John Newton on “Candour” or “If you don’t have anything nice to say. . .”

In the last weeks, I have read, listened, and watched as Christians have communicated with extreme vitriol toward one another. Leaders have used Twitter for verbal bombing runs. Young people have humiliated age-worn pastors. The news is filled with sexual, financial, and leadership scandals that have riddled the church. Why on earth would anyone want what you are offering? Who wins when you drop the mic on another Christian? What glory goes to God when you are rude or dramatic or just plain mean to play for the applaud of clicks and likes and retweets.

My mother often admonished my brother and me: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, just shut up.” OK, not really. She was nicer than that, and we were not allowed to say, “Shut up.” She said, “Don’t say anything at all.”

My friend John Newton also had a few things to say about this trouble sometime around 1765 when he described in a letter how believers should speak with candor, with honesty and openness to both believers and unbelievers:

“A truly candid person will acknowledge what is right and excellent in those from whom he may be obliged to differ: he will not charge the faults or extravagances of a few upon a whole party. . .he will not wilfully misrepresent or aggravate their mistakes or make them offenders for a word: he will keep in view the distinction between those things which are fundamental and essential to the Christian life, and those concerning which a difference of sentiment may and often has obtained among true believers.”

Works of John Newton, Vl. 1. page 253

How does this clarity and openness of character and speech function in daily interactions with other believers? John Newton’s advice was prescient in light of our current scenario:

  • Candour. . . forms the most favourable judgment of persons and characters, and puts the kindest construction upon the conduct of others that it possibly can, consistent with the love of truth.
  • Candour. . .makes allowances for the infirmities of human nature, will not listen with pleasure to what is said to the disadvantage of any, nor repeat it without a justifiable cause.

I was convicted by this description of verbal and attitudinal love. And Newton says this kindness doesn’t JUST extend to Jesus-believers, but also toward those who oppose the truth of the Gospel:

  • “I am not to hate, reproach, or affront him; or to detract from what may be valuable in his character, considered as a member of society.
  • I am bound to pity his errors, and to pray if peradventure God would give him repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.
  • I should speak with all gentleness and meekness, remembering that grace alone has made me to differ.”

How can we be gracious to others in actions, speech, and attitudes? How do we diminish the scorn that now adorns the self-righteous Twitter pulpits? Again from Newton. “Let us remember:

  • How totally ignorant we ourselves once were;
  • How often we have changed our sentiments in one particular or another;
  • How often we have been imposed upon by appearances; and
  • To how many different persons and occurrences we have been indebted, under God, for the knowledge which we have already attained.”

Believers. Please. Should we cut off our Twitter hand(le) if it causes us to sin? Maybe we could make new bracelets that read “HWJE?” How would Jesus edit?

This rancorous treatment of one another HAS! GOT! TO! STOP! When you keep sinning in this way:

  1. You don’t look like someone Jesus has saved when you treat each other this way. Hear Jesus in John 13: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
  2. You make it hard for people to know Jesus when you don’t love His people. John reminds the believers in 1 John 4: 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

Please, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

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