worth achieving by such foul ways.
Neither should we out of malignity, to cherish or gratify ill humour, use this practice. It is observable of some persons, that not out of any formed displeasure, grudge, or particular disaffection, nor out of any particular design, but merely out of a [Greek], an ill disposition, springing up from nature, or contracted by use, they are apt to carp at any action, and with sharp reproach to bite any man that comes in their way, thereby feeding and soothing that evil inclination. But as this inhuman and currish humour should be corrected, and extirpated from our hearts; so should the issues thereof at our mouths be stopped; the bespattering our neighbour's good name should never afford any satisfaction or delight unto us.
Nor out of wantonness should we speak ill, for our divertisement or sport. For our neighbour's reputation is too great and precious a thing to be played with, or offered up to sport; we are very foolish in so disvaluing it, very naughty in so misusing it. Our wits are very barren, our brains are ill furnished with store of knowledge, if we can find no other matter of conversation.
Nor out of negligence and inadvertency should we sputter out reproachful speech; shooting ill words at rovers, or not regarding who stands in our way. Among all temerities this is one of the most noxious, and therefore very culpable.
In fine, we should never speak concerning our neighbour from any other principle than charity, or to any other intent but what is charitable; such as tendeth to his good, or at least is consistent therewith. "Let all your things," saith St. Paul, "be done in charity;" and words are most of the THINGS we do concerning our neighbour, wherein we may express charity. In all our speeches, therefore, touching him, we should plainly show that we have a care of his reputation, that we tender his interest, that we even desire his content and repose. Even when reason and need do so require that we should disclose and reprehend his faults, we may, we should by the manner and scope of our speech signify thus much. Which rule, were it observed, if we should never speak ill otherwise than out of charity, surely most ill-speaking would be cut off; most, I fear, of our tattling about others, much of our gossiping would be marred.
Indeed, so far from bitter or sour our language should be, that it ought to be sweet and pleasant; so far from rough and harsh, that it should be courteous and obliging; so far from signifying wrath, ill- will, contempt, or animosity, that it should express tender affection, good esteem, sincere respect towards our brethren; and be apt to produce the like in them towards us. The sense of them should be grateful to the heart; the very sound and accent of them should be delightful to the ear. Every one should please his neighbour for his good to edification. Our words should always be [Greek], with grace, seasoned with salt; they should have the grace of courtesy, they should be seasoned with the salt of discretion, so as to be sweet and savoury to the hearers. Commonly ill language is a certain sign of inward enmity and ill-will. Good-will is wont to show itself in good terms; it clotheth even its grief handsomely, and its displeasure carrieth favour in its face; its rigour is civil and gentle, tempered with pity for the faults and errors which it disliketh, with the desire of their amendment and recovery whom it reprehendeth. It would inflict no more evil than is necessary; it would cure its neighbour's disease without exasperating his patience, troubling his modesty, or impairing his credit. As it always judgeth candidly, so it never condemneth extremely.
II. But so much for the explication of this precept, and the directive part of our discourse. I shall now briefly propound some inducements to the observance thereof.
1. Let us consider that nothing more than railing and reviling is opposite to the nature, and inconsistent with the tenor of our religion; which (as even a heathen did observe of it) nil nisi justum suadet, et lene, doth recommend nothing but what is very just and mild; which propoundeth the practices of charity, meekness, patience, peaceableness, moderation, equity, alacrity, or good humour, as its principal laws, and declareth them the chief fruits of the Divine spirit and grace; which chargeth us to curb and compose all our passions; more particularly to restrain and repress anger, animosity, envy, malice, and such-like dispositions, as the fruits of carnality and corrupt lust; which consequently drieth up all the sources or dammeth up the sluices of bad language. As it doth above all things oblige us to bear no ill-will in our hearts, so it chargeth us to vent none with our mouths.
2. It is therefore often expressly condemned and prohibited as evil. 'Tis the property of the wicked; a character of those who work iniquity, to "whet their tongues like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words."
3. No practice hath more severe punishments denounced to it than this. The railer (and it is indeed a very proper and fit punishment for him, he being exceedingly bad company) is to be banished out of all good society; thereto St. Paul adjudgeth him: "I have," saith he, "now written unto you, not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one not to eat." Ye see what company the railer hath in the text, and with what a crew of people he is coupled; but no good company he is allowed elsewhere; every good Christian should avoid him as a blot, and a pest of conversation; and finally he is sure to be excluded from the blessed society above in heaven; for "neither thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God;" and "without" (without the heavenly city) "are dogs," saith St. John in his Revelation; that is, those chiefly who out of currish spite or malignity do frowardly bark at their neighbours, or cruelly bite them with reproachful language.
