Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Love does not behave itself unseemly."

"A station for every person, and every person in his station—a time for everything, and everything in its time—a manner for everything, and everything in its manner"—is a compendious and admirable rule for human conduct; and seems to approach very nearly to the property of love, which we are now to consider. There is some difficulty in ascertaining the precise idea which the apostle intended by the original term. Perhaps the most correct rendering is "indecorously" that is, unsuitable, improper, inappropriate, unfitting, or unbecoming—to our sex, rank, age, or circumstances. Love leads a man to know his place, and to keep it; and prevents all those deviations which, by disarranging the order, disturb the comfort of society.

This is so general and comprehensive a rule, that it would admit of application to all the various distinctions which exist in life. It is absolutely universal, and binds with equal force the monarch and the peasant, and all the numerous intermediate ranks. It imposes a consistency between a man's station and his conduct, viewed in the light of Christianity. It says to every man, "Consider your circumstances, and fulfill every just expectation to which they give rise." By the common consent of mankind, there is a certain line of conduct which belongs to every relation in life, and which cannot, perhaps, be better expressed, than by the word "becomingness," and which may be called the symmetry of society. We may select a few of the more prominent distinctions of society, and see how love preserves them without giving offense.

The relation of monarch and subject is one of the social ties; and in reference to this, love would prevent the ruler from employing the kingly power to crush the liberty, subvert the interests, or impoverish the resources of his people—while it would equally prevent the subject from despising the position, exposing the defects, evading the authority, disturbing the peace, or embarrassing the reign of the monarch. Tyranny on the part of the prince—and rebellion on the part of the subject, are equally unbecoming, and both are hostile to that love which seeks the happiness of the whole.

The distinction of male and female is to be supported by all propriety of conduct. On the part of the man, if he be single, all trifling with the affections, all brashness, all taking advantage of the weakness of the other sex, is explicitly forbidden. If he is married, all neglect, oppression, and unkindness towards his wife, is explicitly forbidden. What a horrid inappropriateness is it on the part of a husband to become either the slave or the tyrant of his wife—either in pitiful weakness to abdicate the throne of domestic government, or to make her a crouching vassal trembling in its shadow! And how disgusting a spectacle is it to see a husband abandoning the society of his wife for the company of other females, and flirting, though perhaps with no criminal intention, with either single or married women.

On the other hand, how unseemly in unmarried women, is a bold obtrusiveness of manner, an impudent forwardness of address, a clamorous and monopolizing strain of conversation, an evident attempt to attract the attention of the other sex. Modesty is the brightest ornament of the female character—its very becomingness. And women, if married, should be keepers at home, and not gossips abroad—should look well to the ways of their household, and preside over its affairs in the meekness of wisdom; for domestic indolence and neglect is in a wife and a mother most improper! Nor is it less offensive to see the female head of a family usurping the seat of government, and reducing her husband to the rank of mere vassal to the 'queen'. Women never act more unsuitable than when they become meddling busybodies—either in politics or church affairs. Nothing can be more offensive than to see a female busybody running from house to house to raise a party, and to influence an ecclesiastical decision; forgetting that her place is home, and her duty to learn in silence from her husband. Whatever admiration has been bestowed on the heroic females of Sparta, who fought by the side of their husbands, no such eulogy can be offered to ecclesiastical heroines, whose martial ardor leads them into the arena of church contentions. Christian love would repress all unfit, indecorous zeal.

Parents and children will be guarded by love, if they yield to its influence, from all unbecoming conduct. Fathers will neither be tyrannical nor too indulgent; will neither govern their children as slaves with a rod of iron, nor relaxing all discipline, throw the reins into their children's hands. For how incongruous is tyranny with a relation that implies the tenderest affection—and how unseemly is a cessation of rule in one who is invested by heaven with a sacred authority. Becomingness on the part of children requires the most prompt and willing obedience, the most genuine and manifest affection, the most respectful and humble demeanour towards parents, with the most anxious and ingenuous endeavors to promote their parent's happiness. Everything approaching to improper familiarity, much more to pertness, most of all to unmanageability of manner, in a child towards a parent, is unbecoming in the last degree. In those cases where the high moral and intellectual qualities of parents are such as almost to command the exercise of filial piety from children, there is no difficulty in rendering it. But where these qualities are not possessed by the parents, there is greater danger of young people forgetting what is due to the parental relation, and acting very improperly towards those who, whatever may be their faults, are still their parents. It is excessively unbecoming to hear children of any age, however matured or advanced, exposing, perhaps ridiculing, their parents' infirmities, treating their opinions with scorn, reproving or upbraiding them to their face. Let all young people recollect that whatever may be the character of a parent, "a mother is a mother still—the holiest thing alive."

