Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Love thinks no evil."

There are two senses which may be attached to this beautiful description of love.

I. Love does not DEVISE evil. What a horrible, demon-like disposition has the Psalmist ascribed to the individual who has no fear of God before his eyes!—"He has left off to be wise and to do good; he devises mischief upon his bed." Such is the delineation given by the inspired writer of the character of some wretched men; and the original is often to be found. They are perpetually scheming to do injury; even their hours of rest are devoted to the impulses of a wicked heart, and they sleep not except they have done mischief. Instead of communing with God upon their bed, this is to commune with the devil, and to hold nightly conference with him who goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. But without going to the extent of those who live by plunder, extortion, or oppression, and who, as the wolves and tigers of society, are ever prowling about for their prey—there are many who maintain a tolerably respectable character—but are still far too busy in devising evil—this may arise from various motives, to all of which Christian love stands firmly opposed.

Desire of gain may lead them to devise means by which they may injure a more prosperous neighbor, a more thriving tradesman than themselves. They cannot endure to witness his success, and they leave no effort untried to hinder it. They are inventive in the way of insinuation, innuendo, or explicit declaration—to check the tide of his good fortune, and are ever scheming to circumvent and injure him. Or they may be moved by envy to devise means for blasting the reputation of a popular rival, or at least to render him less a favorite with the public. Revenge is ever busy in laying plans to injure its object; it broods in wrathful silence over the real or supposed injury, and looks round on every side for the opportunity and the means of full retaliation.

A love of sporting with the fears of the timid and the weak has led some to delight in finding means for exciting their alarms—they do not desire to inflict pain so much from a malignity of disposition as from a wanton pleasure in raising a joke. Such jests as occasion distress are, whatever may be pretended by their authors, a kind of devil's play, who can never relax from the work of tormenting, except it be to occasion lighter pains, and whose very sport is the infliction of misery.

It is dreadful that the human intellect should ever be employed in devising evil; and yet passing by the cabinets of statesmen, where hostile and unprincipled aggressions are so often planned against a weaker state; and the closets of monarchs, where schemes which are to entail the horrors of war upon millions, are contrived without compunction; and the slave-merchant's cabin, where the details are arranged for burning peaceful villages, and dragging into captivity their unoffending inhabitants; and the robber's cave, the murderer's chamber, and the swindler's retreat—passing by these haunts of demons, where the master-spirits of mischief hold their conclave, and digest their dark and horrid purposes—what a prodigious movement of mind is perpetually going on among ordinary people! What a frightful portion of every day's employment of the mental and bodily energies, all over the globe, is seen by the eye of Omniscience to be directed by the parent of evil, who is ever going about to do evil—so that a great part of mankind seem to have no other prototype but the scorpions which John saw rising out of the bottomless pit, armed both with teeth and stings!

To all these people, and to all this their conduct—love is diametrically opposed. It thinks not evil—but good; it devises to communicate pleasure—not pain. It shrinks back with instinctive abhorrence from inflicting a moment's suffering, in body or in mind. "Love works no ill to its neighbor," but employs all its counsels and its cares for its benefit. Like a good spirit, it is ever opposing the advice, and counteracting the influence—of envy, revenge, or avarice. It would make the miserable happy, and the happy still happier. It retires into the closet to project schemes for blessing mankind, and then goes out into the crowded regions of want and wretchedness to execute them; it devises good on its bed, and rises in the morning to fulfill the plans of mercy with which it had sunk to rest. "Love thinks no evil."

2. But most probably the apostle meant, that love does not IMPUTE evil. Lovely love! the farther we go, the more we discover your charms—your beauty is such, that it is seen the more, the more closely it is inspected—and your excellence such, that it never ceases to grow upon acquaintance. You are not in haste to incriminate, as if it were your delight to prove men wicked—but are willing to impute a good motive to men's actions, until a bad one is clearly demonstrated.

It is proper however to remark here, that love is not quite blind—it is not, as we have already said, virtue in senile decay—having lost its power of discrimination between good and evil—nor is it holiness in its childhood, which with childish simplicity believes everything that is told it, and that is imposed upon by every pretender. No! it is moral excellence in the maturity of all its faculties—in the possession of all its manly strength. Like the judge upon the bench, it is penetrating, yet not censorious, holding the balance with an even hand, acting as counsel for the prisoner, rather leaning to the side of the accused than to that of the accuser, and holding him innocent until he is proved to be guilty.

There are some people of a peculiarly suspicious temper, who look with a distrustful eye upon everybody, and upon every action. It would seem as if the world were in a conspiracy against them, and that every one who approached them came with a purpose of mischief. They invert the proper order of things, and instead of imputing a good motive until a bad one is proved, impute a bad one until a good one is made apparent; and so extremely skeptical are they on the subject of moral evidence, that what comes with the force of demonstration to the rest of mankind, in the way of establishing the propriety of an action, scarcely amounts in their view to probability. Those who suspect everybody, are generally to be suspected themselves. Their knowledge of human nature has been obtained at home, and their fears in reference to their neighbors are the reflected images of their own disposition. But without going to this length, we are all too apt to impute evil to others.

