Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Love suffers long."

"Love is not easily provoked."

I class these two together, because they bear a near affinity to each other. The word in the original translated "suffers long," signifies "to have a long mind," to the end of whose patience, provocations cannot easily reach. It does not mean patience in reference to the afflictions which come from God, but to the injuries and provocations which come from man. Perhaps the most correct idea which can attach to it is forbearance; a disposition which, under long-continued offenses, holds back anger, and is not hasty to punish or revenge.

Its kindred property, here classed with it, is nearly allied to it, is "not easily provoked," or "is not exasperated." The word signifies a violent emotion of the mind, a paroxysm of anger. So that the distinction between the two terms appears to be this—the property intended by the latter seems to be the power of love to curb our wrath—and that intended by the former, its ability to repress revenge.

There are three things which Christian love, in reference to the irascible passions, will prevent.

1. An IRRITABLE and PETULANT disposition. There is in some people an excessive liability to be easily offended—a morbid sensibility which is kindled to anger by the least possible injury, whether that injury is intentional or unintentional. They are all combustible—and ignite by a spark. A word, no, a look—is enough to inflame them. They are ever ready to quarrel with any or everybody. The whole soul seems one entire sensitiveness of offense. Instead of "suffering long," they are not patient at all; and instead of not being easily provoked, they are provoked by anything—and sometimes by nothing. Love will prevent all this, and produce a disposition the very reverse.

Love is concerned for the happiness of others; and will not wantonly afflict them and render them wretched, by such an exhibition of unlovely and unchristian temper. Love will remove this diseased sensibility, and without blunting the natural feelings, will calm this sinful excitability. There are many things which love will not see or hear—judging them quite beneath its dignity to notice. Other things, love will pass by, as not of sufficient consequence to require explanation. Love will keep a strict guard over its feelings, holding the rein with a tight hand.

Love's first business is with its own temper and disposition. This is important for us to notice; for if we indulge the feeling of anger, it will be impossible to smother the flame in our bosom—like the burning materials of a volcano, it will at length burst out in fiery eruptions.

Here then is our first object, to gain that forbearance of disposition which does not allow itself to be irritated or soured; to acquire that command, not only over our words and actions—but over our emotions—which shall make us patient and tranquil amid insults and injuries—which shall keep down the irritated temper of the soul, and preserve the greatest coolness. Irritability, I know, is in part a physical quality; but it is in our power, by God's help, to calm it. Love will make us willing to think the best of those with whom we have to do; it will disarm us of that suspicion and mistrust which make us regard everybody as intending to injure us; will cause us to find out pleas for those who have done us harm; and when this is impossible, will lead us to pity their weakness or forgive their wickedness.

What an enemy to himself is an irritable man! He is a self-tormentor of the worst kind. He is scarcely ever at peace. His bosom is always in a state of tumult. To him the 'calm sunshine of the bosom' is unknown. A thousand petty vexations disturb his repose—trivial, but withal as tormenting, as the gnats which by myriads inflict their stings upon the poor animal which is exposed to their attack. Unhappy man! even though he so far succeeds as to restrain the agitations of his mind from bursting out into passion—yet he has the burning within. Regard to his own happiness—as well as the happiness of others—calls upon him to cultivate that love which shall allay the inflammatory state of his mind, and restore a soundness which will not be thus wounded by every touch.

2. The next thing which love prevents is immoderate ANGER—that anger which the apostle has described in the expression we are now elucidating, as amounting to a fit of wrath—or which in ordinary language we call, "being in a passion." It would be to oppose both reason and revelation to assert that all anger is sin. "Be angry," says the apostle, "and sin not." An intense suppression of the natural feelings is not perhaps the best expedient for obviating their injurious effects. And though nothing requires a more vigilant restraint than the emotion of anger, the uneasiness of which it is productive is perhaps best allayed by its natural and temperate expression. Not to say that it is a wise provision in the economy of nature, for the repression of injury, and the preservation of the peace and decorum of society. A wise and temperate expression of our displeasure against injuries or offenses, is by no means incompatible with Christian love; this grace intending only to check those furious sallies of our wrath which are tormenting to ourselves, and injurious to those with whom we have to do.

