The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prov and temper

Seneca wrote three books on anger, and yet Macaulay doubted whether all his philosophy ever kept anyone from being angry. Solomon only wrote a few wise sayings, but many have learned from him. "He that is soon angry dealeth foolishly" (Pro 14:17). "He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding" (Pro 14:29). "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city..." (Pro 16:32).

This reference to the strength of the man who can rule his own spirit goes to the root of the matter. All men have bad tempers, but some are wise and strong enough to exercise control.

It is natural for men to be selfish and to be angry if their interests are menaced. It is natural for them to resent any slight to their dignity or criticism of their work. Wherever we can observe human nature in the raw there are many scenes of ill-temper, bearing a humiliating resemblance to the quarrels of wild animals. The anger caused by selfish disputes is manifest all through Nature. With due respect to Dr. Watts, we have to recognize that even "birds in their little nests" do not always "agree". It has to be admitted, however, that birds and beasts may often give us lessons. Man, with all his power of understanding, and with all the lessons that he has received, is the worst offender. His selfishness is greater than that of any beast, going far beyond the needs of the moment. His anger is more cruel and longer sustained. Often it is fostered and encouraged as in time of war. And in his search for weapons to slay those who have roused his wrath, man is immeasurably worse than any of the lower creatures could possibly be.

When men have been unrestrained either by fear of their fellows or by any remonstrance of conscience in their own breasts, they have proceeded to terrible extremes of cruelty in the expression of their anger. The wrath of an autocratic king is proverbially terrible. In ordinary life men are restrained by fear. Anger cannot find its natural expression for fear of reprisals which might come from an angry enemy or from the majesty of the law. Nations and individuals are often "willing to wound but afraid to strike." They are curbed by the dread of a conflict the end of which they cannot foresee but which will be certain to bring much pain and evil. In less serious issues angry words are often restrained by the fear of ridicule. Anger will often make men foolish and there are always cruel opponents ready to laugh. Protected by the law they find pleasure in goading the victim to further expressions of impotent rage. Sometimes they go too far and the angry one, casting off all restraint and blind to consequences, gives full vent to his rage. There have been tragedies caused by such cruel and foolish feeding of a foolish anger.

Men who are well instructed either in Christian principles or in a purely worldly wisdom, restrain their anger in its expression of both deed and word. They recognize and possibly envy the power of the man who can keep cool. When provoked, they try with more or less success to conceal any warmth of resentment that they may feel. Is Christian principle he basis, or is it merely a worldly wisdom? Is anger really restrained or is it merely transmuted into a cold and deadly bitterness, possibly worse than the original passion? Anger can take many forms and find many different ways of expression. It may be a hasty ebullition quickly evaporating, and, if circumstances are favourable, leaving no bitterness behind. Sometimes after such an explosion men are better friends for having quarrelled. There is grave danger in this quick boiling of anger, however. It is so easy for something to be done or said, the effects of which will linger all through life. Lives have been lost and lives have been ruined through only a few moments of unrestrained anger. Words hastily uttered and meaning little more than an expression of momentary annoyance, may have enduring effects with such complex action and reaction that no one could possibly trace their course or even guess the sum of the evil wrought. A man of hasty temper may soon forget the words that gave relief to his angry feelings. He might be appalled if he could know the full effect of his momentary loss of control. One who is naturally of quick temper and hasty speech may well take to heart the Spirit's warning. Let him learn to be "slow to wrath", to rule his spirit and to guard the door of his mouth.

Anger is not properly controlled when a man is cool in the pursuit of revenge. It has become more evil, for instead of being merely a matter of feeling, it has engaged the intellect and the will, so that such a man can act a part with skill and subtlety. It is still anger, by reason made more deadly. We have scriptural authority for this judgment, for Jacob so described the cold craftiness of two of his sons, "Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel."

So in less serious issues, in which words are the only weapons, a man may congratulate himself on having controlled his anger when he is only finding a more satisfying way of relieving his feelings. He thinks of something cruel to say and he chooses the manner of speech which will make it sting most. So he is cool and collected, not because he has properly ruled his spirit, but because worldly wisdom has taught him a more effective way of striking a blow. There is as much feeling of angry resentment behind that icy bitterness of speech as was ever revealed by hot and hasty words. The ill feeling is as strong and it lasts much longer.

Anger is properly controlled and the spirit wisely ruled when a man is not only cool and reasonable, but when he is able to take the right course despite any dictates of outraged feeling. There is such a thing as righteous anger just as there is such a thing as "perfect hatred". It is possible as the apostle suggests to be angry and not to sin. One who rules his spirit and controls his anger will be able to take the right course. When his anger is roused he will not only remember the power of cool and collected thoughts but he will remember Christ. If reproof or protest is needed he will give it, if the situation calls for a gentle answer he will find it. If the subject is one in which "silence is golden", he will "guard the door of his mouth", even if he has thought of a most witty and crushing answer. This is a testing point for many. It is just when we are cool and collected that we think of the scathing answer that would make an opponent writhe. Will it do good to let him have it? Or is it just one of those barbed sayings that can do no possible good, only serving to relieve the feelings of the one who speaks, and amuse careless hearers? If it is in this category it is far better suppressed, for scathing words are never without effect. If they do no good they always do harm.

There is much cause for righteous anger in the world: the travesties and misrepresentations of religion, the hypocrisy of politics, the perversions of justice, and the abomination of modern warfare. Cruelty and injustice often go hand in hand with professions of kindness and mercy; an affectation of extreme righteousness is often used as a cloak to cover dishonesty. There are still men who try to thwart good work while parading their excessive piety, whether in zeal for the Sabbath as in the first century, or in some more modern way. Yet these evils do not often excite a righteous anger. When we find an angry man he is not often protesting against the prevalent perversions of divine law. Far more frequently it is a matter of personal interests or personal feeling. The anger of worldly greed and pride is manifest every day while righteous anger is a rarity. It is not quite unknown, however. Brethren have sometimes been stirred up by flagrant perversions of truth and have done some of their best work in a spirit of righteous anger. How good it would be if this was the only kind of anger ever known among us.

Unfortunately there has often been unrighteous anger even in the work of the Truth. A little disagreement and a little contradiction, and anger is soon manifested whether naked and unashamed, or whether clad in a few tawdry rags of alleged principle. Sometimes it is a quick ebullition, disturbing and painful, but soon over. Sometimes it is an anger transmuted into the cold bitterness of a lasting enmity such as the hatred the Jews bore to their nearest neighbours. It is possible that the final verdict on such ill feeling will be similar to that of the dying patriarch on his two sons. "Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel."

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