Think No Evil

Tuesdays with Edwards!

Since this is a theme that myself and others have seemed fit to address in recent posts, I decided to post this sermon in its entirety. It can be found in Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Pages 283-293.

Thinketh no evil. I CORINTHIANS 13:5.

I OBSERVED that after the Apostle had shown how charity was contrary to pride and selfishness, he then shows it to be contrary to two things, which are ordinarily the fruits of those evil dispositions; viz. an angry spirit and a censorious spirit. I have already spoken of the former, and am now come to the latter. So that the subject which I would now insist on is this; viz.


That a Christian spirit is contrary to a censorious spirit; or in other words, it is contrary to a disposition uncharitably to judge others.

Charity in the vulgar use of the expression commonly signifies a disposition to think the best of others which the case will allow. But this, I have shown before, is not the Scripture meaning of the word “charity,” but only one fruit of it, or one way of the exercise, charity being a vastly larger extent, signifying the same as Christian and divine love, and so being the sum of the Christian spirit, as the word is used in Scripture. Therefore here we find charitable judging only mentioned among many other good fruits of charity expressed here, as the other fruits of charity are, negatively, or by denying the contrary fruit, viz. censoriousness or a disposition uncharitably to judge or censure others. In speaking to this point I would

I. Show wherein the censoriousness consists.

II. Mention some things in which it appears to be contrary to a Christian spirit.

I. I would show wherein a censorious spirit or a disposition uncharitably to judge others consists. It consists in a disposition to think evil of others, or to judge ill of them with respect to three things; viz. of their state, of their qualities, and of their actions.

First. A censorious spirit appears in a forwardness to judge ill of others’ states. That is, to pass a censure upon those who are professors of religion, and to condemn them as being hypocrites. Extremes here are to be avoided. Some persons are very apt to be positive from little things which they observe in others, in determining that they are godly men; and others as forward from as little things, to be positive in condemning others, as not having the least grace in their hearts, and as knowing nothing about vital and experimental religion. All positiveness in an affair of this nature seems to be without warrant from the Word of God. God seems to have reserved the positive determination of men’s state in his own mind, as the only searcher of the heart, and trier of the reins of the children of men. Persons are guilty of censoriousness in condemning others’ state when they will do it from things which are no evidence of their being in a bad estate. As when persons will condemn others as hypocrites because of God’s providential dealings with them, as Job’s three friends condemned him as a hypocrite for the uncommon afflictions with which he met; or when they condemn them for those failings which they see in them, which are no greater than are often incident to God’s children; and it may be no greater, or not so great, as their own, though they think well of their own state. Or when persons will condemn others as those who must needs be carnal men for differing from them in opinion in some points which are not fundamental. Or when persons judge ill of others’ state from what they observe in them for want of making due allowances for their natural tempers, and for their manner of education, and other peculiar disadvantages, under which they labor.

Second. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others’ qualities; to overlook their good qualities, and to think them destitute of them when they are not, or to make very little of them, or to magnify their ill qualities and make more of them than they are, or to charge them with those ill qualities of which they are free. Some men are very apt to charge others with ignorance and folly and other contemptible qualities which in no way deserve to be so esteemed by them. Some seem to be very apt to entertain a very low and despicable opinion of others, and so to represent them to others, when a charitable spirit would discern many good things in them, and would freely own them to be persons not to be despised. And some are ready to charge others with those morally ill qualities from which they are free, or at least to charge them with them in a much higher degree than they are really in them. Thus some have such a prejudice against some of their neighbors that they look upon them as much more proud men, or more spiteful and malicious, than they really are. Through some deep prejudice which they have received against them, they are ready to conceive that they have all manner of bad qualities, and no good ones; they seem to them to be an exceedingly proud and covetous and selfish sort of men, when it may be to others they appear well; others see many good qualities, and those qualities which are contrary to these [bad ones].

Third. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others’ actions. By actions here I would be understood [to mean]
all external, voluntary acts of the man, whether consisting in words or deeds. A censorious spirit in judging ill of others’ actions consists in two things.