Sinful anger is lamentably common, and is not sufficiently subdued among the professors of true religion. In cases of offense they are too often excited to criminal degrees of passion; their countenance is flushed, their brow lowers, their eyes dart indignant flashes, and their tongue pours forth loud and stormy words of reviling accusations. To diminish and prevent this disposition, let us dwell much upon the EVIL CONSEQUENCES of anger.

Anger disturbs our peace, and interrupts our happiness—and this is an evil about which we ought not to be indifferent. A passionate man cannot be a happy man; he is the victim of a temper, which, like a serpent, dwells in his bosom to sting and torment him.

Anger destroys the comfort of those with whom he has to do—his children often bear the fury of the tempest; his wife has her cup of marital felicity embittered by the gall; his servants tremble at the rage of a tyrant; and those with whom he transacts the business of this life dread the gusts of his passion, by which they have often been rendered uncomfortable. He is a common disturber of the circle in which he moves.

Anger interrupts his enjoyment of true religion, brings guilt upon his conscience, and unfits him for communion with God. A beautiful illustration of this part of the subject may be here introduced from one of the most striking of English writers—"Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of our recollection, the seat of meditation, the rest of our cares, and the calm of our tempest. Prayer is the outcome of a quiet mind, of untroubled thoughts. Prayer is the daughter of love, and the sister of meekness—and he who prays to God with an angry, that is, with a troubled and discomposed spirit, is like him that retires into battle to meditate, and sets up his closet in the out quarters of an army, and chooses a frontier garrison to be wise in. Anger is a total alienation of the mind from prayer—and therefore is contrary to that intention which presents our prayers in a right line to God. For so have I seen a lark rising from his bed of grass, and soaring upwards, singing as he rises, and hopes to get to heaven and climb above the clouds—but the poor bird was beaten back by the loud sighings of an eastern wind, and his motion made irregular and inconstant—descending more at every breath of the tempest, than it could recover by the frequent flapping of its wings; until the little creature was forced to sit down and pant, and stay until the storm was over; and then it made a prosperous flight, and did rise and sing as if it had learned music and motion from an angel, as he passed some times through the air about his ministries here below. So is the prayer of a good man—when his affairs have required business, and his business was matter of discipline, and his discipline was to pass upon a sinning person, or had a design of love; his duty met with the infirmities of a man, and anger was its instrument; and the instrument became stronger than the prime agent, and raised a tempest, and overruled the man; and then his prayer was broken, and his thoughts were troubled, and his words went up towards a cloud, and his thoughts pulled them back again, and made them without intention; and the good man sighs for his infirmity, but must be content to lose the prayer; and he must recover it when his anger is removed, and his spirit is becalmed—made even as the brow of Jesus, and smooth as the heart of God; and then it ascends to heaven upon the wings of the holy dove, and dwells with God until it returns, like the useful bee, laden with a blessing and the dew of heaven." (Jeremy Taylor)

Sinful anger dishonors true religion, and causes the ways of godliness to be spoken ill of. The mists of passion envelop religion with a dense medium through which its luster is but dimly seen. A passionate Christian is an object of sport to the profane, a butt of ridicule to fools, whose scorn is reflected from him upon piety itself.

But perhaps it will be said—"Tell us how we may CURE this disposition; its existence we admit, and its evil we know by experience, and deplore." I say then—

