1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Charity suffers long, and is kind; charity envies not; charity braggs not itself, is not puffed up,…
Religion and government are the two great foundations of order and comfort among mankind. Government restrains the crimes which would be subversive of society, secures the property, and defends the lives of its subjects. But the defect of government is, that human laws can extend no farther than to the actions of men. Religion supplies the insufficiency of law by striking at the root of those disorders which occasion so much misery in the world. Its professed scope is to regulate, not actions alone, but the temper and inclinations. By this means it ascends to the sources of conduct. We are led to this reflection by the description given in the context of charity, that great principle in the Christian system. He justly supposes, that, if the temper be duly regulated, propriety of action will follow, and good order take place in external behaviour.
I. Let us consider WHAT THIS DESCRIPTION OF CHARITY IMPORTS. You will easily perceive that the expression in the text is not to be understood in a sense altogether unlimited; as if there were no occasion on which we are to think unfavourably of others. To view all the actions of men with the same degree of complacency would be contrary both to common understanding and to many express precepts of religion. Religion renders it our duty to abhor that which is evil. The virtue inculcated is that which is known by the name of candour. It is necessary to observe that the true candour is altogether different from that guarded, inoffensive language and that studied openness of behaviour which we so frequently meet with among men of the world. Smiling, very often, is the aspect, and smooth are the words, of those who inwardly are the most ready to think evil of others. That candour which is a Christian virtue consists not in fairness of speech, but in fairness of heart. It may want the blandishment of external courtesy, but supplies its place with generous liberality of sentiment. Its manners are unaffected, and its professions cordial. It is perfectly consistent with extensive knowledge of the world, and with due attention to our own safety. In that various intercourse which we are obliged to carry on with persons of every different character, suspicion, to a certain degree, is a necessary guard. It is only when it exceeds the bounds of prudent caution that it degenerates into vice He makes allowance for the mixture of evil with good, which is to be found in every human character. He expects none to be faultless; and he is unwilling to believe that there is any without some commendable quality. In the midst of many defects he can discover a virtue. Under the influence of personal resentment he can be just to the merit of an enemy. He is not hasty to judge, and he requires full evidence before he will condemn. As long as an action can be ascribed to different motives, he holds it as no mark of sagacity to impute it always to the worst. Where there is just ground for doubt, he keeps his judgment undecided. When he must condemn, he condemns with regret. He listens calmly to the apology of the offender. From one wrong opinion he does not infer the subversion of all sound principles; nor from one bad action conclude that all regard to conscience is overthrown. He commiserates human frailty; and judges of others according to the principles by which he would think it reasonable that they should judge of him. In a word, he views men and actions in the clear sunshine of charity and good-nature, and not in that dark and sullen shade which jealousy and party-spirit throw over all characters.
II. TO RECOMMEND, BY VARIOUS ARGUMENTS, THIS IMPORTANT BRANCH OF CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.
1. Let us begin with observing what a necessary requisite it is to the proper discharge of all the social duties. Accordingly, love, gentleness, meekness, and long-suffering are enumerated as distinguishing fruits of the Spirit of Christ. But it is impossible for such virtues to find place in a breast where the propensity to think evil of others is predominant. Charitable and candid thoughts of men are the necessary introduction to all good-will and kindness. They form, if we may speak so, the only climate in which love can grow up and flourish. A suspicious temper checks in the bud every kind affection. It hardens the heart, and estranges man from man. It connects humanity with piety. For he who is not given to think evil of his fellow-creatures, will not be ready to censure the dispensations of his Creator. Whereas the same turn of mind which renders one jealous and unjust towards men, will incline him to be querulous and impious towards God.
2. In the second place, as a suspicious uncharitable spirit is inconsistent with all social virtue and happiness, so, in itself, it is unreasonable and unjust. In order to form sound opinions concerning characters and actions, two things are especially requisite, information and impartiality. But such as are most forward to decide unfavourably are destitute of both. Instead of possessing, or even requiring, full information, the grounds on which they proceed are frequently the most slight and frivolous. Nothing can be more contrary both to equity and to sound reason than such precipitate judgments. The motives of the actor may have been entirely different from those which you ascribe to him; and, where you suppose him impelled by bad design, he may have been prompted by conscience and mistaken principle. Admitting the action to have been in every view criminal, he may have been hurried into it through inadvertency and surprise. He may have sincerely repented; and the virtuous principle may have now regained its full vigour. No error is more palpable than to look for uniformity from human nature, though it is commonly on the supposition of it that our general conclusions concerning character are formed. Mankind are consistent neither in good nor in evil. In the present state of frailty all is mixed and blended. The strongest contrarieties of piety and hypocrisy, of generosity and avarice, of truth and duplicity, often meet in one character. There are few cases in which we have ground to conclude that all goodness is lost. Placed, then, in a situation of so much uncertainty and darkness, where our knowledge of the hearts and characters of men is so limited, and our judgments concerning them are so apt to err, what a continual call do we receive for candour!
