Arthur Pink, 1935
"He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin" (Proverbs 13:3). "A guard upon the lips is a guard to the soul—he who is careful, who thinks twice before he speaks once, that, if he has thought evil, lays his hand upon his mouth to suppress it; he who keeps a strong bridle on his tongue, and a strict hand on the bridle—he keeps his soul from a great deal of guilt and grief, and saves himself the trouble of many bitter reflections on himself, and others upon him" (Matthew Henry). Alas, how many are now saying—by their very attitude and actions "our lips are our own—who is Lord over us?" (Psalm 12:4).
"Brothers, do not speak evil of one another" (James 4:11). Is not this a word which is much needed by some of us today? Alas, in some quarters the habit of discrediting others behind their backs has become so common that it is regarded almost as a matter of course; the mentioning to others of a brother's faults or a sister's failures, the repeating of unfavorable reports which have come to our ears—is so general that few appear to make any conscience thereof. Nevertheless, God still says "Brothers, do not speak evil of one another." Yes, this is an exhortation which requires to be prayerfully taken to heart, by not a few. Personally, the writer has to acknowledge with shame that this Divine injunction has not had the restraining influence upon his unruly tongue which it ought, and in what follows he desires to preach unto himself as well as to others. How solemn it is to observe that one of the sins mentioned in that awful catalogue enumerated in Romans 1:29-31, is that of detraction or injuring the reputation of others, "whisperers, backbiters". Herein does the corruption of man's vitiated nature evidence itself. To stain the good reputation of another is highly reprehensible.
God commanded us to love our neighbor as our self, and this requires that I am to be concerned not only about his person and property—but to protect his good name. "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches" (Proverbs 22:1), and therefore to rob a man of his good name—is worse than stealing his property. A citizen of Zion is thus described, "One who has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman" (Psalm 15:3).
"Don't speak evil against each other, brethren" (James 4:11). That which is here forbidden, is the saying of anything, be it true or false, to the harm of another. God requires that our words should be governed by "the law of kindness" (Proverbs 31:26), and anything which would hurt or injure the reputation of another is to be rigidly shunned. Whenever I cannot speak well of my brother or sister, I must say nothing at all. It is devilish to take delight in exposing the faults of fellow-Christians, and stirring up prejudice and bitter feelings against them (Rev. 12:10). God requires that our words should agree with love—as well as with truth. Since Christians are brethren, the last thing they should be guilty of is defaming one another.
"Do not pay attention to every word people say" (Eccl. 7:21). "Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causes to err from the words of knowledge" (Proverbs 19:27). Beware of evil listening! Those who receive tales about others, who delight to hear of the failings of their brethren, encourage evil speakers in their sin and are partakers of their guilt. "The north wind drives away rain—so does an angry countenance a backbiting tongue" (Proverbs 25:23). The Christian is not only bidden to abstain from all evil speaking himself—but is required to discourage this sin in others by frowning on it and endeavoring to disapprove it. Slanders would not be so readily spoken as they are—if they were not so readily heard. "Many abuse those spoken evil of, only in hopes to curry favor with those they speak to" (Matthew Henry). Disappoint them by showing your disapproval.
Since it be a grievous sin to speak evil of a brother in Christ, how much greater is the offence when it is committed against one of His ministering servants! True, they are not faultless, yet their blemishes are not to be blazed abroad—but should be covered with the mantle of love. "Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" (Num. 12:8)—observe the emphasis—you should be afraid to speak evil against any one, much more against My honored servant. It is written, "Against an elder, receive not an accusation—but before two or three witnesses" (1 Tim. 5:19). It is at our peril that we say or do anything against the servants of God, for He reckons those who touch them as touching "the apple of His eye" (Zech. 2:8). "Touch not My anointed, and do My prophets no harm" (Psalm 105:15) is His express command.
To speak evil of others, proceeds from ill will or malice, either desiring that they should be made odious in the esteem of others, or being quite indifferent if that effect be produced. To say that no harm is intended, is to talk foolishly, "Just as damaging as a mad man shooting a lethal weapon, is someone who deceives his friend and then says—I was only joking." (Proverbs 26:18, 19). Much repeating of the ill reports about others, issues from an uncharitable readiness to believe the worst, "For I heard the defaming of many, fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it" (Jer. 20:10). But the chief cause of this evil is an unruly tongue, nor are we likely to seek grace for bridling that member, until we really make conscience of this sin.
It is both striking and searching to note how often the Holy Spirit addresses Himself to God's children on this subject. Many are the verses in the Book of Proverbs which contain beneficial instruction for the right use of our tongues. So also in the New Testament, exhortations are frequently given against the wrong use of our tongues. "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice" (Eph. 4:31). "Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt" (Col. 4:6).
"Therefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that you may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:1, 2). There must be the definite and daily "laying aside" of these bad habits if we are to preserve a healthy appetite for spiritual things. "For he who will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no deceit" (1 Peter 3:10). Here is one of the Divine rules of longevity, "evil speaking" has more ill effect upon the health than many imagine!
But is all speaking evil of another unlawful? No, though even here it is hard to keep clear of sinning. There are times when it is a duty to caution our friends against those who might prove a harm to them. If I know one is about to buy an article that has been misrepresented, or trust some money to a dishonest person, then I must faithfully raise my voice in warning. If I should be summoned as a witness in court, then I am bound to tell what I know. Yet, where the glory of God and the honour of His Gospel is at stake, or where there is danger of a brother being imposed upon or wronged, and my duty to speak out is plain, nevertheless, the following cautions need to be heeded.
First, take pains to fully verify what you have heard, and make sure that what you relate is true.
Second, do it in a right spirit—not censoriously, nor with delight—but with godly sorrow.
Third, be impartial, and if occasion requires you to mention another's faults, be careful not to conceal his virtues.
Except where the glory of God plainly requires it, and the good of our neighbor or brother demands it—we must refrain from all evil speaking of others. If we are duly occupied with and humbled over our own many faults, we shall have neither time nor inclination to dwell upon or publish those of others. If we properly heed the exhortation of Philippians 4:8, we shall cultivate the habit of admiring the graces in our brethren—instead of like filthy flies settling on their sores. Certain it is, that if we are not tender of the reputation of others, God will make us taste of the bitterness of this affliction for ourselves, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked—for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7). "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matt. 7:2).
How solemn is that word, "They speak evil of you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead" (1 Peter 4:4, 5). Well may we pray, "Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord! Keep watch over the door of my lips!" (Psalm 141:3)