'The soul of religion is the practick part.'--Christian.
Since we all have a tongue, and since so much of our time is taken up with talk, a simple catalogue of the sins of the tongue is enough to terrify us. The sins of the tongue take up a much larger space in the Bible than we would believe till we have begun to suffer from other men's tongues and especially from our own. The Bible speaks a great deal more and a great deal plainer about the sins of the tongue than any of our pulpits dare to do. In the Psalms alone you would think that the psalmists scarcely suffer from anything else worth speaking about but the evil tongues of their friends and of their enemies. The Book of Proverbs also is full of the same lashing scourge. And James the Just, in a passage of terrible truth and power, tells us that we are already as good as perfect men if we can bridle our tongue; and that, on the other hand, if we do not bridle our tongue, all our seeming to be religious is a sham and a self-deception,--that man's religion is vain.
With many men and many women great talkativeness is a matter of simple temperament and mental constitution. And a talkative habit would be a childlike and an innocent habit if the heart of talker and the hearts of those to whom he talks so much were only full of truth and love. But our hearts and our neighbours' hearts being what they are, in the multitude of words there wanteth not sin. So much of our talk is about our absent neighbours, and there are so many misunderstandings, prejudices, ambitions, competitions, oppositions, and all kinds of cross-interests between us and our absent neighbours, that we cannot long talk about them till our hearts have run our tongues into all manner of trespass. Bishop Butler discourses on the great dangers that beset a talkative temperament with almost more than all his usual sagacity, seriousness, and depth. And those who care to see how the greatest of our modern moralists deals with their besetting sin should lose no time in possessing and mastering Butler's great discourse. It is a truly golden discourse, and it ought to be read at least once a month by all the men and all the women who have tongues in their heads. Bishop Butler points out to his offending readers, in a way they can never forget, the certain mischief they do to themselves and to other people just by talking too much. But there are far worse sins that our tongues fall into than the bad enough sins that spring out of impertinent and unrestrained loquacity. There are many times when our talk, long or short, is already simple and downright evil. It is ten to one, it is a hundred to one, that you do not know and would not believe how much you fall every day and in every conversation into one or other of the sins of the tongue. If you would only begin to see and accept this, that every time you speak or hear about your absent neighbour what you would not like him to speak or hear about you, you are in that a talebearer, a slanderer, a backbiter, or a liar,--when you begin to see and admit that about yourself, you will not wonder at what the Bible says with such bitter indignation about the diabolical sins of the tongue. If you would just begin to-night to watch yourselves--on the way home from church, at home after the day is over, to-morrow morning when the letters and the papers are opened, and so on,--how instinctively, incessantly, irrepressibly you speak about the absent in a way you would be astounded and horrified to be told they were at that moment speaking about you, then you would soon be wiser than all your teachers in the sins and in the government of the tongue. And you would seven times every day pluck out your tongue before God till He gives it back to you clean and kind in that land where all men shall love their neighbours, present and absent, as themselves.
Take detraction for an example, one of the commonest, and, surely, one of the most detestable of the sins of the tongue. And the etymology here, as in this whole region, is most instructive and most impressive. In detraction you draw away something from your neighbour that is most precious and most dear to him. In detraction you are a thief, and a thief of the falsest and wickedest kind. For your neighbour's purse is trash, while his good name is far more precious to him than all his gold. Some one praises your neighbour in your hearing, his talents, his performances, his character, his motives, or something else that belongs to your neighbour. Some one does that in your hearing who either does not know you, or who wishes to torture and expose you, and you fall straight into the snare thus set for you, and begin at once to belittle, depreciate, detract from, and run down your neighbour, who has been too much praised for your peace of mind and your self-control. You insinuate something to his disadvantage and dishonour. You quote some authority you have heard to his hurt. And so on past all our power to picture you. For detraction has a thousand devices taught to it by the master of all such devices, wherewith to drag down and defile the great and the good. But with all you can say or do, you cannot for many days get out of your mind the heart-poisoning praise you heard spoken of your envied neighbour. Never praise any potter's pots in the hearing of another potter, said the author of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said potter's pots, but he really all the time was thinking of a philosopher's books; only he said potter's pots to draw off his readers' attention from himself. Now, always remember that ancient and wise advice. Take care how you praise a potter's pots, a philosopher's books, a woman's beauty, a speaker's speech, a preacher's sermon to another potter, philosopher, woman, speaker, or preacher; unless, indeed, you maliciously wish secretly to torture them, or publicly to expose them, or, if their sanctification is begun, to sanctify them to their most inward and spiritual sanctification.
