Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." 1 Cor. 13:4-8

By a beautiful personification, the Apostle has described this grace under the figure of an interesting female, who, like an angel of light, lifts her cherubic form and smiling countenance amid the children of men; shedding, as she passes along, a healing influence on the wounds of society, hushing the notes of discord, driving before her the spirits of mischief, bringing the graces in her train, and converting earth into a resemblance of heaven. Her charms are sufficient to captivate every heart, if every heart were as it should be; and her influence such as every mind should court.

1. The first remark which I make on these properties, is, that they describe such expressions of our love as have a particular reference to our TEMPER.

By the temper, we mean the prevailing spirit and disposition of the mind, as it respects the irritable or selfish affections. If we examine, we shall find that all the qualities here enumerated bear on these dispositions. There are other operations and manifestations of love, besides those which are here specified—such, for instance, as justice and chastity—for it is impossible to love mankind, and violate the rules of either of these duties—but the apostle restricts his specification to those properties of it, which are comprehended in the word temper. Nothing surely can teach more clearly, or more impressively, the great truth—that true religion must govern the temper—than this chapter.

It is strange, but true, that many seem to think that temper is a part of man's self and conduct, over which true religion has no legal jurisdiction. They admit their obligations to be holy, and moral, and devout; but they do not feel, at least do not acknowledge, that it is their duty to be meek, gentle, and kind. They may not affirm so much in words, but it is the secret and tacit system of conduct which they have adopted.

Hence it is, that although they are correct in their morals, and regular in their attendance on the means of grace, they are withal so apt to receive offense, and so forward to give it; they are either so passionate, or so sullen; so implacable or revengeful—that the real excellencies of their character are lost sight of in the deep shadow of their infirmities, and the ways of godliness are spoken ill of, on their account. This arises from their not being sufficiently convinced of the evil of such infirmities; and this blindness itself is the consequence of a supposition, that the removal of the evil is physically impossible. "Our temper," say they, "is as much a part of ourselves, as the color of our skin, or the makeup of our body; it is naturally inherent in us, and we cannot help it." As long as this is the conviction of the judgment—or the admission of a deceitful heart—it is almost vain to hope for a reformation. But let us reason with such people.

It must be admitted that there do exist constitutional tendencies to the exercise of particular passions—without being able to account for these effects, or whether the cause be wholly in the body or partly in the mind—the effects are too obvious to be denied. No, these constitutional tendencies are no less hereditary, sometimes, than direct physical disease. One man is naturally propensity to anger; another to sullenness; a third to envy; a fourth to pride—all this is indisputable. But these sinful tendencies are not uncontrollable! They are impulses, but not constraints; incitements, but not compulsions. It would subvert the whole system of moral obligation, to suppose that we were under a physical necessity of sinning—which we certainly should be, if inherent tendencies were beyond the power of moral restraint. That cannot be duty, which a man could not do if he would; nor can that be sin, which he cannot avoid by any exercise of disposition or will.

If, therefore, we cannot help indulging revenge, envy, pride, unkindness, they are no sins; and in this case, would such vices have been condemned, if there were an impossibility in the way of avoiding them? Certainly not. It is no actual sin to have the liability—the guilt consists in indulging it!

If the existence of constitutional propensities be an excuse for their indulgence, the lecherous man may plead it in justification of his sensuality; for he may have stronger incitement to his besetting sin, than many others who run not to the same excess of riot. But if lechery or cruelty cannot be excused on this ground—why should anger, revenge, or envy? Once let it be granted that natural physical tendency is an excuse for any kind of sinful indulgence, no matter of what kind, and you overturn the whole system of Christian morals!

Besides, natural propensities of the most impetuous kinds have been, in innumerable instances, not only successfully resisted—but almost entirely vanquished. We have known people who were once addicted to all kinds of vile impure gratifications, but who have become as distinguished for chastity as they were once for lewdness. Drunkards have become sober; men as furious as enraged tigers, have become gentleness itself. It is said of that eminently holy and useful man, Mr. Fletcher, of Madeley, "that he was meek like his Master, as well as lowly in heart. Not that he was so by nature, but a man of strong passions, and prone to anger in particular; inasmuch that he has frequently spent the greater part of the night bathed in tears, imploring victory over his own spirit. And he did not strive in vain. He did obtain the victory in a very eminent degree. Yes, so thoroughly had grace subdued nature; so fully was he renewed in the spirit of his mind—that for many years before his death, I believe he was never observed by anyone, friend or foe, to be out of temper on any provocation whatever."

