Abstract of Two Sermons, Preached on August 8 & September 12, 1999
“With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:2-3).
America, which two centuries ago was known as the land of revivals, might better be known today as the land of church splits. This may be attributed in large part to the progress of the principles of democracy, in which every man supposes he has the right to rule himself—-that is, to do as he pleases. Such principles, coupled with the natural pride and selfishness of the human heart, will lead naturally to a good deal of strife. Yet we are commanded to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Peace is the opposite of strife, but peace can never prevail except by “forbearing one another in love.” Love will move us to forget all about our rights, and to forget our brother's wrongs also. When you see folks standing staunchly for their rights—-or imagined rights—-you may be pretty sure they are as short on love as they are on meekness.
Now let it be understood that the command to forbear implies a prior fact. It assumes that there will be plenty to bear with. If I came to you and said, “Brother So-and-so is perfect. He has no faults. He does no wrong. He makes no mistakes. Therefore you must kindly bear with him”—-you would certainly take this to be keen sarcasm. There is no need to bear with the faultless. Forbearance is something we exercise towards the faulty. We all offend in many things, and there will be no keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, except by forbearing one another. The hard and harsh will rigorously insist that we all be as perfect as themselves. Their mouths will be full of, “There is absolutely no excuse for that”—-”If she were spiritual she wouldn't act like that”—-and so forth. Such a spirit will lead to a good deal of strife. It is the reverse of forbearing in love.
Now I suggest that there are at least five sorts of things in which we must forbear one another. First, deliberate wrongs, then thoughtless things, stupid things, presumptuous things, and finally innocent mistakes. We are all apt to be guilty of some of these things, if not all of them, and therefore we must all forbear one another. If I must bear with your faults, I ought not to forget that you must bear with mine. If you must bear with mine, you ought not to forget that I must bear with yours. Some have more to bear with than others, while some create more to bear with than others, but none are faultless, and I suggest that the most effectual way to bear with the faults of others is to be conscious of our own.
I want you to understand that there is primarily one thing which stands in the way of forbearance. That thing is pride. Nothing is so touchy and irritable as pride. Love and humility aid and abet one another, but love and pride can hardly co-exist. Whenever you become irritated at the things which others do, you say in effect, I am better. I am not guilty of such thoughtlessness, or such stupidity. It were beyond all reason to be irritated at others for being just what you are yourself. Your irritation says, I am not as they are. I am better. This is pride. Humility looks at the faults of others, and sees its own. If we are to forbear one another in love, there is no way to do this but “with all lowliness and meekness.” Those who sit on their high horse will always be impatient and irritated with everybody. Love and humility walk together, and the one can scarcely exist without the other. And humility is conscious of its own faults.
But I am not willing to imply anything bordering on carelessness or antinomianism. Though we all sin, we have no right to sin. Though we all have our faults, we have no right to have them. We have no right to continue in a fault that we are aware of. When you see men guilty of thoughtless or presumptuous behavior, I hope indeed that you are better. You have no right to be thoughtless or presumptuous. I hope you are better. But if you are, you haven't always been. You have been sinner enough yourself, and the faults which you see in other men are very similar to your own—-either what your own are, or have been. Now is it reasonable for you to be irritated because your brother is today what you were yourself yesterday? This is just pride, and pride is never reasonable.
Now what does it mean to forbear one another? Certainly to refrain from retaliation, but this is not all. It means not to become impatient and irritated and resentful. It means to let brotherly love continue, in spite of the thoughtless, stupid, or presumptuous things your brother may do. Your love for him is not affected by his faults. This is what it means to forbear in love.
Now as we said, you will have plenty to bear with. And first, deliberate wrongs. We are talking about bearing with the saints now, and if we are dealing with real saints, we surely have a right to expect that there will not be much of deliberate wrong to bear with. Yet we may expect there will be some. In the warmth of a heated discussion a man may use unfair tactics, or make unkind reflections upon you. He may say what is true enough, but he may say it in an unkind spirit—-say it to make you look bad—-say it to gain a victory over you or to humiliate you. This is surely no innocent mistake. It may not be premeditated, but still it is wrong, and done purposely, and the man who does it doubtless feels himself wrong when he does it. You will doubtless have some of this to bear with, and you may have to forbear further when the perpetrator of the wrong excuses it. Some will borrow things, and return them damaged or broken. They can hardly do this with a clear conscience.