Look at anger as it really is—attentively consider its evil nature, and trace its mischievous consequence. "Anger sets the house on fire, and all the spirits are busy upon trouble, and starts displeasure and revenge. Anger is a 'temporary insanity', and an eternal enemy to discourse, and sober counsels, and fair conversation. Anger is a fever in the heart, and a disorder in the head, and a fire in the face, and a sword in the hand, and a fury all over. It has in it the trouble of sorrow, and the heats of lust, and the disease of revenge. If it proceeds from a great cause, it turns to fury. If it proceeds from a small cause, it is peevishness. And so it is always terrible or ridiculous. It makes a man's body deformed and contemptible—the voice horrid, the eyes cruel, the face pale or fiery, the gait fierce. It is neither manly nor wise, and is a passion fitter for flies and wasps than for people professing nobleness and goodness. It is a gathering of all the vile passions. There is in it envy and scorn, fear and sorrow, pride and prejudice, rashness and inconsideration, rejoicing in evil, and a desire to inflict it." (Jeremy Taylor)

Such is the portraiture of this disposition, drawn by the hand of no inconsiderable artist. Let the angry man look at the picture, and learn to hate it; for, like an infuriated serpent, it need only to be seen to be abhorred.

Let us reject all excuses for the indulgence of it—for so long as we extenuate it, we shall not attempt to mortify it. It cannot be defended either on the ground of constitutional tendency—or the greatness of the provocation—or the suddenness of the offense, or the transient duration of the fit—or that there is less evil in gusts of anger than in seasons of sullenness. No! Nothing can justify it; and if we are sincere in our desires to control it, we shall admit that it is indefensible and criminal—and condemn it without hesitation or extenuation.

We must be persuaded that it is possible to control itfor if we despair of victory, we shall not engage in the conflict. Hope of success is essential to success itself.

It is certain that by using right means, a hasty temper may be subdued, for it has been conquered in very many instances. It is said of Socrates, the wisest and most virtuous of the heathen sages, that in the midst of domestic vexations and public disorders, he maintained such an undisturbed serenity, that he was never seen to leave his own house or return to it with a ruffled countenance. If on any occasion he felt a propensity to anger, he checked the rising storm by lowering the tone of his voice, and resolutely assuming a more than usual gentleness of aspect and manner. He not only refrained from acts of revenge, but triumphed over his adversaries by disregarding the insults and injuries they offered him. This was more remarkable, as in acquiring this dominion over his passions, he had to struggle against natural propensities which ran in an opposite direction. Let professing Christians learn from this distinguished heathen, that it is possible to subdue natural temper, however bad and however violent it may is!

Make its cure a matter of desire. What we ardently long for—we shall vigorously pursue. Confess your sin—frankly say, "I am indeed too irritable, too passionate, too revengeful. I see the sinfulness of indulging such a temper; I am disturbed and disgraced by it; and by God's help I will subdue it. I will spare no pains, shrink from no sacrifice, be discouraged by no defeat—until I gain the victory over myself!"

Meditate upon the patience of God, who bears with your innumerable offenses against Him, and forgives them all. Consider the example of Jesus Christ, who meekly endured the contradiction of sinners against himself; and amid ingratitude, insults, and provocations of the basest kind—was mild as the morning sun in autumn.

Seek to acquire a habit of self control—a power over your feelings, which shall enable you to be ever on your guard, and to repress the first emotions of passion. If possible, seal your lips in silence when the storm is rising. Shut up your anger in your own bosom—and like fire that needs air and vent, it will soon expire. Angry words often prove a fan to the spark—many people who in the beginning are but slightly displeased, talk themselves at length into a violent passion. Never speak until you are cool and under control—the man who can command his tongue will find no difficulty in governing his spirit. And when you do speak, let it be in meekness—"a soft answer turns away wrath." When you see others angry and hot, let it be an admonition to you to be cool—thus you will receive the furious indiscretions of others like a stone into a bed of moss, where it will lie quietly without rebounding.

Stop your anger in the beginning. It is easier to put out a spark than a conflagration. It would be well always to terminate the conversation, and leave the company of an individual, when anger is creeping in. "Go from the presence of a foolish man, when you perceive not in him the lips of knowledge."

Avoid disputations, which often engender strifes—and especially avoid them in reference to people of known irritability. Who would contend with a snake or a hornet?