The testimony that Burnet bears of Leighton, might be borne of him with equal propriety. "After an intimate acquaintance with Leighton for many years, and after being with him by night and by day, at home and abroad, in public and in private, I must say I never heard an idle word drop from his lips; I never saw him in any temper in which I myself would not have wished to be found at death." What a character! What a testimony! But it is not the beauty, the inexpressible moral loveliness of it alone which should be remarked; but the convincing proof which it furnishes that a naturally bad temper may be subdued! So many instances of people conquering sinful propensities exist, that the man who indulges in a sinful constitutional tendency of any kind, under the mistaken idea that it is absolutely invincible and altogether irresistible—accumulates only reproach upon himself.

That everything which pertains to our physical nature will remain after our conversion, is true, for grace produces no change in the bodily organization; and that occasional ebullitions of inherent natural temper will occur in our renewed state, is allowed—for very few attain to Mr. Fletcher's eminence of piety. But if we are as passionate and revengeful, as proud and envious, as selfish and unkind, as we were before our supposed conversion, we may be assured that it is but a supposed conversion. It is nothing that we go regularly to worship—it is nothing that we strongly feel under sermons—it is nothing that we have happy frames and feelings; for a heart under the predominant influence of petulant passions can no more have undergone the change of the new birth, than one that is filled with a prevailing lecherousness. And where the heart is renewed, and the badness of the temper is not constant, but only occasional—is not prevailing, but only prominent—it is, in so far as it prevails, a sad blot on real piety.

True it is, that inherent natural tendency to a vice, will require more vigorous resistance and unsleeping vigilance, more laborious effort, more painful mortification, more earnest prayer—on the part of those who are conscious of it, than is necessary on theirs in whom it does not exist. It is not uncommon for such people to be contented with a few feeble struggles, and then to flatter themselves with the idea that there is more grace displayed in those efforts than in the conduct of others, who, being naturally good-tempered, are never exposed to their temptations. To adorn true religion will certainly cost them far more labor than it does those of a better natural temper; just as a man afflicted with a weakly constitution, or a chronic disease, must take more pains with himself than one who has sound health—and he will, after all, look more sickly than the other. But as his bodily malady does exist, he must give himself this more laborious effort—or he cannot rationally expect the least share of health.

So it is with the soul; if the disease of any evil temper is there, immense and unwearied pains must be taken to resist and repress it. This is what is meant by our "plucking out a right eye, or cutting off a right hand," by "denying ourselves," by "mortifying the deeds of the body," by "the spirit struggling against the flesh," by "casting aside every weight, and the sin which does most easily beset us." The subjection of our temper to the control of true religion, is a thing which must be done. It is that to which we must apply as to a matter of indispensable necessity; it is an object which we must accomplish by any mortification of feeling—and by any expenditure of labor. The virtues which we are about to consider will spring up in no soil without strenuous culture! But there are some soils peculiarly unfriendly to their growth, and in which productions of an opposite kind thrive spontaneously, and grow with frightful profuseness! With these greater pains must be taken, and greater patience exercised, until at length the beautiful imagery of the prophet shall be realized—"Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where briers grew, myrtles will sprout up. This miracle will bring great honor to the Lord's name; it will be an everlasting sign of his power and love." Isaiah 55:13

But for effecting such a transformation there must be a degree of labor and pains-taking, which very few are willing to endure—"This kind goes not forth but by prayer and fasting."

To obtain this victory over ourselves, much time must be spent in the closet—much communion with God must be maintained—much strong crying with tears must be poured forth. We must undergo what the apostle calls by a term very appropriate, as well as strikingly descriptive, a "crucifixion,"—"we must crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof,"—"we must beat under our body." We must bring our mind, from time to time, under the influence of redeeming grace—we must ascend the hill of Calvary, and gaze upon that scene of love, until our cold hearts melt, our hard hearts soften, and all the cruel selfishness of our nature relaxes into gentleness. We must make all the doctrines of the gospel, with all the motives they contain, bear upon our nature—the example of the meek and lowly Jesus must be contemplated, admired, and copied. And especially after all must we breathe forth internal longings for the influence of the Holy Spirit, without whose aid our souls will no more yield to the influence of motive, than the polar ice will melt by the feeble beams of the great northern constellation. We must pray for the Spirit; long for the Spirit; expect the Spirit; live, walk, struggle in the Spirit. Thus must we set ourselves to work to obtain more of that love, which alone can subdue our evil temper.