You may have many petty jealousies in the church of God, and consequently many hard words. You may be purposely shunned by those who envy you. Females are particularly prone to jealousies, and they know how to let the other party feel their displeasure. Such things ought not to be in the church of God, but the church is not made of angels, but of men and women, and human nature being what it is, it may be hard to help being jealous of those who are above us. It may be hard for the plain girl to help envying the pretty one, and it may be equally hard for her to be loving towards the girl she envies. Faith and love would lift her above all this, no doubt, but the fact is, the church of God is full of folks whose human nature is fully developed, while they are yet babes in Christ. There will be some wrongs committed in the church, therefore, and our business this morning is to consider how to respond to those wrongs.
We are to forbear one another in love, and certainly one of the ways of love is to put itself in the other person's place. If you are envied, and therefore shunned or spoken against, you ought to consider how you would feel yourself, and how you would be inclined to act yourself, if you were deprived as your detractor is, and she were blessed as you are, and you ought to go to work to overcome evil with good. A plain and heavy girl—-plain by nature, and heavy by her own fault—-and apparently a true Christian, once confessed to me that she had been praying that a pretty girl would die and go to hell. This was wrong, of course, and shockingly sinful, yet it was very difficult for her to see, and much more so to admit, that it was no fault in the pretty girl which caused her feelings. She was simply jealous of her. Yet we ought to be able to have compassion on the poor girl whose plight and whose feelings drove her to this. This is the way of love, and by this means we may forbear even when we are wronged.
Yet as a general rule I think the deliberate wrongs which we receive are the easiest things we have to bear with. This for the simple reason that those who have committed those wrongs know in their own heart that they are wrong, and we may therefore expect some relenting, or some alteration of their conduct for the time to come. They are entirely oblivious, however, to their thoughtless or stupid or presumptuous behavior.
We are called upon constantly to bear with the thoughtless deeds of others. How often do I sit at a stop sign waiting for another driver, only to find at last that he is turning off before he gets to me, but turning without using his signal light, and so forcing me to wait for nothing. This is no deliberate wrong. He has no malicious intent to cause me trouble. He is simply thoughtless. He thinks nothing of the other man's convenience. He thinks only of himself. The world is full of such people, and unfortunately, so is the church.
Nor can we pretend that this thoughtlessness is an innocent mistake. It is certainly a moral fault. Love will certainly make us thoughtful, even in this age in which most men are little accustomed to thinking at all. Love will cause us to care for the convenience and welfare of others, but I suppose few of us have attained to perfection in that department. Most of us are probably more thoughtful of ourselves than we are of others. Why then should we be irritated if our brother is just what we are ourselves—-or just what we were before we attained our present state? Indeed, the faults of others ought to be a great incentive to us to mend our own. If the thoughtless deeds of others cause you inconvenience or grief, this ought to move you to take care not to be guilty of the same sort of deeds. Meanwhile, we all have plenty of the thoughtless deeds of others to bear with.
But some folks seem simply to have little ability to think, and seem always to be doing stupid things. Many of those things will cause trouble enough for ourselves, and if they do, we are certainly called to forbear in love. Some of you by nature have more intelligence than others, and the intelligent may have a hard time to be patient with the stupidity of the stupid, but is this reasonable? “What hast thou that thou hast not received?” If God has given you a good brain, thank him for it, and have compassion on those that are deprived. Nay, use your superior intelligence to help them, and not with a contemptuous air of superiority, but with gentleness and tact.
But in fact we all do stupid things sometimes. I know I have done plenty of them, and this being so, what right have I to be irritated at the stupidity of others? You may think yourself the sum of wisdom, and suppose it is only the other folks that do the stupid things, but this is just pride. You find the stupidest fellow you know, and however dull and blundering he is in your eyes, so exactly are you yourself in the eyes of God. I have often thought it must have been one of the greatest trials of Christ, when he walked this earth, simply to bear with the stupidity of men. And God in heaven must do this every day. How often do you, with nothing but the best of intentions, do a blundering and bungling job of the work which God has given you to do? And God does not treat you with contempt for it. He forbears in love. Go thou and do likewise.
We have also to bear with the presumptuous things which people do. And I confess, it is harder for me to bear with the presumptuous than with the stupid or the thoughtless. I don't say it ought to be. Probably just the reverse, for the presumptuous things which people do are usually done with good intent. They mean to help, but like Uzzah steadying the ark of God, they thrust in their hands where they have no business. I have known a guest to rearrange her host's kitchen. A brother sees that your Bible or hymn book is falling to pieces, and undertakes to repair it for you—-with duct tape. He thinks he did a fine job, but to your refined taste the thing is worse now than it was before. In any case, it was presumptuous for him to do anything at all in the matter. It was your book, not his. He had no right to tape it up without your leave.
But there are two sides to every question, and certainly to this one.