1. In judging them to be guilty of ill actions without that evidence which constrains to such a judgment. A suspicious, jealous spirit, whereby persons are apt to be jealous of others, of their being guilty of such and such things when they have no evidence of it, is an uncharitable spirit, and contrary to Christianity. Some persons are very free of passing their censures on others with respect to those things which they suppose they do out of their sight. They judge they commit such and such wickedness in secret and hid from the eyes of men, or that they have done thus, or said thus, among their companions or those who are united with them in the same party or design, though they keep it hid from others who are not in the same interest. These are the “evil surmisings” spoken of and condemned in 1 Timothy 6:4. Very commonly persons show a very uncharitable and censorious spirit with respect to others by being forward to take up bad reports of persons. Merely hearing a flying ill report of a person is far from being sufficient evidence against persons that they have been guilty of that which is reported. Yet, it is a very common thing for persons to pass a judgment on others on no other foundation. When they hear that others have done or said so or so, they conclude it is so at once without further inquiry, though nothing is more uncertain, and more commonly proves false, than common fame. And some stand ready to catch at ill report. It seems to be pleasing to them to hear something very ill reported of some others; they have a spirit which is greedy of it. It is, as it were, food to them, and therefore they easily and quickly take it in as true, without examination, contrary to the character of him who shall abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in his holy hill, given in Psalms 15:3, “Nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor.” A wicked doer is said to give heed to false lips, Proverbs 17:4.

2. Another way in which a censorious spirit, with respect to men’s actions, discovers itself is in a disposition to put the worst construction on men’s actions, not only in judging that things are done by them when they have not sufficient evidence of it, but in putting bad construction on those actions, which are evident, when they will admit of a good construction. Very often the man’s design and end in the action is secret, but persons are commonly very forward to pass their censures with respect to these. And this is a kind of censoriousness and uncharitable judging as common or more common than any other. Thus it is very common with men, when prejudiced against others, to put bad constructions on those actions or speeches of others which are seemingly good, and as though they were performed in hypocrisy. And especially in the management of public affairs, or affairs in which others are concerned with them. If anything be said or done wherein there is a show of concern for public good, or for the good of their neighbors, or the honor of God, or the interest of religion, others will be ready to judge that this is all in hypocrisy; that the design really is only to promote their own interest, or to advance themselves, that they are only flattering others, that they have some ill design all the time in their hearts.

But here it may be inquired wherein lies the evil of judging ill of others, because all judging ill of others is not unlawful. For

(1) There are some persons who are set on purpose to be judges in civil societies and churches, who are impartially to judge of the actions of others that properly fall under their cognizance, whether good or bad, and to pass sentence according to what they are, to approve of the good and condemn the bad according to the evidence, and the nature of their actions, and the agreement or disagreement with that law which is the judge’s rule. And

(2) Particular persons in these private judgments which they make of others are not obliged to divest themselves of reason, to judge well of others plainly against reason. Christian charity is not a thing founded on the ruins of reason; for there is the most sweet harmony between Christianity and reason. And therefore we are not forbid to judge ill of persons when there is plain and clear evidence of their being chargeable with evil. We are not to blame when we judge those to be wicked men, poor, Christless wretches, who give flagrant proof of it by a course of wicked actions. 1 Timothy 5:24, “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after.” That is, some men’s sins are full, plain testimonies against them that they are sufficient to condemn them as wicked men in the sight of the world, even before the Day of Judgment comes which shall disclose the secrets of the heart. And so some men’s actions give such clear evidence of the badness of their intentions that it is no judging the secrets of the heart to judge that their designs and ends are naught. Therefore all judging ill of others’ state, or qualities, or actions, is not an uncharitable censoriousness. But the evil of that judging wherein censoriousness consists lies in two things.

