Sinful silence is by no means so common as sinful talk, but there are times when it may be quite as full of evil. A lie can be told by our saying nothing as well as in express words; for when silence gives consent to falsehood it is itself falsehood. To refrain from warning the unwary when we see that they are being deceived is to be an accomplice in the imposition. To quietly listen to false doctrine without seeking a fit occasion to enter a protest may soon amount to participation in the error. When a political wrong is being done, those who by their voices and votes might prevent it are partners in the iniquity, since they refuse to exercise their influence for truth and righteousness. “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” When God calls us to speak, we sin if we are silent. Abstinence from all protest against evil may be the quietest way of living; but does a good soldier of Jesus Christ make his own comfort his first consideration? The Christian may by silence retain his friends and escape from making enemies; but what will his best Friend say of such traitorous conduct? To what end have we tongues but that we may speak the truth with them? We have idle words in plenty, and for these we must give an account in the day of judgment; and if of idle words, which are the ill fruit of the tongue, then be sure we shall be called to account for idle tongues, which yield no fruit at all. Dogs that are always barking are a nuisance, but dumb dogs that cannot bark are utterly useless. In the Kingdom of Christ the not doing of the Master’s will is punished as surely as actual rebellion. I cannot give God the service of my tongue by absolute silence; I must use it as occasion requires for his glory and for the good of men.
At the present hour the great crimes of our cities would remain unshamed were it not for a few brave men who dare not enter into the general conspiracy of silence. “Smother it up” is the cry of the cowardice which is too modest to speak of the demon which devours little children. Crime is to be allowed full range, because if you restrain it there will be a howling which may disturb my lady’s music on the harpsichord. Good souls of the rose-water school will not play the villain themselves, but they will draw down the blinds for those who do so. “Don’t bring a candle, we might see too much, and we might be shocked. What the eye does not see the heart does not rue, therefore never expose evil. Do not ask the devil to come; but keep it dark for him when he does come.” It is time we had done with such pandering to unrighteousness. Take the velvet out of your mouths, O ye whose business it is to denounce sin, lest your gentlemanly whisper of “Peace, Peace,” should be the signal for an outburst of contempt and indignation.
Silence concerning public sin is accompanied by the like tacit consent to more private and personal evil. How many of us are partakers of other men’s sins by failing to reprove them. The almost entire absence of brotherly rebuke in his own age is spoken of by Thomas Adams, in words which are equally applicable to our own times:—”This one office of love is almost forgotten in the world. Our eyes and ears are conscious of many horrid sins, whereof we make also our souls guilty by our silence. Like chameleons, we turn to the colour of our company. Oppressions, that draw blood of the commonwealth, move us not. Oaths, that totter the battlements of heaven, wake us not. Oh, where is our kindness! Whilst we do not reprove, we approve these iniquities. He is conscious of secret guiltiness that forbeareth to resist open iniquity. Thou sayest it is for love’s sake thou sparest reprehension. Why, if thou love thy friend never so dearly, yet thou oughtest to love truth more dearly. Let not, then, the truth of love prejudice the love of truth.”
In very much the same strain wrote Thomas Boston, and we cannot do better than give his very words. “Silence is unseasonable when sin rageth and roareth. When men are dishonouring God, it is sad that our tongues should be nailed. When men declare their sin, as Sodom, it is sad that in our mouths there should be no reproofs. ‘Thou shalt in anywise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.’ Our tongues testify that we are men, and they should show we are Christians, and in covenant with God, offensive and defensive. ‘For the zeal of thine house,’ saith David, ‘hath eaten me up: and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.’ By this undue silence we are injurious to God, in that we do not vindicate his glory, bespattered with the sins of others. His glory, I say, who hath given us a tongue as a banner, to be displayed because of the truth. To run away when we ought to stand our ground doubles the dishonour of God; since he is once dishonoured by the sinner, and then dishonoured again by the silent professor. Mark 8:38.”
“This undue silence is also injurious to our neighbour. We see him palling down the house about his cars, and yet we will not hinder him; selling his soul for a trifle, and yet we do not bid him rue his bargain. Oh, horrid cruelty! to stand with our tongues in silence when the devil often casteth our neighbour into the fire.”