Brood not over injuries. "Or else, you will be devils to yourselves, tempt yourselves when you have no others to tempt you, and make your solitude harmful to yourself." (Baxter's 'Directions'—from which vast fund of practical theology, many of the particulars of this chapter are derived)

Beware of tale-bearers, and do not allow their reports to rouse your resentments.

Do not be inquisitive into the affairs of other men, nor the faults of your servants, nor the mistakes of your friends—lest you go out to gather sticks to kindle a fire, which shall burn your own house.

Look at others who are addicted to passion, and see how repulsive they appear.

Commission some faithful and affectionate friend to watch over and admonish you.

But especially mortify pride and cultivate HUMILITY. "Pride only breeds quarrels." "He who is of a proud heart, stirs up strife." Angry passion is the daughter of pride—meekness the offspring of humility. Humility is the best cure for anger, sullenness, and revenge. He who thinks much of himself, will think much of every little offense committed against him; while he who thinks little of his own importance will think lightly of what is done to offend him. Every irritable, passionate, or revengeful person, is certainly a proud one, and should begin the cure of his passion by the removal of his pride.

But we need go no farther than the chapter before us, for an antidote to anger. LOVE is sufficient of itself; we must seek to have more of this heavenly virtue. Love can neither be angry, passionate or revengeful. Love is full of benevolence and good-will, and therefore cannot allow itself to indulge those tempers which are unfriendly to the happiness of mankind. Let us seek to strengthen LOVE—this parent principle—which will prevent the growth of whatever is evil, and promote the advancement of all that is excellent.

One caution may here be suggested for the encouragement of those who are particularly tried with an irritable temper, and that is—not to despond. If in the work of mortification you meet with many defeats, do not be in a passion with yourselves for being in a passion, for this will only increase the evil you are anxious to destroy. Go calmly, yet courageously, to the conflict—if victorious be not elated—if defeated be not disheartened. Often you will have to mourn your failures, and sometimes be ready to imagine that you are doomed to the hopeless task of Sisyphus, whose stone always rolled back again, when, by immense labor, he had urged it nearly to the summit of the hill. Do not expect an easy or a perfect conquest. Mourn your defeats—but do not despair. Many, after a few unsuccessful efforts, give up the cause, and abandon themselves to the tyranny of their angry passions. In this conflict, unsuccessful struggles are more honorable than unresisting submission.

3. Love will of course prevent REVENGE. Revenge is a term that a Christian should blot out from his vocabulary with his own penitential tears—or with the drops of his gratitude for the pardon he has received from God. There is no passion more hostile to the very essence of Christianity, or more frequently forbidden by its authority, than revenge. And there is no sinful passion to which the depravity of human nature more powerfully excites us. The volume of history is stained, from the beginning to the end, with the blood which has been shed by the 'demon of revenge'. Mankind, in every age and country, have groaned under the misery inflicted by this restless and cruel spirit, which no injury can satisfy, no suffering appease. Revenge has converted men into wild beasts—and inspired them with a wish to tear each other to pieces.

Such a temper as revenge would never meet with the least toleration or sanction in the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, whose person was an incarnation of love—and whose Gospel is an emanation of love. Revenge is admitted by some as justifiable to a certain extent. By the reasoning and conduct of the world, the principle of revenge is allowed, yes, honored, and only condemned in its most vicious excess. Wars, duels, fightings, private animosities that do not infringe on the peace of society, are all justified on this ground. Mankind alter the golden rule, and do unto others not as they desire that others should do to them—but as others do unto them, in a way of evil. And this, so far from being blamed, revenge is generally applauded as honorable and dignified. In the estimate of the people of the world, the man who refuses to resent an injury which he has received, is a poor weak-spirited creature, unworthy to associate with men of honor.

But whatever may be the maxims of the world—revenge is certainly forbidden by every page of the Word of God. "A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense." Private revenge was certainly forbidden under the Old Testament, and still more explicitly under the New. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," said our Lord, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." "You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth—but I say unto you, Do not resist an evil person. You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy—but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you—that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."

