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The Power of Kindness

by T. DeWitt Talmage (1832-1902)
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“A soft tongue breaketh the bone.”
                                            —Proverbs 25:15

When Solomon said this he drove a whole volume into one phrase. You, of course, will not be so silly as to take the words of my text in a literal sense. They simply mean to set forth the fact that there is a tremendous power in a kind word. Although it may seem to be very insignificant, its force is indescribable and illimitable. Pungent and all-conquering utterance: “A soft tongue breaketh the bone.”

If I had time, I would show you kindness as a means of defense; kindness as a means of usefulness; kindness as a means of domestic harmony; kindness as best employed by governments for the taming and curing of criminals; and kindness as best adapted for the settling and adjusting of international quarrels; but I shall call your attention only to two of these thoughts.

And first, I speak to you of kindness as a means of defense. Almost every man, in the course of his life, is set upon and assaulted. Your motives are misinterpreted or your religious or political principles are bombarded. What to do under such circumstances is the question. The first impulse of the natural heart says, “Strike back. Give as much as he sent. Trip him into the ditch which he dug for your feet. Gash him with as severe a wound as that which he inflicted on your soul. Shot for shot. Sarcasm for sarcasm. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.” But the better spirit in the man’s soul says, “You ought to reconsider that matter.” You look up into the face of Christ and say, “My Master, how ought I to act under these difficult circumstances?” And Christ instantly answers, “Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Then the old nature rises up again and says, “You had better not forgive him until first you have chastised him. You will never get him in so tight a corner again. You will never have such an opportunity of inflicting the right kind of punishment upon him again. First chastise him and then let him go.” “No,” says the better nature, “hush, thou foul heart. Try the soft tongue that breaketh the bone.” Have you ever in all your life known acerbity and acrimonious dispute to settle a quarrel? Did they not always make matters worse and worse and worse?

Many years ago there was a great quarrel in the Presbyterian family. Ministers of Christ were thought orthodox in proportion as they had measured lances with other clergymen of the same denomination. The most outrageous personalities were abroad. As in the autumn, a hunter comes home with a string of game, partridges and wild ducks slung over his shoulder, so there were many ministers who came back from the ecclesiastical courts with long strings of doctors of divinity whom they had shot with their own rifle. The division became wider, the animosity greater, until after a while some good men resolved upon another tack. They began to explain away the difficulties; they began to forgive each other’s fault, and, lo! the great Church quarrel was settled, and the new school Presbyterian Church and the old school Presbyterian Church became one. The different parts of the Presbyterian order, welded by a hammer, a little hammer, a Christian hammer that the Scripture calls “a soft tongue.”

You have a dispute with your neighbor. You say to him, “I despise you.” He replies, “I can’t bear the sight of you.” You say to him, “Never enter my house again.” He says, “If you come on my door-sill I’ll kick you off.” You say to him, “I’ll put you down.” He says to you, “You are mistaken; I’ll put you down.” And so the contest rages; and year after year you act the unchristian part, and he acts the unchristian part. After a while the better spirit seizes you, and one day you go over to the neighbor, and say, “Give me your hand. We have fought long enough. Time is so short, and eternity is so near, that we cannot afford any longer to quarrel. I feel you have wronged me very much; but let us settle all now in one great handshaking and be good friends.” You have risen to a higher platform than that on which before you stood. You win his admiration, and you get his apology. But if you have not conquered him in that way, at any rate, you have won the applause of your own conscience, the high estimation of good men, and the honor of your Lord, who died for his armed enemies.

“But,” you say, “what are we to do when slanders assault us, and there come acrimonious sayings all around about us, and we are abused and spit upon?” My reply is: Do not go and attempt to chase down the slanders. Lies are prolific, and while you are killing one, fifty are born. All your demonstrations of indignation only exhaust yourself. You might as well, on some summer nights, when the swarms of insects are coming up from the meadows and disturbing you, and disturbing your family, bring up some great “swamp angel,” like that which boomed over Charleston, and try to shoot them down. The game is too small for the gun.