1. In judging ill of others, when evidence does not oblige to it; when men think ill of others, when the case very well allows of their judging well of them. When those things which seem to be in their favor are overlooked, and those things which are against them, only, are regarded, and they are magnified, and too much stress is laid upon them. And when persons are sudden and rash in judging and condemning others, when both prudence and charity oblige them to suspend their judgment till they know more of the matter, till they have inquired more fully, and looked into all circumstances. Persons very often show much uncharitableness and rashness in freely censuring others before they have heard what they have to say for themselves. Proverbs 18:13, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”

2. In a well-pleasedness in judging ill of others. Persons may judge ill of others from clear and plain evidence which constrains them to it, but it may be to their grief, that they are obliged to judge as they do. As when a tender parent hears of some great crime of a child with such evidence that he cannot but think it to be true. But very often judgment is passed against others in such a manner as savors of being well pleased in such a judgment. They are so forward in judging ill, and judge on such slight evidence, and carry the matter to such extremes in judgment, as shows that their inclination is in it; they love to think the worst of others. Such a well-pleasedness in judging ill of others is also manifested in being forward to declare their judgments, and to speak as well as think ill of others. And it may be in speaking of it with ridicule, and an air of contempt, and pleasure in the voice and countenance, or with an air of bitterness and malignity of spirit. When to judge ill of others is against their inclinations persons are slow in censuring others. They will be very cautious in it, and will go no further in it than evidence obliges them, will think the best that the nature of the case will admit, and will put the best construction on others’ words and actions. And when they are obliged against their inclination to think ill of another, it will be no pleasure to them to declare it, but they will be backward to speak of it. I come now to the second thing under the doctrine, viz.

II. To show how such a censorious spirit is contrary to a Christian spirit.

First. It is contrary to love to our neighbor, which appears by three things.

1. We see that persons are very backward to judge ill of themselves. They are very ready to think well of their qualifications, and so they are forward to think the best of their own state. If there be anything which resembles grace, they are exceedingly apt to think that their state is good. And so they are ready to think well of their own sayings, and doings, and very backward to think ill of themselves. And the reason is that they have a great love to themselves. And therefore if they loved their neighbor as themselves, love would have the same tendency with respect to them.

2. We see that persons are backward to judge ill of those whom they love. Thus we see it is in men towards those who are their particular friends. And thus it is in parents towards their children; they are very ready to think well of them, to think the best of their qualifications, of their natural and moral qualifications. They are much more backward than others to take up ill reports of them, and slow in believing what is said against them. They are forward to put the most favorable construction on their actions, and the reason is because they love them.

3. We see also that it is universally so, that where hatred and ill spirit against others most prevail, there a censorious spirit does most prevail. We see that when persons fall out, and there is a difference between neighbors, and anger and prejudice arise, and an ill will contracted, there is a forwardness to judge the worst of their neighbors against whom they have a pique, and an aptness to think the worst of their qualifications. They imagine they discover a great many ill qualities in them, and those which are very ill. And they are apt to entertain jealousies of them, and of what they do when behind their backs; and forward to listen to ill reports of them, and to believe every word, and apt to put the worst construction on what they say or do. And very commonly there is a forwardness to think ill of their condition, to censure them as graceless persons. Thus it is in cases of difference between particular persons. And we see the like in cases of difference between two parties. These things show that it is from want of Christian love to neighbors, and the prevailing of a contrary spirit, that censoriousness arises.

Second. A censorious spirit manifests a proud spirit, which the context declares to be contrary to the Christian spirit; for it is said, “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” A forwardness to judge and censure others shows a proud disposition, as though they were free from such faults and blemishes themselves with which they are busy and bitter in charging others, and for which they are censuring and condemning them. This is implied in that in Matthew 7:1 and Matthew 7:3–5, “Judge not, that ye be not judged, And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” And Romans 2:1, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” If men were humbly sensible of their own failings they would not be very forward or pleased in judging others; for “as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man,” Proverbs 27:19. There are the same heads of corruption in one man’s heart as another; and if those men who are most busy in censuring others would but look inward, and seriously examine their own hearts and lives, they might generally see the same dispositions, and the same things, the same kind of behavior at some time or other, for which they judge others, or at least things very much like them. And an aptness to judge and condemn shows an arrogant, proud disposition. It has a show of persons’ setting up themselves above others, as though they were fit to be the lords and judges of their fellow servants, as if it were fit that they should stand or fall at their sentence. This seems implied in James 4:11, “He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.” That is, you do not act as a fellow servant with him, or one that is under the law as well as he, but the giver and judge of the law. Therefore it follows in the next verse, “There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” So Romans 14:4, “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth.”