I love to surprise people, and no doubt some of you do also, but before you undertake to surprise anybody, you had better use all the common sense you can muster. You had better thoroughly understand their tastes and desires, or carefully consult with those that do, or you will surely commit many a presumptuous deed.
But some have better hearts than they do heads. They want to surprise you—-to do something for you—-to give you a treat. But being as short on sense as they are long on love, they consult their own tastes instead of yours, and come with a thousand smiles to present to you your own darling——————-puppy! Such a gift would be presumptuous in the extreme, and many another surprise is nearly so. Yet the giver meant well, the doer meant well, and to forbear in love means to look at the loving intent, and overlook the blundering lack of sense. Yet I suppose these presumptuous acts are some of the most difficult things we have to bear with, for they are likely to cause us more trouble than anything else. A man buys you something you don't want, or pays too much for something he knows you do want, and expects you to reimburse him for it. He gives you something you don't want, or can't afford to keep, and you must either throw cold water on his warm heart, or bear with his presumption for many days to come.
And some presumption is not well meant. Some of it is as selfish as it is meddlesome. Some will use your equipment without asking. In many cases it would be presumption even to ask, but some have no sense of propriety. Others will “borrow” something which they can only use by using up—-and with no intention to pay it back when they have used it up. It is a sorry fact that we have such characters in the church of God, and they no doubt need to be reproved and remodelled, but that is a delicate business, a business we may not all be fit to undertake, and our business meanwhile is to forbear in love.
In the last place, we will generally have plenty to bear with from the innocent mistakes of others. We all make mistakes, and sometimes our mistakes may cause a good deal of trouble to others. One man gives wrong directions, and sends another man twenty miles out of his way. A friend puts a decimal point in the wrong place, and it may cost us a hundred dollars. Now it ought to be easy to bear with such mistakes, since we all make them, and since there is neither thoughtlessness nor presumption behind them. You may contend they are the result of carelessness, but this is not necessarily true. We all make mistakes, even when we are careful. None of us are perfect in knowledge or wisdom. None of us have perfect minds or memories. None of us have all the wits we need, and none of us have all our wits always about us. “To err is human,” an old proverb says, and this is a simple fact of life. It is one of the great evils of this ungodly nation that men are commonly held responsible in the courts for their innocent mistakes. Only let a man be guilty of an error in judgement, a slip of the hand or the memory, only let him fail on any occasion to manifest divine wisdom or divine precision, and immediately some Shylock will pounce upon him, spurred on, of course, by the unprincipled greed of the lawyers.
And it is both the folly and the wickedness of the judicial system to hold men responsible for such innocent mistakes—-or fifty per cent responsible, or fifteen per cent responsible—-responsible, that is, for an error such as every one of us is likely to commit at any time. The lawyers are the usual winners in such lawsuits, but even their gain is costly, for in fact we all lose when a man is held responsible for his innocent mistakes. It is hard enough already to live in a day when electronic communications and powerful machines or automobiles may multiply the effects of our mistakes by a thousand or a million, but such court judgements set the tone and establish the precedents which make us all responsible, for it is certain that we all make innocent mistakes, and none of us can tell when some Shylock and his attorneys will pounce upon ourselves. This is another of the evils of which the love of money is the root.
But if such are the ways of the ungodly world, it ought to be the glory of the saints to pass over innocent mistakes, even though they may cost us money, or cause us great inconvenience. I have several times been hit by other drivers. The damage to my vehicle was minimal—-and I can live with a dented fender. I sent them on their way with the assurance of my pardon, and that was the last of the matter. Theirs was such an error as I might commit myself tomorrow, and can I not pass over such mistakes? This, I say, ought to be easy to do. It ought to require but little of either love or mercy. It is simple reason and justice. We need only look at ourselves, and behold all the mistakes we have made ourselves. I have mailed letters without stamps. I have sent letters to the wrong persons. I have failed to see stop signs, and so of course failed to stop for them. I have forgotten to do things which I have promised. And shall I, who am such a poor, failing creature myself, shall I rigorously hold others responsible for their mistakes? I say it ought to be easy for us to bear with the mistakes of others, even though they may cost us something.
Thus far I have spoken of occasional acts—-stupid or presumptuous acts, wrong or thoughtless deeds—-acts and deeds soon done and over, and hopefully soon forgotten. The occasional and transitory nature of such acts makes them comparatively easy to bear with, but there is another class of things which is not so easy, things which are deeply rooted and of long continuance. We must bear with the opinions and attitudes of others, and with their ways and habits.