But what, then, are you to do with the abuses that come upon you in life? You are to live them down! I saw a farmer go out to get back a swarm of bees that had wandered off from the hive. As he moved amid them they buzzed around his head, and buzzed around his hands, and buzzed around his feet. If he had killed one of them they would have stung him to death. But he moved in their midst in perfect placidity until he had captured the swarm of wandering bees. And so I have seen men moving amid the annoyances, and the vexations, and the assaults of life in such a calm, Christian deliberation, that all the buzzing around about their soul amounted to nothing. They conquered them, and above all, they conquered themselves. “O,” you say, “that’s a very good theory to preach on a hot day, but it won’t work.” It will work. It has worked. I believe it is the last Christian grace we win. You know there are fruits which we gather in June, and others in July, and others in August, and others in September, and still others in October; and I have to admit that this grace of Christian forgiveness is about the last fruit of the Christian soul. We hear a great deal about the bitter tongue and the sarcastic tongue and the quick tongue and the stinging tongue; but we know very little about “the soft tongue that breaketh the bone.” We read Hudibras, and Sterne, and Dean Swift, and the other apostles of acrimony, but give little time to studying the example of him who was reviled and yet reviled not again. Oh, that the Lord, by his spirit, would endow us all with “the soft tongue that breaketh the bone.”

I pass now to the other thought that I desire to present, and that is, kindness as a means of usefulness. In all communities you find sceptical men. Through early education, or through the maltreatment of professed Christian people, or through pry-ing curiosity about the future world, there are a great many people who become sceptical in religious things. How shall you capture them for God? Sharp argument and sarcastic retort never won a single soul from scepticism to the Christian religion. While powerful books on the “Evidences of Christianity” have their mission in confirming Christian people in the faith they have already adopted, I have noticed that when sceptical people are brought into the kingdom of Christ, it is through the charm of some genial soul, and not by argument at all. Men are not saved through the head; they are saved through the heart. A storm comes out of its hiding place. It says, “Now we’ll just rouse up all this sea;” and it makes a great bluster; but it does not succeed. Part of the sea is roused up,—perhaps one-half of it, or one-fourth of it. After a while the calm moon, placid and beautiful, looks down, and the ocean begins to rise. It comes up to high-water mark. It embraces the great headlands. It submerges the beaches of all the continents. It is the heart-throb of one world against the heartthrob of another world. And I have to tell you that while all your storms of ridicule and storms of sarcasm may rouse up the passion of an immortal nature, nothing less than the attractive power of Christian kindness can ever raise the deathless spirit to happiness and to God. I have more faith in the prayer of a child five years old, in the way of bringing an infidel back to Christ and to heaven, than I have in all the hissing anathemas of ecclesiastical controversy. You cannot overcome men with religious argument. If you come at a sceptical man with an argument on behalf of the Christian religion, you put the man on his mettle. He says, “I see that man has a carbine. I’ll use my carbine. I’ll answer his argument with my argument.” But if you come to that man persuad-ing him that you desire his happiness on earth, and his welfare in the world to come, he cannot answer that argument.
What I have said is just as true in the reclamation of the openly vicious. Did you ever know a drunkard to be saved through the caricature of a drunkard? Your mimicry of the staggering step, and the thick tongue, and the disgusting hiccough, only worse maddens his brain. But if you come to him in kindness and sympathy; if you show him that you appreciate the awful grip of a depraved appetite; if you persuade him of the fact that thousands, who had the grappling hooks of evil inclinations clutched in their souls as firmly as in his, have been delivered, then a ray of light will flash across his vision, and it will seem as if a supernatural hand were steadying his staggering gait. A good many years ago there lay in the streets a man dead drunk, his face exposed to the blistering noonday sun. A Christian woman passed along, looked at him, and said: “Poor fellow.” She took her handkerchief and spread it over his face and passed on. The man roused himself up from his debauch, and began to look at the handkerchief, and, lo! on it was the name of a highly respectable Christian woman of the city. He went to her; he thanked her for her kindness; and that one little deed saved him for this life, and saved him for the life that is to come. He was afterward Attorney-General of the United States; but, higher than all, he became the consecrated disciple of Jesus Christ.