Backbiting, again, would seem at first sight to be a sin of the teeth rather than of the tongue, only, no sharpest tooth can tear you when your back is turned like your neighbour's evil tongue. Pascal has many dreadful things about the corruption and misery of man, but he has nothing that strikes its terrible barb deeper into all our consciences than this, that if all our friends only knew what we have said about them behind their back, we would not have four friends in all the world. Neither we would. I know I would not have one. How many would you have? And who would they be? You cannot name them. I defy you to name them. They do not exist. The tongue can no man tame.
'Giving of characters' also takes up a large part of our everyday conversation. We cannot well help characterising, describing, and estimating one another. But, as far as possible, when we see the conversation again approaching that dangerous subject, we should call to mind our past remorse; we should suppose our absent neighbour present; we should imagine him in our place and ourselves in his place, and so turn the rising talk into another channel. For, the truth is, few of us are able to do justice to our neighbour when we begin to discuss and describe him. Generosity in our talk is far easier for us than justice. It was this incessant giving of characters that our Lord had in His eye when He said in His Sermon on the Mount, Judge not. But our Lord might as well never have uttered that warning word for all the attention we give it. For we go on judging one another and sentencing one another as if we were entirely and in all things blameless ourselves, and as if God had set us up in our blamelessness in His seat of judgment over all our fellows. How seldom do we hear any one say in a public debate or in a private conversation, I don't know; or, It is no matter of mine; or, I feel that I am not in possession of all the facts; or, It may be so, but I must not judge. We never hear such things as these said. No one pays the least attention to the Preacher on the Mount. And if any one says to us, I must not judge, we never forgive him, because his humility and his obedience so condemn all our ill-formed, prejudiced, rash, and ill-natured judgments of our neighbour. Since, therefore, so Butler sums up, it is so hard for us to enter on our neighbour's character without offending the law of Christ, we should learn to decline that kind of conversation altogether, and determine to get over that strong inclination most of us have, to be continually talking about the concerns, the behaviour, and the deserts of our neighbours.
Now, it was all those vices of the tongue in full outbreak in the day of James the Just that made that apostle, half in sorrow, half in anger, demand of all his readers that they should henceforth begin to bridle their tongues. And, like all that most practical apostle's counsels, that is a most impressive and memorable commandment. For, it is well known that all sane men who either ride on or drive unruly horses, take good care to bridle their horses well before they bring them out of their stable door. And then they keep their bridle-hand firm closed on the bridle-rein till their horses are back in the stable again. Especially and particularly they keep a close eye and a firm hand on their horse's bridle on all steep inclines and at all sharp angles and sudden turns in the road; when sudden trains are passing and when stray dogs are barking. If the rider or the driver of a horse did not look at nothing else but the bridle of his horse, both he and his horse under him would soon be in the ditch,--as so many of us are at the present moment because we have an untamed tongue in our mouth on which we have not yet begun to put the bridle of truth and justice and brotherly love. Indeed, such woe and misery has an untamed tongue wrought in other churches and in other and more serious ages than ours, that special religious brotherhoods have been banded together just on the special and strict engagement that they would above all things put a bridle on their tongues. 'What are the chief cares of a young convert?' asked such a convert at an aged Carthusian. 'I said I will take heed to my ways that I trespass not with my tongue,' replied the saintly father. 'Say no more for the present,' interrupted the youthful beginner; 'I will go home and practise that, and will come again when I have performed it.'