In the realm of employment—the distinctions of superiors and inferiorsit is very easy to see what kind of conduct is seemly, and what is unsuitable. To the superior, becomingness will prohibit all improper familiarity—for this generates contempt; and at the same time all pride and arrogance, together with all insulting condescension. Inferiors are most tenderly alive, most keenly susceptible of all real or supposed slights from those above them and the feelings excited by such treatment are of the most painful kind. Pride is the most cruel of the passions, being utterly reckless of the wounds which it inflicts, the groans which it extorts, or the tears which it causes to flow. Even in its mildest exercise, by a look of scorn, by a word of insult, it often transfixes a barbed arrow in the bosom of an inferior; while by its deliberate and persevering scheme of mortification, it remorselessly crucifies the object of its contempt. O, how unbecoming to employ superiority only as an eminence from whence, as with a sort of vulture ferocity, we might pounce with greater force on a victim below! Dignified affability is the becomingness of superiority, which while it does not remove the line of distinction, does not render it painfully visible. Love will make us cautious not to wound the feelings of others by talking to them of our superiority, or by making them in any way feel it.

On the part of inferiors, it will prevent all encroaching familiarity—all presuming upon manifested kindness—all attempt, or even wish, to level the distinctions of society—all crude, uncourteous, uncivil demeanor. Some people seem to act as if religion removed the obligation to civility, declared war with courtesy, and involved a man in hostility with whatever things are lovely. Incivility or rudeness manifested by the poor to the rich, by servants to masters, or by the illiterate to the well-informed—is unfriendly to the peace and good order of society, and therefore contrary to Christian love.

Old age and youth are also distinctions requiring a suitable or becoming line of conduct. Levity, silliness, and folly, are among the qualities which would be indecorous in the elder. While obtrusiveness, forwardness, excessive talkativeness, and obstinacy, would be unseemly in the latter. Elders should treat youth with kindness and forbearance; while youth should treat elders with reverence, respect, and deference.

These distinctions, when carried into the church, where they exist as well as in the world, should be maintained under the most powerful influence of the holy disposition which we are now illustrating. This will teach us with all toleration and impartiality to judge of our station, and to adorn it with actions that are suitable to it. Anything unbecoming is sure to give offense, and to produce discomfort. Whether our rank be high or low—we cannot violate the rule which prescribes its duties, without occasioning pain.

Men are united in society like the organs and limbs in the human body; and no one, in either case, can be put out of its place without producing uneasiness in the rest. The object of love is to keep all in their proper places, and thus to promote the well-being of the whole.

There is another sense which this expression will bear, and that is, love does not allow its possessor to act unworthy of his profession as a disciple of Christ. Consistency is beauty, and the lack of it, whatever excellences may exist, is deformity. The brightest displays of moral worth in some things, if associated with obvious and great improprieties in others—lose all their attraction and power to edify or delight—and are the occasion of pain instead of pleasure to the spectator. The rule which the apostle has laid down is particularly worthy of the attention of us all—"Whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think of these things." It is not enough for us to acknowledge practically the claims of truth, purity, and justice—but we must also meet and answer every expectation which our profession and our principles have raised. Whatever is generally esteemed to be lovely—whatever is usually spoken of as excellent—whatever it be to which by general consent we attach the idea of the attractive, and the honorable, and the praiseworthy—that must a follower of Christ consider to be the matter of his duty.

There is nothing good in itself, or advantageous to others—nothing that is calculated to edify by the power of example, or to bless in the way of direct energy and influence—nothing that is calculated to give pleasure or to remove distress—but what is implied in the very nature of true piety. True religion is the likeness of God in the soul of man—and a Christian is truly an imitator of God—hence he is called "to walk worthy of God,"—to act as becomes one who professes to bear the divine image. Let anyone contemplate the moral attributes of God—and think what that man ought to be, who professes to give to the world, as a living miniature representation of this infinitely glorious Being! On the ground of consistency he should be blameless and harmless; a follower only of that which is good; holy in all manner of conversation and godliness; a beautiful specimen of whatever is noble, dignified, generous, and useful.