“It is injurious, likewise, to ourselves; for thereby we adopt the devil’s children brought forth by others, and set down their debts to our own account, Eph. 5:7-11. Other men’s sins that we have witnessed become ours by the silence which gives consent: the flame which burns up their house will consume our own, if it be not quenched with a testimony against it. This silence also leaves a sting in our conscience, which remains inactive in the hearts of some for a while; but when the opportunity of bearing testimony against sin is gone, it bites dreadfully the hearts of those whose consciences are not seared.”
A very common form of evil silence is neglect of personal testimony in conversation with individuals. How many of us are guilty here. We can preach to hundreds, and yet feel dumb with a single person: this is a grievous weakness. The rapid spread of the gospel at the first was largely due to the zeal of individual Christians in communicating the precious truth to their fellows, and it will never spread to any great extent till this natural and simple method is more largely used. No address is so powerful as that which comes in private from heart to heart, with all the living power of a lip warm with love. God is more likely to bless this form of address than any other. There is no escaping from the directness of such an appeal, and it is hard to resist its pleading power. “Come, George, and walk down the road with me!” was the call of an earnest preacher to one of his hearers. In the course of that walk the preacher’s private word had by God’s blessing accomplished in George what all his former teachings had failed to do. George yielded himself to Christ, and declared that the personal talk while going along the street was the means of his decision. It is a great delight to the pastor of the Tabernacle frequently to see certain elders in the corners of the building after service conversing with individuals. Are we backward in such labours? Do we altogether neglect them? How shall we answer for it at the last great day?
Doubtless, we lose many opportunities for holy and impressive discourse when we meet with relatives and acquaintances. We are sure to talk, but the talk will not be profitable unless some master spirit will guide it aright. It would be wise to try to rule the conversation, and, like a good helmsman, steer the ship into safe waters. Many have been converted through a gracious remark or a solemn question presented at a fitting time. In his preface to his “Apples of Gold,” Brooks tells us of an incident at table, such as might often happen if it were not for our unholy silence: “A company of near friends dining together one Sabbath day, one that was at table, to prevent impertinent discourse, said ‘that it was a question whether they should all go to heaven or no,’ which struck them all into a dump, and caused every one to enter into a serious consideration with themselves. One thought, if any of this company go to hell, it must be I, and so thought another and another, and indeed so thought almost every one then present, as well servants that waited as those that sat at table, as it was afterwards acknowledged; and, through the mercy and blessing of God, this speech so wrought upon the spirits of most of them, that it proved the first instrumental means of their conversion.”
In ill company, if our business or our family relationships drive us that way, it will be wise and right to show our colours very distinctly. Then we must be sure to fly our flag by espousing the cause of God, and truth, and righteousness, in the most outspoken manner. If we are quiet we shall be considered to be in league with the foe; but if we come out with emphatic courage we shall soon find ourselves masters of the situation, or at least clear of complicity with evil. We little know the influence of brave words and holy deeds—
“For in them all is folded up a power
That on the earth doth move them to and fro;
And mighty are the marvels they have wrought
In hearts we know not, and may never know.”
Here is the proper time for remarking that it is not at all an unusual thing for professed Christians to allow the praises of God to lie forgotten in unthankfulness. They live as if the song had gone out of their lives, or as if it had never come into them. Towards God’s praise they maintain a silence as of “a cold grave under the deep, deep sea.” They have a ready tongue for complaint, but for thanksgiving they are mute as fishes. Our houses ought to ring with praises. If we were only to repeat to others the more noticeable instances of the Lord’s lovingkindness to ourselves, our conversation would be a feast of fat things, and God’s name would be had in reverence by hundreds who now forget him. The Lord have mercy upon us for our guilty silence. It is a wonder that the stones have not cried out against us, or the heavens fallen upon us. Henceforth let our tongues break the bands which hold them in bondage, and let us promote the glory of God by that member of our body which David describes as the glory of the human frame.
Copied from September, 1885 The Sword and the Trowel