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I am resolved, by the grace of God, to speak of other men’s sins only before their faces, and of their virtues only behind their backs.
To commend men when they are present, I esteem almost as great a piece of folly as to reprove them when they are absent; though I do confess, in some cases, and to some persons, it may be commendable; especially when the person is not apt to be puffed up, but spurred on by it. But to rail at others, when they hear me not, is the highest piece of folly imaginable; for, as it is impossible they should get any good, so is it impossible but that I should get much hurt by it. For, such sort of words, make the very best we can of them, are but idle and unprofitable, and may not only prove injurious to the person of whom, but even to whom they are spoken, by wounding the credit of the former, and the charity of the latter; and so, by consequence, my own soul; nay, even though I speak that which is true in itself, and known to be so to me; and, therefore, this way of backbiting ought by all means to be avoided.
But, I must, much more, have a care of raising false reports concerning any one, or of giving credit to them that raise them, or of passing my judgment, till I have weighed the matter; lest I transgress the rules of mercy and charity, which command me not to censure any one upon other’s rumours, or my own surmises; nay, if the thing be in itself true, still to interpret it in the best sense. But, if I must needs be raking in other men’s 167sores, it must not be behind their backs, but before their faces; for, the one is a great sin, and the other may be as great a duty, even to reprove my neighbour for doing any thing offensive unto God, or destructive to his own soul; still endeavouring so to manage the reproof, as to make his sin loathsome to him, and prevail upon him, if possible, to forsake it: but there is a great deal of Christian prudence and discretion to be used in this, lest others may justly reprove me for my indiscreet reproof of others. I must still fit my reproof to the time when, the person to whom, and the sin against which it is designed; still contriving with myself how to carry on this duty so as that, by ‘converting a sinner from the evil of his ways, I may save a soul from death, and cover a multitude of sins.’182182 James, v. 20. Not venting my anger against the person, but my sorrow for the sin that is reproved. Hot, passionate, and reviling words, will not so much exasperate a man against his sin that is reproved, as against the person that doth reprove it. It is ‘not the wrath of man that worked] the righteousness of God.’183183 James, i. 20. But this, of all duties, must be performed with the spirit of love and meekness; I must first insinuate myself into his affections, and then press his sin upon his conscience, and that directly or indirectly, as the person, matter, or occasion shall require; that so he that is reproved by me now, may have cause to bless God for me to all eternity,168
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