The world takes us at our word; they accept our profession as the rule of their expectation; and although they often look for too much, considering the present imperfect state of human nature, yet to a certain extent their demands are authorized by our own declarations. What in reason may not be looked for, from one who professes to have received the temper of heaven, the impress of eternity, the nature of God? Hence, the least 'deviations from rectitude' are apparent in those who profess such things; the least 'specks of imperfection' are conspicuous on so bright a ground; faults stand out in bold and obtrusive prominence, on such a profession. Our profession invites the eye of scrutiny—we are not allowed to pass the ordeal of public opinion without the most rigid scrutiny; we are brought out from obscurity, and held up to be examined in the light of the sun. Failings which would escape detection in others, are quickly discerned and loudly proclaimed in us; and it is therefore of immense consequence that we should take care what manner of people we are. Without consistency, even our good, will be evil spoken of. The least violation of this rule will attach suspicion to the most distinguished virtues, and bring discredit on the best of our actions.

A lack of consistency, is a violation of the law of love in various ways. By exciting a prejudice against true religion, it does harm to the souls of men. It makes them satisfied with their state as unconverted people, by leading them to consider all other professors of true religion, as a hypocrite. It is very true that this is unfair; that it is attending more to exceptions than the general rule; that it is giving credence to little things, and allowing them to have an influence which is denied to the greater and more prevailing parts of the character. But as this is their way, it makes every departure from consistency on our part, not only sinful—but injurious—not only guilty in the sight of God—but cruel towards man.

The minor faults of Christians do more harm, in the way of hardening the heart of sinners, than the greatest excesses of the openly wicked; for this reason—that nothing else is expected from the latter. Their conduct excites no surprise, and produces no disappointment. We have not been sufficiently aware of this—we have confined our attention too exclusively to the avoiding of open immorality—we have not directed our solicitude enough to "the whatever things are lovely and of good report." To the question, "What do you do, more than others?" we have thought it enough to answer, "We are more pure, more true, more devotional, more zealous," without being careful to be more dignified, more honorable, more generous in all things. Little things have been forgotten in the contemplation of great ones; secret faults have been lost sight of in the abhorrence of presumptuous sins.

A lack of becomingness is a violation of the law of love in another way—it excites a prejudice against our brethren, and involves them in our failings. By inconsistent conduct, we bring suspicion upon others, and thus subject them to much undeserved ridicule. The world deals unfairly with us we admit, not only making us answerable for the conduct of each other—but also in imputing only our 'failings' to all other Christians; for however splendid and remarkable may be the Christian excellences that any of our number possess, however brilliant the example of a rare and eminent believer may be, they do not let his brightness fall upon the rest. He is alone in his 'excellences'—but his 'sins' are generally imputed to all Christians—and the shadow of one transgression is made to stretch, perhaps, over a whole community. What an argument is this with us all for consistency—for what cruelty is it to our brethren to involve them in unmerited reproach—by our inconsistencies!

Besides, what a grief of mind is the unworthiness of one member—to all who are associated with him in the fellowship of the Gospel. When a member of a church has acted unbecomingly, and caused the ways of godliness to be spoken badly of—what a wound has been inflicted on the body! For if one member suffers in his reputation, all the rest must, so far as their peace is concerned, suffer with him. This is one of the finest displays of Christian sympathy—one of the purest exhibitions of love—of love to God, to Christ, to man, to holiness. The misconduct of their erring brother has occasioned no loss to them of worldly substance, or bodily ease, or social comfort; but it has dishonored Christ, has injured, in public estimation, the cause of true religion, and this has touched the tenderest chord of the renewed heart.

What affliction has sometimes been circulated through a whole church by the unbecoming behavior of a single member! The apostle has given a very striking proof of this, in his representation of the feelings of the Corinthian church, after they had taken a right view of the delinquency of the incestuous person. "Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish the wrongdoer." This is only a counter-part of what often happens now, and shows that everything unseemly is a most flagrant offense against the rule of Christian love.