Kind words are so cheap, it is a wonder we do not use them oftener. There are tens of thousands of people who are dying for the lack of one kind word. There is a business man who has fought against trouble until he is perfectly exhausted. He has been thinking about forgery, about robbery, about suicide. Go to that business man. Tell him that better times are coming, and tell him that you yourself were in a tight business pass, and the Lord delivered you. Tell him to put his trust in God. Tell him that Jesus Christ stands beside every business man in his perplexities. Tell him of the sweet promises of God’s comforting grace. That man is dying for the lack of just one kind word. Go to-morrow and utter that one saving word. Here is a soul that has been swamped in sin. He wants to find the light of the Gospel. He feels like a shipwrecked mariner looking out over the beach, watching for a sail against the sky. O, bear down on him. Tell him that the Lord wants to be gracious to him, and though he has been a great sinner, there is a great Saviour provided. Tell him that though his sins are as scarlet, they shall be as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. That man is dying forever for the lack of one kind word.

There used to be sung at a great many of the pianos all through the country a song that has almost died out. I wish somebody would start it again in our social circles. There may not have been very exquisite art in the music, but there was a grand and glorious sentiment:

Kind Words Never Die, Never Die;
Cherished and Blessed.

O, that we might in our families and in our churches try the force of kindness. You can never drive men, women or children into the kingdom of God. A March northeaster will bring out more honeysuckles than fretfulness and scolding will bring out Christian grace. I wish that in all our religious work we might be saturated with the spirit of kindness. Missing that, we miss a great deal of usefulness. There is no need of coming out before men and thundering the law unless you preach to them the Gospel. Do you not know that this simple story of a Saviour’s kindness is to redeem all nations? The hard heart of this world’s obduracy is to be broken before that story. There is in Antwerp, Belgium, one of the most remarkable pictures I ever saw. It is “The Descent of Christ from the Cross.” It is one of Rubens’ pictures. No man can stand and look at that “Descent from the Cross,” as Rubens pictured it, without having his eyes flooded with tears, if he have any sensibility at all. It is an overmastering picture—one that staggers you, and haunts your dreams. One afternoon a man stood in that cathedral looking at Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross.” He was all absorbed in that scene of a Saviour’s sufferings when the janitor came in and said: “It is time to close up the cathedral for the night. I wish you would depart.” The pilgrim looking at that “Descent from the Cross” turned around to the janitor and said: “No, no; not yet. Wait until they get him down.” Oh, it is the story of a Saviour’s suffering kindness that is to capture the world. When the bones of that great Behemoth of iniquity which has trampled all nations shall be broken and shattered, it will be found out that the work was not done by the hammer of the iconoclast, or by the sword of the conqueror, or by the torch of persecution, but by the plain, simple, overwhelming force of “the soft tongue that breaketh the bone.”
And now I ask the blessing of God to come down upon you in matters of health, in matters of business; that the Lord will deliver you from all your financial perplexities; that he will give you a good livelihood, large salaries, abundant wages, sufficient income. I pray God that he may give you the opportunity of educating your children for this world, and through the grace of Christ, of seeing them prepared for the world to come. Above all, I look for the mercy of God upon your immortal souls; and lest I stand before some who have not attended to the things of their eternal interest, in this, the closing part of my discourse, I implore them here and now to seek after God and be at peace with him. Oh, we want to be gathered together at last in the bright and blessed assemblage of the skies, our work all done, our sorrows all ended. God bless you, and your children, and your children’s children. And now I commend you to God and to the Word of his grace which is able to build you up, and give you an inheritance among all them that are sanctified.
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