About Temper

by J. R. Miller

Bad temper is such a disfigurement of character, and, besides, works such harm to oneself and to one's neighbors, that no one should spare any pains or cost to have it cured. The ideal Christian life is one of unbroken kindliness. It is dominated by love—the love whose portrait is drawn for us in the immortal thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." That is the picture; then we have but to turn to the gospel pages to find the story of a Life in which all this was realized. Jesus never lost his temper. He lived among people who tried him at every point—some by their dullness, others by their bitter enmity and persecution—but he never failed in sweetness of disposition, in long-suffering patience, in self-denying love. Like the flowers which give out their perfume only when crushed, like the odoriferous wood which bathes with fragrance the ax which hews it, the life of Christ yielded only the tenderer, sweeter love to the rough impact of men's rudeness and wrong. That is the pattern on which we should strive to fashion our life and our character. Every outbreak of violent temper, every shade of ugliness in disposition, mars the radiant loveliness of the picture we are seeking to have fashioned in our souls. Whatever is not loving is unlovely.

There is another phase: bad-tempered people are continually hurting others, ofttimes their best and truest friends. Some people are sulky, and one person's sulkiness casts a chilling shadow over a whole household. Others are so sensitive, ever watching for slights and offended by the merest trifles, that even their nearest friends have no freedom of interaction with them; others are despotic, and will brook no kindly suggestion nor listen to any expression of opinion. Others are so quarrelsome that even the meekest and gentlest person cannot live peaceably with them. Whatever may be the special characteristic of the bad temper, it makes only pain and humiliation for the person's friends.

A bad temper usually implies a sharp tongue. Sometimes, indeed, it makes one morose and glum. A brother and a sister living together are said often to have passed months without speaking to each other, though eating at the same table and sleeping under the same roof. A man recently died who for twelve years, it was said, had never spoken to his wife, though they continued to dwell together, and three times daily sat down together at the same table. Bad temper sometimes runs to proud silence. Such silence is not golden. Generally, however, a bad-tempered person has an unbridled tongue and speaks out his hateful feelings; and there is no limit to the pain and the harm which angry and ugly words can produce in gentle hearts.

It would be easy to extend this portrayal of the evils of bad temper—but it will be more profitable to inquire how a bad-tempered person may become good-tempered. There is no doubt that this happy change is possible in any case. There is no temper so obdurately bad—that it cannot be trained into sweetness. The grace of God can take the most unlovely life and transform it into the image of Christ. As in all moral changes, however, grace does not work independently of human volition and exertion: God always works helpfully with those who strive to reach Christlikeness. We must resist the Devil—or he will not flee from us. We must struggle to obtain the victory over our own evil habits and dispositions, although it is only through Christ that we can be conquerors; he will not make us conquerors unless we enter the battle. We have a share, and a large and necessary share, in the culture of our own character. The bad-tempered man will never become good-tempered until he deliberately sets for himself the task and enters resolutely and persistently upon its accomplishment. The transformation will never come of itself—even in a Christian. People do not grow out of ugly temper into sweet refinement, as a peach ripens from sourness into lusciousness.

Then the thing to be accomplished, is not the destroying of the temper; temper is a good quality in its place. The task is not destruction—but control. A man is very weak who has a strong temper—without the power of self-control; likewise is he weak who has a weak temper. The truly strong man is he who is strong in the element of temper—that is, has strong passions and feelings capable of great anger, and then has perfect self-control. When Moses failed and broke down in temper and self-control, he was not the man to lead the people into the Promised Land; therefore God at once prepared to relieve him.

The task to be set before us in self-discipline is the gaining of complete mastery over every feeling and emotion, so as to be able to restrain every impulse to speak or to act unadvisedly. Then there is need of a higher standard of character in this regard, than many people seem to set for themselves. We never rise higher than our ideals; the perfect beauty of Christ should ever be visioned in our hearts as that which we would attain for ourselves. The honor of our Master's name should impel us to strive ever toward Christlikeness in spirit and in disposition. We represent Christ in this world; people cannot see him, and they must look at us to see a little of what he is like. Whatever great work we may do for Christ, if we fail to live out his life of patience and forbearance, we fail in an essential part of our duty as Christians. "The servant of the Lord must be ... gentle."

Nor can we be greatly useful in our personal life while our daily conduct is stained by frequent outbursts of anger and other exhibitions of temper. In the old fable the spider goes about doing mischief wherever it creeps, while the bee by its wax and its honey makes "sweetness and light" wherever it flies. We had better be bees than be spiders, living to turn darkness into light and to put a little more sweetness into the life of all who know us. But only as our own lives shine in the brightness of holy affectionateness, and our hearts and lips distill the sweetness of patience and gentleness can—we fulfill our mission in this world as Christ's true messengers to men.

In striving to overcome our impatience with others, it will help us to remember that we and they have the common heritage, of a sinful nature. The thing in them which irritates us is, no doubt, balanced by something in us which looks just as unlovely in their eyes and just as sorely tries their forbearance toward us. Whittier wisely says: "Search your own heart. What pains you in others—you yourself may be."

It is very likely—that if we think our neighbors are difficult to live with—they think about the same of us! And who shall tell in whom lies the greater degree of fault? Certain it is, that a really good-tempered person can rarely ever be drawn into a quarrel with anyone. He is resolutely determined that he will not be a partner in any unseemly strife; he would rather suffer wrongfully, than offer any retaliation; he has learned to bear and to forbear. Then by his gentle tact he is able to conciliate any who are angry.

A fable relates that in the depth of a forest, there lived two foxes. One of them said to the other one day in the politest of fox-language, "Let's quarrel." "Very well," said the other; "but how shall we set about it?" They tried all sorts of ways—but in vain, for both would give way. At last one brought two stones. "There!" said he. "Now you say they are yours and I'll say they are mine, and we will quarrel and fight and scratch. Now I'll begin. Those stones are mine." "All right!" answered the other fox; "you are welcome to them." "But we shall never quarrel at this rate," replied the first. "No, indeed, you old simpleton! Don't you know it takes two to make a quarrel?" So the foxes gave up trying to quarrel, and never played again at this silly game.

The fable has its lesson for other creatures besides foxes. As far as in us lies, Paul tells us, we should live peaceably with all men. So long as a man sees only the quarrelsome temper of his neighbor, he is not far toward saintliness; but when he has learned to watch and to try to control his own temper and to weep over his own infirmities, he is on the way to God, and will soon be conqueror over his own weakness.

Life is too short to spend even one day of it in bickering and strife. Love is too sacred to be forever lacerated and torn by the ugly briers of sharp temper. Surely we ought to learn to be patient with others, since God has to show every day such infinite patience toward us. Is not the very essence of true love the spirit that is not easily provoked, that bears all things? Can we not, then, train our life to sweeter gentleness? Can we not learn to be touched even a little roughly without resenting it? Can we not bear little injuries and apparent injustices without flying into an unseemly rage? Can we not have in us something of the mind of Christ which will enable us, like him, to endure all wrong and injury and give back no word or look of bitterness? The way over which we and our friend walk together—is too short to be spent in wrangling.