Unbecomingness may be considered also not only in a general point of view—but as having reference to our conduct towards our BRETHREN—and may mean anything unsuitable to, or out of character with, our profession as church members. Improper treatment of the pastor, is obviously a lack of the decorum of love. If his office be disesteemed, and his scriptural authority resisted; if attempts be made to lower him in the opinion of the church, and to deprive him of the rule with which he is invested by the Lord Jesus Christ; if his opinion is treated with disrespect, and his just influence over the feelings of his flock be undermined; if he be rudely and impertinently addressed; if he be unnecessarily opposed in his schemes for public or private usefulness; if his sermons be despised or neglected, and his ecclesiastical administration treated with suspicion or contempt; if his temporal support be scantily or grudgingly afforded; if his comfort be not carefully consulted and assiduously built up—there is a flagrant unbecomingness on the part of church members, who are enjoined to "obey those who have the rule over them," "to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake," and "to hold such in honor."

Lust for power, and an ambitious desire for dominating influence, is manifestly unbecoming in one who acknowledges himself the member of a society where all are equals, and all are the servants of a Master who has thus addressed his disciples—"You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:25-28.

A love of power seems almost inherent in the human bosom, and is an operation of that selfishness which enters so deeply into the essence of original sin. Nothing can be more opposed to love than this. Unbridled ambition, in its progress through its bustling and violent career—is the most unsocial and uncharitable passion that can exist. The furies are its allies, and it tramples down in its course all the charities and courtesies of life. When this disposition has taken full possession of the heart, there is no cruelty which it will hesitate to inflict, no desolation of which it will scruple to be the cause. The lesser exhibitions of this vice, and its more moderated energies, will still be attended with some proofs of its unsocial nature. Let a man once desire to be preeminent and predominant, as it respects influence or power, and he will not be very regardless of the feelings of those whom he desires to subjugate.

It is much to be deplored that the Christian church should ever be the field where rival candidates for power struggle for superiority! Yet how often has this been seen to be the case, not merely in the Catholic conclave, where aspiring cardinals have put in motion all their artifice, and finesse, and duplicity, to gain the tiara; not merely among mitred prelates for a higher seat on the episcopal bench—no; but also among the lay-brethren of an independent church. How anxious and restless have they sometimes appeared—to be leading men, influential members, the most admired minister, and the ruling elders of the church. They must not only be consulted in everything—but consulted first. Every plan must emanate from them, or else be approved by them before it is submitted to the rest. The apostle has drawn their picture to the life, where he says—"I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church." 3 John 1:9-10

Such an individual must be a source of discomfort to his brethren in communion. There may be no competitor with him for the scepter who regards him with envy—but the whole community are grieved and offended with his unlovely and encroaching disposition. It is pretty evident to me that Diotrephes was a minister; but the features of this picture apply with equal force to an ambitious and aspiring layman, whose lust of power is still more censurable, as it has not even the basis of office to rest upon.

There are cases, it is admitted, in which experience, wisdom, benevolence, and activity, are so beautifully combined in an individual—as to place him, more by general consent than by his own efforts—above all his brethren in influence. When he opens his mouth in wisdom, all are silent—and the pastor hearkens with the rest in respectful deference to his opinion. No one would think of proposing any scheme until he had been consulted, and his disapproval mildly expressed would be thought a sufficient reason for laying it aside. He has power—but it has come to him without his seeking it, and it is employed, not to exalt himself—but to benefit the church. His sway is the influence of love—and all that influence is employed by him, not to raise himself into a rival with his pastor for the upper seat in the church—but to support the authority and dignity of the pastoral office. Such men we have sometimes seen in our communities, and they have been a blessing to the people and a comfort to the minister. If any individuals could have been found in the circle where they moved, so flippant and so forward as to treat them with the least degree of disrespect, everyone would have been loud in the expression of their disapprobation of such an act of censurable indecorum.

Unseemliness in the conduct of a church member towards his brethren, applies to all that is rude, unmannerly, or uncivil. "No ill-bred man," says Adam Clarke, in his comments on this word, "or what is commonly termed rude or unmannerly, is a consistent Christian. I never wish to meet with those who affect to be called 'blunt, honest men'—who feel themselves above all the forms of civility and respect—and care not how many they put to pain—how many they displease."