4. If we look upon such language in its own nature, what is it but a symptom of a foul, a weak, a disordered and a distempered mind? 'Tis the smoke of inward rage and malice: 'tis a stream that cannot issue from a sweet spring; 'tis a storm that cannot bluster out of a calm region. "The words of the pure are pleasant words," as the wise man saith.
5. This practice doth plainly signify low spirit, ill-breeding, and bad manners; and thence misbecometh any wise, any honest, any honourable person. It agreeth to children, who are unapt and unaccustomed to deal in matters considerable, to squabble; to women of meanest rank (apt, by nature, or custom, to be transported with passion) to scold. In our modern languages it is termed villainy, as being proper for rustic boors, or men of coarsest education and employment; who, having their minds debased by being conversant in meanest affairs, do vent their sorry passions, and bicker about their petty concernments, in such strains; who also, being not capable of a fair reputation, or sensible of disgrace to themselves, do little value the credit of others, or care for aspersing it. But such language is unworthy of those persons, and cannot easily be drawn from them, who are wont to exercise their thoughts about nobler matters, who are versed in affairs manageable only by calm deliberation and fair persuasion, not by impetuous and provocative rudeness; which do never work otherwise upon masculine souls than so as to procure disdain and resistance. Such persons, knowing the benefit of a good name, being wont to possess a good repute, prizing their own credit as a considerable good, will never be prone to bereave others of the like by opprobrious speech. A noble enemy will never speak of his enemy in bad terms.
We may further consider that all wise, all honest, all ingenuous persons have an aversion from ill-speaking, and cannot entertain it with any acceptance or complacence; that only ill-natured, unworthy, and naughty people are its willing auditors, or do abet it with applause. The good man, in Psalm xv., non accipit opprobrium, doth not take up, or accept, a reproach against his neighbour: "but a wicked doer," saith the wise man, "giveth heed to false lips, and a liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue." And what reasonable man will do that which is disgustful to the wise and good, is grateful only to the foolish and baser sort of men? I pretermit that using this sort of language doth incapacitate a man for benefiting his neighbour, and defeateth his endeavours for his edification, disparaging a good cause, prejudicing the defence of truth, obstructing the effects of good instruction and wholesome reproof; as we did before remark and declare. Further --
6. He that useth this kind of speech doth, as harm and trouble others, so create many great inconveniences and mischiefs to himself thereby. Nothing so inflameth the wrath of men, so provoketh their enmity, so breedeth lasting hatred and spite, as do contumelious words. They are often called swords and arrows; and as such they pierce deeply, and cause most grievous smart; which men feeling are enraged, and accordingly will strive to requite them in the like manner and in all other obvious ways of revenge. Hence strife, clamour, and tumult, care, suspicion, and fear, danger and trouble, sorrow and regret, do seize on the reviler; and he is sufficiently punished for this dealing. No man can otherwise live than in perpetual fear of reciprocal like usage from him whom he is conscious of having so abused. Whence, if not justice, or charity towards others, yet love and pity of ourselves should persuade us to forbear it as disquietful, incommodious, and mischievous to us.
We should indeed certainly enjoy much love, much concord, much quiet, we should live in great safety and security, we should be exempted from much care and fear, if we would restrain ourselves from abusing and offending our neighbour in this kind: being conscious of so just and innocent demeanour towards him, we should converse with him in a pleasant freedom and confidence, not suspecting any bad language or ill usage from him.
7. Hence with evidently good reason is he that useth such language called a fool: and he that abstaineth from it is commended as wise. "A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes. A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul. He that refraineth his tongue is wise. In the tongue of the wise is health. He that keepeth his lips, keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his mouth" (that is, in evil- speaking, gaping with clamour and vehemency) "shall have destruction. The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious: but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof;" that is, of the one or the other, answerably to the kind of speech they choose.
In fine, very remarkable is that advice, or resolution of the grand point concerning the best way of living happily, in the psalmist: "What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile." Abstinence from ill-speaking he seemeth to propose as the first step towards the fruition of a durably happy life.
8. Lastly, we may consider that it is a grievous perverting of the design of speech, that excellent faculty, which so much distinguisheth us from, so highly advanceth us above other creatures, to use it to the defaming and disquieting of our neighbour. It was given us as an instrument of beneficial commerce and delectable conversation; that with it we might assist and advise, might cheer and comfort one another: we, therefore, in employing it to the disgrace, vexation, damage or prejudice in any kind of our neighbour, do foully abuse it; and so doing, render ourselves indeed worse than dumb beasts: for better far it were that we could say nothing, than that we should speak ill.
"Now the God of grace and peace . . . make us perfect in every good work to do His will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."