1. We are too forward to suspect the piety of our neighbors, and to consider, if not direct hypocrisy, yet ignorance or presumption, as the ground of their profession. Upon some very questionable or imperfect evidence—upon some casual expression, or some doubtful action—we pronounce an individual to be a self-deceiver, or a hypocrite. There is far too much proneness to this in the religious world—too much haste in excising each other from the body of Christ—too much precipitancy in cutting each other off from the shelter of the Christian church. To decide infallibly upon character is not only the prerogative of God—but requires his attributes. There may be some grains of wheat hid among the chaff, which we may be at a loss to discover. We must be careful how we set up 'our views', or 'our experience'—as the test of character, so as to condemn all who do not come up to our standard. It is a fearful thing to unchristianise any one, and it should be done only upon the clearest evidence of his being in an unconverted state. Without being accused of lax or latitudinarian views, I may observe that we should make great allowance for the force of education—for peculiar habits acquired in circumstances different from our own—and for a phraseology learned among those whose views are but imperfect. To impute to a professor of religion the sin of hypocrisy, and mere formality, and to deny the reality of his religion altogether, is too serious a thing for such short-sighted creatures as we are, except in cases which are absolutely indisputable.

2. We are too prone to impute bad motives in reference to particular actions. Sometimes where the action is good, we ascribe it to some sinister or selfish inducement operating in the mind of him by whom it is performed. This is not infrequently done where we have no contention with the individual, and the imputation is merely the effect of envy; but it is more frequently done in cases where we have personal dislike. When the action is of a doubtful nature, how apt we are to lose sight of all the evidence which may be advanced in favor of its being done from a good motive, and with far less probability decide that the motive is bad.

If we ourselves are the object of the action, we too commonly conclude instantly, and almost against evidence, that a bad motive dictated it. Although the circumstance is at worst equivocal, and admits of a two-fold interpretation, we promptly determine that an insult or an injury was intended, when every one but ourselves clearly discerns that no such design can be fairly imputed. A person passes us in the street without speaking, and we immediately believe that it was an act of intentional insult—forgetting that it is probable he did not see us, or was so immersed in thought as not to recognize us. A general remark is made in conversation, which we suppose, with no other evidence than its applicability to us, was intended to expose us before the company; when, perhaps, the individual who made it had no more reference to us than to a man on the other side of the globe.

A thousand cases might be mentioned, and in which, of two motives that may be imputed, we choose the evil one. If a person has previously injured us, we are peculiarly propensity to this unchristian practice of thinking evil of him. We can scarcely allow ourselves to believe that he can do anything relating to us—but from an improper inducement; we suspect all his words and all his actions—nor is the propensity less strong in those cases in which we have been the aggressors; we then set down everything done by the injured person to the influence of revenge.

The evil of such a disposition is manifest. It is explicitly and frequently prohibited in God's Word.

This is the censoriousness forbidden by our Lord, where he says, "Judge not, that you be not judged," and which is condemned by Paul, where he says, "Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts." James commands us "not to speak evil one of another; for he who speaks evil of his brother, judges his brother." "Evil surmisings" are placed by the apostle among the sins which oppose the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is an invasion of the prerogative of Deity, who alone can search the heart, and read the motives of the bosom. It is injurious to the character of our brethren, and disturbs the peace of society. Half of the broils which arise in the world, and of the schisms which spring up in the church, may be traced to this wicked propensity of "thinking evil," for if men think evil, it is an easy matter to speak evil, and then to do evil—so that the origin of many quarrels will be found in the false impression of a suspicious mind—the misapprehension of a censorious judgment. It is a disposition which our own observation and experience are quite sufficient, if we would be guided by them, to correct. How often, how very often, have we found ourselves mistaken in this matter! How frequently has subsequent evidence shown us our error in imputing a bad motive to an action, which at the time, to say the worst of it, was only of a doubtful nature! We have discovered that to have originated in accident, which we once thought to have been the result of malevolent design; and we have found other things to have proceeded from ignorance, which we had hastily set down to malice. How many times have we blushed and grieved over our unfounded hasty conclusions—and yet in opposition to our experience and to our resolutions, we still go on to think evil.

But "love thinks no evil," this divine virtue delights to speak well, and think well of others—she talks of their good actions, and says little or nothing, except when necessity compels her, of their bad ones. She holds her judgment in abeyance as to motives, until they are perfectly apparent. She does not look around for evidence to prove an evil design—but hopes that what is doubtful will, by farther light, appear to be correct; she imputes not evil, so long as good is probable; she leans to the side of toleration rather than to that of severity; she makes every allowance that truth will permit; looks at all the circumstances which can be pleaded in mitigation; does not allow her opinions to be formed until she has had opportunity to escape from the mist of passion, and to cool from the wrath of contention. Love desires the happiness of others—and how can she be in haste to think evil of them?

If it be asked, Do all good men act thus? I again reply, They act thus just in proportion as they are under the influence of Christian love. The apostle does not say that every man who is possessed of love does so—but that love itself thinks no evil; and therefore implies that every good man will act thus in the same degree in which he submits to the influence of this virtue. Divine grace! hasten the universal reign on earth, and put an end to those evil surmisings by which the comfort of mankind and the fellowship of the saints are so much disturbed!