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