Editor’s note: This month at GCD you will be seeing articles from our team of Staff Writers and other contributors on a handful of topics that Jonathan Edwards introduced in his own Resolutions. The aim of this series is to help you see how a gospel-formed resolution can help you flourish in your love for Christ and for others next year. Click here to see all articles in this series.
On December 19, 1722, the supply preacher of a small Presbyterian church in New York City made a second journal entry in his new endeavor: “Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.”
This entry eventually became known as number thirty-six of Jonathan Edwards’ “Resolutions.” Edwards, the supply preacher, would become well known for these resolutions in the years to come. To him, the “Resolutions” were a collection of matter-of-fact statements he sought to live by. These were not the kinds of resolutions culturally associated with New Year’s Day.
As biographer George Claghorn observes, “For Edwards, [the Resolutions] were neither pious hopes, romantic dreams, nor legalistic rules. They were instructions for life, maxims to be followed in all respects. Edwards depended on the sustaining strength of his omnipotent Deity to enable him to live up to them.”
And certainly, God help any man trying to live according to that second entry, known as Resolution #36: “Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.” Talk about a pious hope, a romantic dream, a legalistic rule if you’ve ever heard of one!
SPEAK NO EVIL
In our own day, speaking evil is far from taboo. It’s a practice most of us engage in to some degree, whether subtle or explicit, private or public (more on that in a moment).
Edwards didn’t provide any comments regarding his resolutions; after all, part of their charm is their brevity. So here I am, nearly 300 years later, left wondering what exactly motivated such a statement. Why did Edwards feel the need to make this resolution? And how can we apply it to our own 2018 context?
One of the greatest cultural lies about our words is that while “sticks and stones may break my bones, words may never hurt me.” Words, culturally speaking, are treated as inconsequential. They carry little weight. We hardly flinch at spoken evil, because they are just words.
I believe one of the driving forces behind Resolution #36 is Edwards’ acute sense of the power of the tongue. No doubt Edwards knew his Bible, and in a season of preaching on the words of Jesus, James, Paul, Solomon, and the prophets, there is no doubt that he was aware of what all these men taught about the tongue. Take James’ words, perhaps some of the most blunt, on the power of the tongue:
“The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” – James 3:6-8
THE POWER OF THE TONGUE
Other biblical authors agreed with James’ observations of the tongue’s power, the weightiness of words. Solomon remarked that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
Near its end, Romans 1, a passage often consulted as a condemnation of the practice of homosexuality, actually makes even more frequent mention to the sins of gossip, slander, boasting, spreading evil, and ruthlessness, noting that even the approval of such sins is contemptible (Rom. 1:28-32).
Jesus once strikingly warned, “On the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37, emphasis added).
STICKS AND STONES . . .
Sticks and stones may break bones, but words have the potential to break one’s soul.
“Speaking evil of any” then, for the biblical authors and for Edwards, was any form of speech toward or about another that was destructive, harmful, negative, unrighteous, or unforgiving. Every careless word will be taken note of.
It’s that last attribute I want to focus on now: “careless.” All evil speech is careless. In one sense, it is careless because it is absent of care for the one of whom it speaks.
As Christians, all created in the image of God, related linearly to one another, we have been called to let our speech be full of grace and seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). Paul wrote that our speech should have the same kind of preserving quality that salt has; it is not to be acidic and to break down, but to build up.
If we are truly, as Paul said, “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20), our speech must be perceived as the same “words of life” that Christ spoke in the world (John 6:63, 68).
WHEN SPEAKING EVIL IS GOOD
But there’s another important part of Edwards’ resolution that needs to be discussed, and that’s the qualifier of his first statement: “Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.”
Is there ever a moment, as Christians, when “speaking evil” is the right thing to do? Yes, according to Edwards. Hang with me a moment.
If I’m reading Edwards right, it seems there are times in life where we reprove, we denounce, we break down, we refuse to preserve, we spread the word of rebuke over another because it’s the biblical thing to do.
When would this ever be the case? We need “some particular good call for it.”
That is important because if such a call exists, our words are no longer careless in nature—indeed, there is purpose and intention instead of absentmindedness or recklessness. What we find in Scripture is that our words can—and should—be used not only to build one another up, but also to tear down what is evil in the world.
Paul calls us to “expose” the fruitless deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:11-12), to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). For the one who persists in sin, “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20).
Paul, and Edwards, knew there would certainly be moments in which we are compelled by the gospel to speak out, and that might require hard words, even public rebuke.
So the solution is not simply to “Judge not!” We should judge “with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We should do so because we care.
The end goal ultimately must be the proclamation of the words of life. We all participate in the preaching of the gospel by our using words because they are necessary.
Christians today experience the power of the tongue in a way Jonathan Edwards never did. Edwards never had to live in a day where online trolling was seen as a sport, putting notches in belts of the anonymous for “sick burns.”
Speaking evil is part and parcel of how our culture communicates. And every careless word, whether posted to Twitter or written in a diary, will be included in what Leif Enger called “The Great Ledger of our recorded decisions.”
But our place in time is not necessarily a bad thing. We actually have a brilliant opportunity to leverage our moment, our words in these days, for the glory of God. We have an amazing opportunity and unprecedented access to denounce evil in the name of Christ, to speak the gospel’s refining fire into the world, and use words that demonstrate our utter care.
Like the rest of Edwards’ resolutions, we can only bring our words into submission of Christ by the power of the Spirit in us. We will say things we regret. We will put our feet in our mouths sometimes.
But with Christ’s help, and for his glory, we can resolve with Edwards to put away careless speech, to practice speaking with care, only “speaking evil” when the gospel compels us to do so.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.