There is much good sense in these remarks, that deserves the attention of all professing Christians who have the credit of true religion, and the comfort of their brethren at heart. It is inconceivable what a great degree of unnecessary distress is occasioned by a disregard of this rule, and how many hearts are continually bleeding from the wounds inflicted by incivility and rudeness! We should be careful to avoid this; for true piety gives no man a release from the courtesies of life! In our private communion with our brethren, we should be anxious to give no offense. If we feel it our duty at any time, as we sometimes may and ought, to expostulate with a brother on the impropriety of his conduct, we should be most studiously cautious to abstain from all appearance of what is impertinently meddlesome, or offensively blunt. Reproof, or even admonition, is rarely palatable—even when administered with the honied sweetness of Christian kindness. But it is wormwood and gall when mingled up with uncourteousness, and will generally be rejected with disdain and disgust. We must never think of acting the part of a reprover, until we have put on humility as a garment, and taken up the law of kindness in our lips.

Nothing is more likely to lead to incivility, than repeated and vexatious interruptions when engaged in some interesting or important business, or when required to comply with unreasonable requests. I have known cases in which, when application has been made for what the applicant thought to be a very reasonable matter, his request has been treated with such scorn, and denied with such abruptness and coarseness of manner, as to send him home with an arrow in his heart; when a few moments spent in explanation, or a denial given in kind and respectful language, would have completely satisfied him.

It is admitted that it is somewhat trying, and it is a trial of very common occurrence in the present day, to be called from important occupations to listen to tales of woe, to read the statement of need, or to answer the enquiries of ignorance; but still we must not be, ought not to be, crude. Sudden interruptions are apt to throw a man off his guard—he has scarcely time to call into exercise his principles, before his passions are up and busy. It is said of Mr. Romaine, that he was one day called upon by a poor woman in distress of soul, for the purpose of gaining instruction and consolation. The good man was busy in his study; and on being informed that a poor woman wanted to converse with him below, exclaimed with great incivility of manner, "Tell her I cannot attend to her!" The humble applicant, who was within hearing distance, said, "Ah, Sir! your Master would not have treated thus a burdened penitent who came to him for mercy." "No, no!" replied the good man, softened by an appeal which his heart could not resist, "he would not—come in, come in!"

Too, too often has the same petulant indecorum been manifested by others, without being accompanied by the same reparation—they have pierced the heart, and left the wound to fester—the petitioners have carried away from their door their misery not only unrelieved—but greatly aggravated. But there is a peculiar sensitiveness on the subject of monetary contributions in some people—to ask for them is an offense, which they pay back in insult. They are the Nabals of the church—if, indeed, the church could have a Nabal. What can be more unseemly than words which would disgrace a man—dropping from the lips of a professing Christian!

Unbecoming rudeness should be most sedulously avoided, in our public communion with the church, and in our social circles, when meeting as brethren. Everything of flat contradiction, of unwarrantable suspicion concerning the truth of a statement; all seeming contempt for the opinions of others; all attempts to interrupt or bear down by clamor and vehemence, those with whom we may be engaged in discussion, should be very anxiously abstained from. It is truly painful to observe, what an utter disregard for the feelings of their brethren is often manifested by some ardent sticklers for their own opinions and plans. But is not courteousness a Christian grace? Did not the apostle say, 'Be courteous'? Why should that which is considered by the world, as a rich decoration of character, as softening and embellishing the communion of society, and as so important and necessary as to be placed under the guardianship of what is called the law of honor—why should courteousness ever be considered as of little importance in the business of true religion, and the fellowship of the faithful? If rudeness be considered as a blemish upon talents, rank, and fame—must it not be viewed also as a blot and deformity upon piety? Most certainly it is regarded as such those whose concern to do whatever would give pleasure, and to avoid whatever would occasion distress.

We see in this subject the wonderful excellence of Christianity as a code of morals, a rule of conduct, and a body of principles. For in addition to specific laws, intended to operate in the production of certain virtues and the prevention of certain vices—it has general and comprehensive precepts, capable of universal application—of so plain a nature as to be understood by the dullest intellect—and possessing at the same time a kind of beauty which gives them an interest in every heart. So that if in the specialities of Christian morals, properly so called, any case should be overlooked, or any situation should not be reached—any distinction between virtue and vice should be so minute as to be imperceptible—any delicacy of character so refined as not to be taken into the account—here is something to supply the defect, and render the law of God perfect for converting the soul. Love does nor act unbecomingly! And who is so ignorant, if he would but consult his conscience, as not to know what would be thought by others unbecoming in himself?