My mother, like so many other mothers, used to tell me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all. This nearly ubiquitous phrase, which now thanks to the internet is the subject of countless memes, is thoroughly biblical, and so, not surprisingly, puritan. Here then, we have another example of a popular contemporary saying that has a connection with the puritans of old.
James 4:11 says, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” To speak evil of another is to defame, slander or speak derogatorily about others, especially behind their back. Speaking evil can take many forms. Robert Johnstone, in his commentary on James (republished by the Banner of Truth Trust), wrote: “The sin of evil-speaking exhibits itself in mainly these forms: the propagation of what is known to be a calumnious lie,-the exaggeration or distortion of truth,-the hasty passing on of what may or may not be truth, but certainly has not been inquired into,-and the needless telling of what is known to be truth.”
Johnstone’s last form of evil speaking is worth highlighting: “the needless telling of what is known to be truth.” We might justify our evil speaking with the claim that it’s true, but if there is no good and necessary reason to expose someone’s fault, then we are speaking evil of one another. Proverbs 10:12 says “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
The destructive power of evil speaking or slander is well-known. We are able to destroy a person’s or a business’ reputation so that people will look at them differently or even stay away from them altogether. Slander destroys relationships, and may even tear apart best friends (Prov. 16:28). James Boice has said that “more damage had been done to the church and its work by gossip, criticism, and slander than by any other single sin.”
Why would we speak evil of one another? We might engage in it in order to retaliate against any real or perceived offences. Or we might tear someone down because of our selfishness. We enjoy gossip or we want to steal customers from a successful competitor. Or we might speak evil because of our pride. We are jealous of someone or we want to increase our own stature by putting others down.
God, however, hates evil speaking. The Bible unequivocally and repeatedly condemns all forms of slander. According to James Adamson, the Old Testament denounces evil speaking, both against God and man, more than any other offense.
So, what does all of this have to do with the puritans and popular contemporary sayings? Well, this brings us to Matthew Henry and his commentary on James 4:11. He noted that “we must not speak evil things of others” even if they are true unless it is necessary to do so. “Our lips,” Henry wrote, “must be guided by the law of kindness, as well as truth and justice.” Shortly after that comment, he wrote what amounts to the saying our mothers have instilled in us: “where we cannot speak well, we had better say nothing than speak evil.” The surrounding context is worth quoting in full:
It is required of us that we be tender of the good name of our brethren; where we cannot speak well, we had better say nothing than speak evil; we must not take pleasure in making known the faults of others, divulging things that are secret, merely to expose them, nor in making more of their known faults than really they deserve, and, least of all, in making false stories, and spreading things concerning them of which they are altogether innocent.
Our mothers are right. If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. Silence, in those moments, is golden.