Now, whatever faults that tall man had who took up so much of Faithful's time and attention, he was a saint compared with the men and the women who have just passed before us. Talkative, as John Bunyan so scornfully names that tall man, though he undoubtedly takes up too much time and too much space in Bunyan's book, was not a busybody in other men's matters at any rate. Nobody could call him a detractor or a backbiter or a talebearer or a liar. Christian knew him well, and had known him long, but Christian was not afraid to leave him alone with Faithful. We all know men we feel it unsafe to leave long alone with our friends. We feel sure that they will be talking about us, and that to our hurt, as soon as our backs are about. But to give that tall man his due, he was not given with all his talk to tale-bearing or scandal or detraction. Had he been guilty of any of these things, Faithful would soon have found him out, and would have left him to go to the Celestial City by himself. But, after talking for half a day with Talkative, instead of finding out anything wrong in the tall man's talk, Faithful was so taken and so struck with it, that he stepped across to Christian and said, 'What a brave companion we have got! Surely this man will make a most excellent pilgrim!' 'So I once thought too,' said Christian, 'till I went to live beside him, and have to do with him in the business of daily life.' Yes, it is near neighbourhood and the business of everyday life that try a talking man. If you go to a meeting for prayer, and hear some men praying and speaking on religious subjects, you would say to yourself, What a good man that is, and how happy must his wife and children and servants and neighbours be with such an example always before them, and with such an intercessor for them always with God! But if you were to go home with that so devotional man, and try to do business with him, and were compelled to cross him and go against him, you would find out why Christian smiled so when Faithful was so full of Talkative's praises.
But of all the religiously-loquacious men of our day, your ministers are the chief. For your ministers must talk in public, and that often and at great length, whether they are truly religious men at home or no. It is their calling to talk to you unceasingly about religious matters. You chose them to be your ministers because they could talk well. You would not put up with a minister who could not talk well on religious things. You estimate them by their talk. You praise and pay them by their talk. And if they are to live, talk incessantly to you about religion they must, and they do. If any other man among us is not a religious man, well, then, he can at least hold his tongue. There is no necessity laid on him to speak in public about things that he does not practise at home. But we hard-bested ministers must go on speaking continually about the most solemn things. And if we are not extraordinarily watchful over ourselves, and extraordinarily and increasingly conscientious, if we are not steadily growing in inwardness and insight and depth and real spirituality of mind and life ourselves, we cannot escape,--our calling in life will not let us escape,--becoming as sounding brass. There is an awful sentence in Butler that should be written in letters of fire in every minister's conscience, to the effect that continually going over religion in talk and making fine pictures of it in the pulpit, creates a professional insensibility to personal religion that is the everlasting ruin of multitudes of eloquent ministers. That is true. We ministers all feel that to be true. Our miserable experience tells us that is only too true of ourselves. What a flood of demoralising talk has been poured out from the pulpits of this one city to-day!--demoralising to preachers and to hearers both, because not intended to be put in practice. How few of those who have talked and heard talk all this day about divine truth and human duty, have made the least beginning or the least resolve to live as they have spoken and heard! And, yet, all will in words again admit that the soul of religion is the practick part, and that the tongue without the heart and the life is but death and corruption.
Let us, then, this very night begin to do something practical after all this talk about talk. And let us all begin to do something in the direct line of our present talk. What a noble congregation of evangelical Carthusians that would make us if we all put a bridle on our tongue to-night before we left this house. For we all have neighbours, friends, enemies, against whom we every day sin with our unbridled tongue. We all have acquaintances we are ashamed to meet, we have been so unkind and so unjust to them with our tongue. We hang down our head when they shake our hand. Yes, we know the men quite well of whom Pascal speaks. We know many men who would never speak to us again if they only knew how, and how often, we have spoken about them behind their back. Well, let us sin against them, and against ourselves, and against our Master's command and example no more. Let this night and this lecture on Talkative and his kindred see the last of our sin against our ill-used neighbour. Let us promise God and our own consciences to-night, that we shall all this week put on a bridle about that man, and about that subject, and in that place, and in that company. Let us say, God helping me, I shall for all this week not speak about that man at all, anything either good or bad, nor on that subject, nor will I let the conversation turn into that channel at all if I can help it. And God will surely help us, till, after weeks and years of such prayer and such practice, we shall by slow degrees, and after many defeats, be able to say with the Psalmist, 'I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue. I will keep my mouth with a bridle. I will be dumb with silence. I will hold my peace even from good.'
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH