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203

XV.

A PASSIONATE DISPOSITION.

"A soft answer turneth away wrath: but a grievous word stirreth up anger." In the LXX. there is another clause inserted at the beginning, Ὀργὴ ἀπόλλυσι καὶ φρονίμους, ἀπόκρισις δὲ ὑποπίπτουσα ἀποστρέφει θυμόν, λόγος δὲ λυπηρὸς ἐγείρει ὀργάς."—Prov. xv. 1.

"A meek tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breaking of the spirit."—Prov. xv. 4.

"A wrathful man stirreth up contention: but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife."—Prov. xv. 18.

Bad temper causes more suffering than the modified severity with which we judge it would imply. It is in a home what toothache is in the body: the pain is insufferable and yet it is not treated as serious. A passionate man or woman spreads a pervading sense of irritation in the house or in the workshop, and all the other occupants of the place are as if they dwelt in a country subject to earthquakes; life for them is divided between anxiety to avoid the explosion and a painful effort to repair its devastations. We are not severe enough on these faults of temper in ourselves or in others; we are too prone to excuse them on the ground of temperament, as if we were no more responsible for outbreaks of passion than for the colour of our hair or the tone of our complexion. It will, therefore, do us good to see what the Wise Man says on the subject.

First of all, we have several proverbs which remind204 us how irritating an angry disposition is: it is the constant occasion of strife; it grows itself by each fresh annoyance that it gives, so that it quickly becomes ungovernable, and thus "the wrathful man aboundeth in transgression."432432   Prov. xxix. 22. A fierce ungovernable temper will set a whole city in a flame,433433   Prov. xxix. 8. and lead to disasters of national and even world-wide extent. However peaceful and happy a community may be, if a choleric man enters it, signs of combustion will soon begin to appear. There are always hot embers which wise men are earnestly trying to damp down,434434   Prov. xxix. 8. there are trivial irritations, petty annoyances, incipient envies, which are only too easily inflamed; the cool spirit and the conciliatory word and the ingenious diversion of thought will keep the embers choked until the heat dies away, but "as coals to hot embers, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to inflame strife."435435   Prov. xxvi. 21.

We may well be cautioned to give such an inflammatory character a wide berth; "Make no friendship with a man that is given to anger; and with a wrathful man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul."436436   Prov. xxii. 24. Even a sweet temper may be chafed into peevishness by constant irritations; with passionate people the gentlest become passionate in self-defence. When this unbridled, ill-disciplined nature approaches, we should avoid it as if it were a bear robbed of her whelps, for such is this fool in his folly.437437   Prov. xvii. 12.

This leads us to notice that anger and folly are very closely allied. The passionate nature is constantly205 betrayed into actions which sober wisdom must condemn,—"He that is soon angry will deal foolishly.... He that is slow to anger is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly."438438   Prov. xiv. 17, 29. Any one with a grain of sense will put a check upon his rising temper; his discretion makes him slow to anger, and he never feels to have won such true glory as when he bridles his wrath and passes by an offence without a sign of annoyance or resentment.439439   Prov. xix. 11. "When Lanfranc was prior of Bec he ventured to oppose Duke William's Flemish marriage. In a wild burst of wrath William bade his men burn a manor house of Bec and drive out Lanfranc from Norman ground. He came to see the work done, and found Lanfranc hobbling on a lame horse towards the frontier. He angrily bad him hasten, and Lanfranc replied by a cool promise to go faster out of his land if he would give him a better steed. 'You are the first criminal that ever asked gifts from his judge,' retorted William, but a burst of laughter told that the wrath had gone, and William and Lanfranc drew together again."—Green's Conquest of England, p. 551. You may almost be sure that a man is wise if you find that he has a cool spirit.440440   Prov. xvii. 27. When you see a person who cautiously avoids the ground where strife is apt to be excited, and builds his house on a spot where contention is impossible, you instinctively respect him, for you know it betokens wisdom; but when you see a man always getting involved in quarrels, always showing his teeth,441441   This word הִתְנַּלָּע, which only occurs here (xx. 3) and in xvii. 14 and xviii. 1, would seem from the cognate root in Arab. and Syr. to mean "setting the teeth together," which is a much more vivid and specific idea than quarrelling. you rightly conclude that he is a fool.442442   Prov. xx. 3. "A fool uttereth all his anger: but a wise man keepeth it back and stilleth it."443443   Prov. xxix. 11. If we are naturally irritable or206 splenetic, wisdom will incline us to avoid occasions which excite us, and to keep a watchful guard over our spirits where the occasions are inevitable. If we neglect such precautions we shall justly be counted fools, and the consequent outbreaks of passion will lead us into fresh exhibitions of folly, and more completely justify the harsh judgment which has been passed upon us.

But not the least sign of the folly which is inherent in passion is the shocking effect which it has upon those who give way to it. As the LXX. version says at the beginning of this chapter, "Anger destroys even the wise." And one whose spirit is without restraint is forcibly compared to a city that is broken down and has no wall;444444   Prov. xxv. 28. every foe can go up and possess it, every thoughtless child can fling a firebrand into it; the barest word, hint, smirk, shrug of the shoulders, any unintentional slight or reflection, nay, even silence itself, will suddenly set the powder-train on fire, and the consequent explosion will be more destructive to the city itself than to those who are outside. "A man of great wrath shall bear the penalty," and, poor fellow, perhaps it is best that he should, for if you deliver him from the consequence of his passion, that will only encourage him in further outbreaks, and so he will become worse, and your deliverance will be an endless task.445445   Prov. xix. 19.

Our great King Henry II. was subject to fits of uncontrollable passion, in which he would roll on the floor and bite the dust, impotent with rage; and all the sorrows of his life and reign, falling heavily upon207 him in his later years, were occasioned by this unhappy temper. At the present time we are told that the Chinese frequently indulge in fits of passionate wrath, which react terribly upon their health and make them physically ill. The wrathful man does mischief to many, but his wrath is like an old arquebus, which, when it is fired, hurts the bearer almost as much as the enemy. It may fail to hit the mark, but it is sure to knock down the marksman.

Probably here the plea will be urged that we cannot help our temper, and it may be said, the suffering which it brings upon us is the best proof that it is an infirmity rather than a vice. Now this excuse cannot be allowed to pass; a certain good bishop on one occasion hearing it urged, in extenuation of a man's conduct, that he had such an unfortunate temper, exclaimed, "Temper, why temper is nine-tenths of Christianity!" If we are not to be blamed for bad temper, then there is no fault or defect or vice which we cannot shift off our own shoulders and lay to the charge of our constitution. But our constitution is no excuse for sin; the most that can be urged is that if we are constitutionally inclined to any particular sin we must seek for a special strength to fortify us against it. If in building a city an ancient engineer had one side more exposed than the rest, protected by no natural escarpments of rock or bends of the river, there he would concentrate all his skill to make the wall impregnable. If you find that one of your bodily organs betrays a tendency to disease, you are careful to avoid the exposure, or the strain, or the derangement, which would unfavourably affect it. If your lungs are delicate you shun fogs and chills; if your heart is feeble you are careful to avoid208 any sudden excitement; if your eyes are weak you notice very particularly by what light you read, and are sensitive to the least weariness in those delicate instruments. In the same way, if your special infirmity lies in the temper; if you are easily provoked, or apt to fall into sullenness; if a sudden annoyance excites an uncontrollable passion in your mind, or drops into your heart seeds of bitterness which rapidly grow and become ineradicable; you have your work cut out for you; your daily task will be to avoid the things which produce such ill effects, and to cultivate the habits which lessen the virulent action of these irritant poisons. Few of us realize how wonderfully our constitution is subjected to our own control, and how much we ourselves have to do with the making of it.

You know, we will suppose, that you are easily entangled in a quarrel; you must then prepare yourself before you go out into the business of the day,—"Go not forth hastily to strive, lest.... What wilt thou do in the end, when thy neighbour hath put thee to shame?"446446   Prov. xxv. 8. This realization of what will probably result from your hasty temper will act as a check upon it, and you will be inclined, if you have any ground of offence against your neighbour, to go quietly and debate it with him alone.447447   Prov. xxv. 9. Or if the contention has been sprung upon you unawares, take care that over the floodgates of your passion has been written this wholesome warning, "The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water: therefore leave off contention, before there be any setting of the teeth."448448   Prov. xvii. 14. See note 4, p. 205. Knowing your danger you must summon to your aid209 all the heroism of your nature, and remember that this is the time and the occasion to exercise it. Others have to win their spurs on the battlefield; this is your battlefield, and here your spurs are to be won. Others have to win kingdoms or capture cities; here is the kingdom where you are to reign, this is the city which you are to take. "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city."449449   Prov. xvi. 32.

Get at some grand root principle like this: "Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all transgressions."450450   Prov. x. 12. Ah, yes, if you are disposed to be angry with men, fill your spirit with love to them; that will soothe your irritable nerves, and will flow over their transgressions so that they cease to annoy you because you cease to see them; when we are fervent in love to one another, the love covers a multitude of sins.451451   1 Peter iv. 8. Where love comes into the soul we are more anxious to convert those who offend us than to be angry with them.452452   James v. 20. Love saves us from the self-vaunting which exposes us to the annoyances, and provokes the attacks, of the malignant;453453   1 Cor. xiii. 4. and it enables us to bear all things, almost without a ruffle or a perturbation. Strange to say, passionate temperaments are often very affectionate; let them cultivate the love in themselves, and it will be the destruction of the evil temper. And where the evil passion comes from a true moroseness, then the fruit can only be destroyed with the root, and the root can only be destroyed when love is shed abroad in the heart.

Or possibly your anger is not of the passionate kind,210 but rather stern and resentful, arising from an exaggerated sense of self-importance. A meek454454   This meaning of מַרְפֶּא, as was observed in Lecture XII., p. 172, seems to yield the best sense in these two passages (cp. xii. 18; xiii. 17), as in Eccl. x. 4, "gentleness allayeth great offences," which is a good commentary on our text. heart is not wrathful, and it is the life of the flesh; but where meekness fails, envy enters as rottenness of the bones, and with envy, hatred and malice.455455   Prov. xiv. 30. A meek456456   This meaning of מַרְפֶּא, as was observed in Lecture XII., p. 172, seems to yield the best sense in these two passages (cp. xii. 18; xiii. 17), as in Eccl. x. 4, "gentleness allayeth great offences," which is a good commentary on our text. tongue not only checks wrath in itself, but soothes it in others; it is a tree of life, just as perverseness in it is a breaking of the spirit.457457   Prov. xv. 4. If you thought less of yourself, you would not so frequently feel your dignity offended; you would not require this weapon of wrath always at hand to leap forth and avenge your outraged pride. From the meek heart vengeance dies away. "Say not thou, I will recompense evil: wait on the Lord, and He shall save thee."458458   Prov. xx. 22. You are sudden and quick in quarrel, because you think of yourself more highly than you ought to think; and because others do not share your opinion of yourself, you must summon all your artillery of wrath to make them bend the stubborn knee and offer you the due tribute of deference or admiration. For if bad temper comes often from constitutional infirmities which must be carefully watched and controlled, it comes just as frequently from that subtle enemy of our souls, Pride.

But now we come to the important question, How are our evil passions to be cured? And we must frankly admit that our book has no suggestions to offer. Its tendency is to regard our disposition as fixed, our temperament as irreversible, our character211 as unchangeable. It points out with crystalline clearness the mischief of wrath and the merit of meekness, but it never so much as entertains the possibility that the wrathful man might become meek, the passionate man patient and gentle.

We have in our analysis of the evil observed that in order to avoid it we must be vigilant to mark and control the first risings of passion; we have noted too that if we were truly loving, anger would die away, and if we were truly humble, the resentments which stir our anger would have nothing to feed upon. But the main difficulty is, how are we to become watchful, since it is the special characteristic of a hasty temper that it overpowers our sentinels before it assaults the city? And how are we to become loving and humble? It is only throwing the difficulty back a step or two, and showing us how insuperable it is, to say that we must become good in one direction in order to escape the evil which lies in another direction. It does not help the Ethiopian to become a European to tell him that Europeans have white skins instead of black; nor can a leopard change his kind because he learns that his spots are his distinctive mark.

There must be a deeper message than that of the Proverbs to solve this practical difficulty; though we may well feel that the book is invaluable in setting before us how greatly we need a deeper message. No infirmity of human nature proves more forcibly than the one with which we are dealing that "some thing out of Nature" must come in if a change is to be effected. "We must be born again;" it is only a regenerate heart which will have the impulse and the ability to watch against the eruption of a passionate212 disposition. It is only a regenerate heart which can love in such a way that irritations cease to fret, or that can be humble enough to escape the exasperations of wounded pride. Many of us think lightly of these particular faults, and scarcely designate ill-temper a sin at all; but however we may regard it, the wrathful disposition requires nothing less than Christ, and Him crucified, to cure it, and God deemed it worth while to send His only-begotten Son in order to effect the cure. In Christ Jesus are forces, moral and spiritual, strong enough to control the most uncontrollable rage and to soothe the most irritable temper; and as we can point to no other power which is sufficient for such a change, so few things manifest so strikingly the blessed presence of Christ in the heart as the softened and gentle temper, the removal of all those explosive elements which before He entered were constantly causing trouble and suffering and alarm.

Here is an example taken from a country where the knowledge of the Gospel is comparatively recent. A Japanese gentleman living at Fujioka, who was much addicted to the use of sáke, a strong intoxicant, which produced the worst results on his temper, was led through reading a tract on the subject to renounce the evil habit, and to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour. In proportion as the Divine power mastered him he became a new creature. One day his wife had been careless about some silkworms' eggs, which had become partially destroyed, and she trembled with fear that he would become enraged when he discovered it, and punish her severely, as he had done before. But to her great astonishment, when he found out what had happened he remained perfectly calm, and then said, "We213 can distribute them among our poor neighbours, and so they will have a larger crop. Thus it will perhaps be better than if we had sold them and taken all the money ourselves." His wife was so impressed with this change of character that she said, "This is the result of Christianity; I want to become a Christian too." She sought and found, and her whole family sought and found. And not only so, but the neighbours were struck by this "living epistle," and shortly afterwards when the missionary went to Fujioka there were ten persons awaiting baptism. At the present time a good Christian Church is growing up in the place.459459   Missionary Review of the World, Feb. 1889, p. 143.

Where the Lord Jesus Christ reigns evil passions subside and die away. "Learn of Me: for I am meek and lowly of heart." "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." One who is born again, one whose life is hidden with Christ in God, is necessarily meek, meek as the Lord Himself: not, as we well know, devoid of noble anger or fiery indignation, for indeed it is only the meek heart from which all personal pretensions have been eradicated, and to which no personal feeling can be attributed, that is able to pour out vials of wrath, undeterred and unquenchable, upon all that is base and mean, impure and false, corrupt and cruel; but meek in this beautiful sense, that it never takes offence, never suspects evil, never resents any wrong except moral wrong that is done to others, or spiritual wrong done to God. All the tinder on which angry passions feed has been removed by the Cross of Christ, and therefore the only wrath which can be entertained214 is such wrath as God feels,—the deep intense glow of consuming indignation against sin.

For our evil tempers, then, our passion, our wrath, our sullen pride, our fretful irritability, our outbreaks of sarcasm, our malignant sneers, there is only one possible cure; we must bring the heart, out of which all the evil comes, to Jesus Christ, that He may create it anew; we must accept our failures as evidence of an imperfect surrender, and come afresh with a more insistent cry, and a more perfect faith, that He may reign in our hearts as undisputed Lord, checking, subduing, warring down, every evil motion there.


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