The same sentiments are enjoined by the apostles. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." These passages are decisive upon the point, that revenge in any form, or in any measure—is forbidden by the Christian religion.

The misfortune of many is, that they mistake the meaning of the term revenge—or rather they confine its application to the grosser, more mischievous, and more violent expressions of wrath. They think that nothing is revenge but cutting or maiming the person—openly slandering the reputation—or wantonly injuring the property. Such, it must be admitted, are fearful ebullitions of this destructive passion. But they are not the only ways in which revenge expresses itself. There are a thousand petty acts of spite and ill-will, by which a revengeful spirit may operate. If we refuse to speak to another by whom we have been injured, and pass him with silent or manifest scorn—if we take delight in talking of his failings, and in lowering him in the opinion of others—if we show ill-will to his children or relations on his account—if we watch for an opportunity to perform some little act of annoyance towards him, and feel gratified in the thought that we have given him trouble or pain—all this is done in a spirit of retaliation, and is as truly, though not so dreadfully, the actings of revenge, as if we proceeded to inflict bodily injury!

The spirit of revenge simply means returning evil for evil, and taking pleasure in doing so. It may go to the extremes of calumny and murder, or may confine itself to the infliction of minor wrongs; but if we in any way resent an injury with ill-will towards the person who committed it, this is revenge.

A question will here arise, whether according to this view we are not forbidden to defend our person, our property, and our reputation, from the aggressions of lawless mischief? Certainly not. If an assassin attempts to maim or to murder me, I am allowed to resist the attack—for this is not revenging an evil, but an effort to prevent one. If our character in society be slandered, we must endeavor, by peaceful means, to gain an apology and exoneration; and if this cannot be obtained, we are authorized to appeal to the law; for if calumny were not punished, society could not exist. If, however, instead of appealing to the law, we were to calumniate in return; if we were to inflict bodily injury on the aggressor, or take delight in injuring him in other ways—this would be revenge.

But to seek the protection of the law, without at the same time indulging in malice—this is self-defense and the defense of society. If we are injured, or are likely to be injured in our property, we must try, by all private and honorable means, to prevent the aggression; be willing to settle the affair by the mediation of wise and impartial men, and keep our minds free from anger, ill-will and malice, towards the aggressors; and as a last resource, we are justifiable in submitting the cause, if it cannot be settled by any other means, to the decision of a court of justice. No Christian however should resort to the tribunal of public justice until every method of private adjustment has failed.

As it respects the propriety of Christians going to law with each other, the testimony of the apostle is decisive. "When you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to other Christians to decide who is right? Don't you know that someday we Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can't you decide these little things among yourselves? Don't you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn't there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another—right in front of unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?" 1 Cor. 6:1-7

Men professing godliness, especially members of the same religious community, ought, in cases of difference about property or character, to settle all their disputes by the mediation of their own brethren—and if either party declines such arbitration, he must be accountable for all the scandal thrown on the Christian profession by the legal measures to which the other may find it necessary to resort for the protection of his rights. In this case the guilt of infringing the apostolic regulation lies on him who refuses to accede to this Scriptural method of settling the differences that may arise among those who profess to be the disciples of Christ. Whatever award is made, in the case of private arbitration, both parties should abide by it; nor must the individual against whom the decision is given, feel any ill-will, or cherish any revenge towards his successful competitor.

The law of love requires that innumerable minor offenses should be passed over without being noticed—or allowed to disturb our peace of mind. And those which we find it necessary to have explained, require the utmost caution and delicacy. In these cases, love will lead us to the offender, in the spirit of meekness, to ask, not to demand—to solicit in the most gentle manner—an explanation of the injurious treatment. In a great majority of cases, this line of conduct would stifle the animosity while it is yet a spark. If, on the contrary, we permit ourselves to take offense, and have our feelings wounded, or our anger roused; if, instead of mildly and affectionately expostulating, and seeking reconciliation, we brood over the injury, and retire in disgust, to indulge in sullenness, or to watch for an opportunity of revenge—this is being "easily provoked," and the very opposite of "suffering long."