2. The properties here enumerated are ALL included in love, and must ALL be sought by every real Christian.

The general disposition of biblical love, includes all these particular and distinct operations—and opposes all these separate evils. True love is as much opposed to envy as to revenge—and is as humble as it is kind. Consequently, we are not to select for ourselves such modes of its operation as we may think most adapted to our taste and to our circumstances—giving to these all our attention, and neglecting the rest. One is not to say, "I am most inclined to kindness, and I shall cherish this aspect of love—which I find to be more easy and pleasant than to cultivate humility and meekness." Another is not to say, "I find no great difficulty in forgiving injuries, and I shall practice this—but as for envy, I have such a great propensity to it, that I shall give up all attempts to eradicate this weed from my heart."

This parceling out of one disposition—and selecting that part which is most congenial to our constitutional tendency—will not do. Yet is the attempt made by many, who to appease in some measure the clamorous demands of their conscience, and at the same time to avoid the obligation of 'benevolence as a whole', thus impose upon themselves a supposed attention to some 'partial view' of the subject. They carry on a wretched and useless attempt to balance those points in which they succeed, against those in which they fail; their excellencies against their defects. It may be said, in reference to this law of our duty, as well as to the still more comprehensive one, that "He who offends but in one point is guilty of all," for that authority which says, "Be kind," says also, "You shall not think evil of your neighbor." These amiable properties must go together; the general principle which comprises them must be taken as a whole. It is one and indivisible, and as such must be received by us. "Love is the bond of perfectness." Like the band around the sheaf, it holds all the separate ears together. Instead, therefore, of allowing ourselves to select certain aspects—we must open our hearts to its whole and undivided influence. And if, indeed, there is one property of love, in which we are more than ordinarily deficient—to that one we must direct a still greater portion of our attention.

3. These properties are perfectly homogeneous. They are of the same nature, and are, therefore, helpful to each other. In reality, if we cultivate one, we are preparing the way for others. There is no contrariety of influence, no discordant operation, no clashing demands. When we are rooting up one evil by love, we drag up others with it. When we subdue pride, we weaken our susceptibility of offense. When we cherish kindness, we impoverish selfishness. This is an immense advantage in the cultivation of the Christian temper; and it shows us if there be one besetting sinful propensity in the heart, it draws all the energy of the mind to itself, and throws a dark and chilling shadow over the whole soul. The subjugation of this one bad temper will weaken many others that depend for existence upon its support; and make way for an opposite excellence, which is as extensively beneficial as the other was injurious. This is a powerful incentive to the arduous and necessary duty of self-improvement—an evil disposition eradicated, is a good one implanted; and one good one implanted is a way made for others to follow.

4. As these properties, while they are separate as to their nature, all unite in a common and universal disposition—our first and chief attention must be to that which is the common principle. These tempers are so many modes in which love operates—so many streams from a common fountain—so many branches from the same root. While, therefore, we seek to guide the separate streams, and trim the different branches aright, our care must be exercised chiefly in reference to the parent source. We must aim steadily, and labor constantly—at the increase of love itself. We must do everything we can to strengthen the principle of benevolence to man. In every step of our progress through the treatise before us, we must constantly keep in mind its connection with this great master principle. The way to abound in the effects—is to increase the power of the cause.

5. We are to recollect that these properties are to be expected, only in proportion to the degree in which love itself exists in the heart. On reading this chapter, and seeing what is required of the Christian, and comparing it with the usual conduct of religious people, we feel almost involuntarily led to say, "If this be love, where then, except in heaven, is it to be found?" To this I reply, the apostle does not say that every man who pretends to this virtue acts thus—nor does he say that everyone who possesses it, acts thus in all instances—but that love itself does it. This is the way in which love acts—when allowed to exert its own energies. If love were allowed to have its full scope, and to bear sway in us without any check—this would be the invariable effect! Our not seeing, therefore, a perfect exemplification of this principle, is no proof that love does not possess these properties—but only that we are imperfectly under its influence.

This branch of piety, like every other, may be 'possessed in various degrees'—and of course it is only in proportion as we possess the disposition of love, that we shall manifest its operations. This should prepare us to distinguish between the utter lack of love—and the weakness of love; a distinction necessary for our proneness to despondency in reference to ourselves, and to censoriousness in reference to our neighbors.