Letter to one of a censorious spirit
From an anonymous work, published in 1855 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, under the title, Monitory Letters to Church Members.
I have noticed in you, for a considerable time, a growing disposition, which I fear is becoming a settled habit, to deal in undue severity with the characters of your fellow men. It is a rare things that I hear you speak well of any body. Whenever an individual is mentioned, and especially when any thing praiseworthy is said of him, it seems as if your mind was immediately on the stretch for something of an opposite character; and if nothing of this kind readily occurs to you as a matter of fact, you do not hesitate to indulge in unworthy and injurious conjectures. If a person has performed a highly meritorious action, your attribute it to some dishonourable and selfish motive; if he has done something of an equivocal character, you seem to delight to put the worst construction upon it; if he has failed, from considerations of prudence, to act in difficult circumstances, you reproach him for a timid or temporizing spirit; if he takes a bold and decisive step in such circumstances, you charge him with rashness and recklessness. In short you are for ever hunting after “dead flies in the apothecary’s ointment.” You seem not to breathe freely except amidst the errors and foibles of your fellow men.
Now, the most obvious thing to be said of this characteristic is, that it is exceedingly unamiable. You cannot find any body that likes it; nor do you yourself like it in others, much as you may cherish and justify it in yourself. I do not say that it is not possible to possess it, and to possess good qualities along with it; but let the character, in other respects, be what it may — nobody will ever think it amiable — it will always carry with it an air of repulsion.
And while this is not an amiable trait, neither is it in accordance with the precepts and genius of Christianity. The leading element of the gospel is love — its origin is love — its spirit is love — its end is love. The blessed Saviour, while he was on earth, though he was a most faithful and earnest reprover of sin in every form, was yet a wonderful example of kindness, and forbearance, and charity. The apostles also evinced the same spirit, as well in their conduct as in their teachings. Indeed, the whole tendency of Christianity, in both its doctrines and precepts, is to lead us to form the most charitable judgments of our fellow men, that truth and reason will justify; and never to proclaim our surmises to the disadvantage of another, when we cannot be certain that they are well founded, and when, even if they are, no good can result from our publishing them. The great rule which Christ has given us for the regulation of our social conduct is, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even the same to them.” No one wishes to be the object of perpetual censure and crimination. No one wishes to have his actions misrepresented, or his motives arraigned, by ungracious insinuations. No one wishes, after he has done the best that he is capable of doing, to be looked coldly upon, as if he were at least worthy of suspicion, if not an acknowledged malefactor. In indulging in this conduct towards another, then, you not only violate a principle which your own conscience must recognize as a rule of right, but you come in conflict with the fundamental principle of practical Christianity. You thus far disown the authority of the Master whom you profess to serve.
It is not one of the least of the evils connected with the spirit which I am considering, that it interferes greatly with your general Christian influence. The most striking illustration of this that I remember to have known, was in the case of an individual, long since passed away, who occupied the important position of an elder in a Presbyterian church. It was always a matter of surprise to me that he should ever have been made an elder; but as he had been one from the organization of the church, I suppose it must have been from the paucity of materials out of which to form a session. He had, naturally, a sarcastic turn, and he seemed to have trained himself, from early life, to the indulgence of it. He indulged it continually before he came into the church, and he indulged it afterwards, and he never ceased to indulge it so long as the power of speech remained to him. I scarcely ever heard him render a favourable testimony concerning a human being. If you mentioned an excellence in any character, he had always some blemish at hand with which to offset it; or if you mentioned a defect, he would instantly mention another, and a greater, unless, indeed, he might choose to indulge his ruling passion by taking an attitude of contradiction against yourself. The consequence was that he really enjoyed the friendship of nobody. He grew more and more an Ishmaelite, in both the church and civil society, until at length, though he was still an elder in the church, he was really a man by himself. Nobody asked his counsel in difficulty; nobody looked to him for consolation in sorrow; nobody cared to meet him even on the highway. He was naturally a man of vigorous intellect, and capable of extensive usefulness; but his inveterate habit of sarcasm and crimination made him a sort of terror even to his own friends. If this is an extreme case, as doubtless it is, yet it shows you at least what you are in danger of; it admonishes you to crucify this unhallowed propensity, as you would accomplish the great end of a Christian profession.
It is possible that you may justify yourself, in a censorious habit, on the ground that men’s characters are so bad that truth and justice forbid you to speak well of them; and that in your honest, and what may seem to others severe, utterances, you are only evincing a higher degree of Christian fidelity than professors of religion generally exhibit. But herein I am afraid that you greatly deceive yourself. I fear you are actually making a self-righteousness of the indulgence of a naturally bad temper. You may rest assured that fidelity in dealing with the errors and delinquencies of others is one thing — uncharitableness and censoriousness quite another. Never was there such honesty and faithfulness in any reprover as in the Saviour of the world; and yet never was there such melting tenderness. If you are really actuated by a sense of Christian obligation in this matter, you will administer reproofs, when you are called to administer them, in the spirit of love; you will not needlessly speak of the faults of others when they are not present; and when there exists a necessity for your doing it, you will still show by your manner that you are moved by that charity that thinketh no evil. I am constrained to say that you have seemed to me to be actuated by a different spirit; and sometimes, when an individual whom you have assailed has been successfully vindicated in your presence, I have though it was a source of positive mortification to you.
I must not omit to say that the spirit which I have been reprobating is sure to beget its like. If you allow yourself indiscriminately to censure others, you can calculate on nothing else than that the measure which you mete to them will be returned upon yourself. The peace of a neighborhood, the peace of a church, the peace of a community, is often sacrificed to the unchristian temper, the ungoverned tongue, of a single individual; for though many tongues may be ultimately employed in the same way, yet there was some one, from which the spark flew, out of which has grown this wide moral conflagration.
Let me add, that you will not be likely to reform in this matter, except as the result of great watchfulness, and persevering, vigorous effort. You must obey the inspired direction, to set a watch at the door of your lips. You must resolve never to speak ill of any body, unless upon grounds which you can fully justify to an enlightened Christian judgment and conscience. You must bring yourself under the influence of all these considerations, drawn from a sense of your own manifold imperfections and infirmities, from the precepts and example of Christ, and from your relation to the church and to society, which are fitted to keep in check, or rather to eradicate, this unchristian temper. Above all, you are habitually to ask of God that he will increase your power of resistance to this spiritual foe; and you are never to relax in the conflict, until you can feel that it is finally and for ever dislodged.