I. Use may be of reproof to those who commonly give themselves a liberty to speak evil of others. If to think evil be so much to be condemned, surely it is yet in a higher degree to be condemned when persons not only allow themselves in thinking but in speaking evil of others, and backbite others with their tongues. That evil speaking which is against neighbors behind their backs does very much consist in censuring others, or expressing their uncharitable thoughts and judgments of their persons and behavior. And therefore speaking evil of others and judging others are put for the same thing in Scripture, as in that before mentioned James 4:11. How often does the Scripture condemn backbiting and evil speaking? Psalms 50:19–20, “Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother.” And Tit 3:1–3, “Put them in mind to speak evil of no man. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, serving divers lusts and pleasures.” 1 Peter 2:1, “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and evil speakings.” And it is mentioned as part of the character of those who are citizens of Zion and shall dwell in God’s holy hill, Psalms 15:3, that “he backbiteth not with his tongue.” Inquire therefore, whether you have not done very much at this. Have you not been free and frequent in censuring others, expressing your hard thoughts of them, and especially those with whom you have had some difference, or who have been of an opposite party? And is it not still a practice which you allow yourself, if it be considered how contrary it is to your Christian profession?

II. Use may be to warn all against censoriously thinking and speaking evil of others, as they would approve themselves worthy of the name of Christians. And besides the things which have already been mentioned, let two or three things be considered.

First. How often when the truth comes fully to appear do things appear far better concerning others than persons were at first ready to judge? There are many instances in the Scripture. When the children of Reuben and children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had built an altar near Jordan, the rest of their brethren heard of it and presently concluded it to be a turning away from the Lord, and resolved rashly to go to war against them. But when the truth came to light, it appeared otherwise; it then appeared that they had built that altar for a good end, as you may see in the twenty-second chapter of Joshua. Eli thought Hannah drunk, when he saw her lips move. But when the truth came to light it was quite otherwise. She was praying and pouring out her soul before God, as I Samuel, first chapter [ver. 1 Samuel 1:12–16]. So David concluded from what Ziba told him, that Mephibosheth had manifested a rebellious, treasonable spirit against his crown; and so far concluded that he acted upon a censorious judgment, greatly to Mephibosheth’s wrong. But when the truth came to appear it was quite otherwise, as in 2 Samuel 16:3–4, together with ch. 2 Samuel 19:24–25. Elijah judged ill of the state of Israel that none were true worshipers of God but himself. But when God told him the truth it proved far otherwise; viz. that there were seven thousand, [as in 1 Kings 19:18]. And how commonly are things so? How often have we upon thorough examination found things better of others than we have heard, and than we at first were ready to judge? And there is probably no one way in which persons are so commonly wronged as in the judgments which persons make and freely express of them and their actions.

Second. Let it be considered how little occasion there is for us to pass our sentence on others with respect to their state and qualities and actions which do not concern us. Our chief concern is with ourselves. It is of great consequence to us that we be in a good estate, that we are possessed of good qualities and principles, and that we behave ourselves well, and act from right motives and for right ends. It comparatively concerns us but little how it is with others. And there is little need of our sentence being passed; for this business is in the hands of another who is infinitely more fit for it than we, viz. God’s hands. And there is a particular day appointed for it; and therefore if we judge persons, we shall not only take the work upon us which does not belong to us, but we shall do it before the proper time. 1 Corinthians 4:5, “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.”

Third. Consider how God has threatened that if we are forward censoriously to condemn others we shall be condemned ourselves. Matthew 7 at the beginning: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. “And Romans 2:3, ” And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? These are awful threatenings, threatenings of that being who is to be our Judge, and by whom it infinitely concerns us to be acquitted when we come to be judged by him, and from whom a sentence of condemnation will be infinitely dreadful. Therefore, as we would not receive condemnation for ourselves, let us not mete this measure to others.

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