3. In the third place, what the sources are of those severe and uncharitable opinions which we are so ready to form. Were the mind altogether free from prepossession and bias, it might avail itself to more advantage of the scanty knowledge which it possesses. It is one of the misfortunes of our present situation that some of the good dispositions of human nature are apt to betray us into frailties and vices. Thus it often happens that the laudable attachment which we contract to the country or the church to which we belong, or to some political denomination under which we class ourselves, both confines our affections within too narrow a sphere, and gives rise to violent prejudices against such as come under an opposite description. Not contented with being in the right ourselves, we must find all others in the wrong. They rashly extend to every individual the severe opinion which they have unwarrantably conceived of a whole body. Was there ever any great community so corrupt as not to include within it individuals of real worth? Besides prepossessions of this nature, which sometimes mislead the honest mind, there are other, and much more culpable, causes of uncharitable judgment. Pride is hurt and wounded by every excellence in which it can claim no share; and, from eagerness to discover a blemish, rests upon the slightest appearance of one, as a satisfying proof. When rivalry and competition concur with pride, our desire to espy defects increases, and, by consequence, the grounds of censure multiply. Where no opposition of interests takes place, envy has too much influence in warping the judgment of many. A person of low and base mind naturally imputes to others the sentiments which he finds congenial to himself.
4. In the fourth place, that suitable to the sources whence a jealous and suspicious temper proceeds, are the effects which it produces in the world, the crimes and mischiefs with which it fills society. It possesses this unhappy distinction beyond the other failings of the human heart, that while it impels men to violent deeds, it justifies to their own apprehension the excesses which they commit. Amidst the uproar of other bad passions, conscience acts as a restraining power. As soon as the tumult subsides, remorse exerts its influence, and renders the sinner sensible of the evil which he has done. But the uncharitable man is unfortunately set loose from any such check or control. Through the infatuation of prejudice, his judgment is perverted; conscience is misled. The first-fruits of an evilthinking spirit are calumny and detraction, by which society is so often embroiled, and men are set at variance with one another. But, did it proceed no farther than censorious speech, the mischief would be less. Much greater and more serious evils frequently ensue. What direful effects, for instance, have often flowed from rash and ill-founded jealousy in private life! In public life, how often have kingdoms been shaken with all the violence of war and rebellion, from the unjust suspicions which subjects had conceived of their rulers; or the rash jealousy which princes had entertained of their people! But it is in religious dissensions chiefly that the mischievous power of uncharitable prejudice has displayed its full atrocity. Let us attend particularly to one awful instance of the guilt which men may contract, and of the ruin which they may bring upon themselves, through the want of fairness and candour. The nation of the Jews were almost noted for a narrow and uncharitable spirit. When John the Baptist and our blessed Lord appeared among them, because the former was austere in his temper, and retired in his life, they pronounced of him that he had an evil spirit; and because the latter was open and sociable in His manners, they held Him to be destitute of that sanctity which became a prophet. Their prejudice against our Lord took its first rise from a most frivolous and contemptible cause. "Is not this the son of the carpenter? Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
5. In the fifth place, as a suspicious spirit is the source of so many crimes and calamities in the world, so it is the spring of certain misery to the person who indulges it. His friends will be few; and small will be his comfort in those whom he possesses. Believing others to be his enemies, he will of course make them such. So numerous and great are the evils arising from a suspicious disposition, that of the two extremes it is more eligible to expose ourselves to occasional disadvantage from thinking too well of others, than to suffer continual misery by thinking always ill of them. It is better to be sometimes imposed upon than never to trust. Safety is purchased at too dear a rate when, in order to secure it, we are obliged to be always clad in armour, and to live in perpetual hostility with our fellows. This is, for the sake of living, to deprive ourselves of the comfort of life. The man of candour enjoys his situation, whatever it is, with cheerfulness and peace.
6. In the sixth place, that there is nothing which exposes men in a more marked and direct manner to the displeasure of the Almighty than a malignant and censorious spirit. I insist not now on the general denunciations of Divine wrath against malice and hatred. Let us only consider under what particular description the Spirit of God brings this crime of uncharitable judgment. It is declared to be an impious invasion of the prerogative of God, to whom alone it belongs to search all hearts, and to determine concerning all characters. On the whole, it clearly appears that no part of the government of temper deserves attention more than to keep our minds pure from uncharitable prejudices, and open to candour and humanity in judging of others. The worst consequences, both to ourselves and to society, follow from the opposite spirit. Let us beware of encouraging a habit of suspicions, by forming too severe and harsh opinions concerning human nature in general. Darkened as the Divine image now is among mankind, it is not wholly effaced. Much piety and goodness may lie hidden in hearts that are unknown to us. Vice is glaring and loud. The crimes of the wicked make a noise in the world, and alarm society. True worth is retired and modest, and requires particular situations to bring it forth to public notice. The aged and the unfortunate, who have toiled through an unsuccessful life with long experience of the falsehood and fraud of evil men, are apt to he the most severe in the opinions which they entertain of others. For such, their circumstances may be allowed to form some degree of apology.
(H. Blair, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,