To speak first of opinions, I myself feel rather strongly that our food ought to be raised “organically”—-naturally, that is, according to the creation and ordinance of God, without the use of artificial and chemical means, which are generally harmful to our health. But I once talked to a wheat farmer out West—-a godly man, too—-who spoke with contempt of “organically grown” grain. I think he was wrong. I think his pocket book was the source of his opinion. But he no doubt thought I was wrong also, and he had reasons for his opinion, feeble as those reasons were in my eyes. Yet forbearance is our mutual duty. He may despise the organically grown grain, while I despise the other kind, but we have no business to despise each other therefor.
In the present controversy over Bible versions, the traditionalists despise the liberals, and the liberals return this with interest. I am neither traditionalist nor liberal—-neither King James Only, nor an advocate of the modern versions. I see a good deal of wrong on both sides, and yet I have friends on both sides, and would have more if they would have me. We ought, in general, to oppose false opinions, but we ought to be tolerant of those who hold them, and more than tolerant. The doctrinal opinions of Miles Stanford and myself sometimes diverge widely, on matters of importance too, yet I love him, and believe he loves me also, and such a state of things will no doubt continue while life shall last, though he never change his opinion at all, and though I never do so either. We are to “forbear one another in love,” and where love prevails, forbearance is easy. Frank Detrick is a post-tribulationist, yet I could not love him one whit better if he believed in the pretribulation rapture. David Cloud is a King James Only man, yet I love him. I don't love all his opinions, yet some of them I do. Some of his writing reads like a page from Olde Paths & Ancient Landmarks—-in substance, not style—-and even where I must repudiate his opinions as false or foolish, I try to find some sound motives or wholesome emotion behind them.
But there are harder things to bear than the opinions of others. We must also bear with their ways, and these will affect us much more directly than their opinions. “Some like it hot: some like it cold.” So says the old nursery rhyme, and this is true of more than pease porridge. Some keep their houses at sixty-five degrees, and some keep them at eighty, so that we must shiver at the one, and swelter at the other. Some like the windows open, and some like them shut. Some like the fans blowing, and some like it still. Some turn their houses into dark caves, with the drapes always drawn, so no one can see in, while I have no curtains at all, so I can see out, and let the light in. Some plant trees, for shade, and others cut them down, so they may bake in the sun. Now if we are going to have much of anything to do with each other, we must simply bear with each other's ways.
Some are precise and fastidious, and others are careless and slovenly. They must bear each other's ways, and those who have found a happy medium between them must bear them both. Some must have everything straight, and others are perfectly content with everything crooked. I have a daughter who could not bear a speck of food on her face when she was a mere baby, and on the other side I have known girls in their teens who could hardly eat without dirtying their faces.
But people have ways and habits which affect us even more directly. Some people keep dogs and cats in their houses. Some live with flies. Some wear half a bottle of perfume, or shaving lotion. Having no nostrils themselves, they seem determined to burn ours out also. The story is told of Harry Ironside that when he had finished preaching on one occasion, a woman came up to him, and said—-sniff, sniff—-”Why, Mr. Ironside, you're wearing perfume.” He countered with—-sniff, sniff—-”Whew! You're not.” She doubtless considered it improper to wear an artificial fragrance, while he considered it so to emit a natural odor. Such folks might bear with each other, though propriety on both sides ought to keep its scents and odors as inconspicuous as possible. Some folks could use a little deodorant, and some could use a little deodorant in their deodorant.
Some of us have a great propensity to tease people. I can't imagine why anybody would mind this, for we don't tease the folks we don't like. Sam Jones' son-in-law tells us that when he first met Sam he was told, “If he likes you, he'll tease you.” The young fellow waited anxiously for several days, till the great man at length cast a keen shaft at him, and then he was satisfied. But some folks don't seem to like to be teased. They don't understand teasing. If I know it, I try not to tease them, but sometimes the little imp in me may prevail anyhow. Let them do their best to bear with my teasing, and I will do my best to bear with their dogs or their perfume. Most of us have ways and habits which try the patience of others. We can hardly expect everyone else to conform themselves to our own ways, any more than we intend to conform to theirs. Our real business in the matter is to forbear one another in love.
We will not pretend that there is never any moral fault in people's ways and habits, or that we ought to stick to our ways merely because we have them. There may well be some moral fault in them, and if there is, we ought by all means to change. The ways of some folks may be the result of carelessness or thoughtlessness, slovenliness or selfishness, the ways of others of pride or vanity. There is moral fault in all of this. There may be moral fault in dirt or in din. There may be moral fault in confusion and disarray. There may sometimes be some in my teasing. Yet in general the ways of most of us are innocent enough, and it is better wisdom to forbear one another in love, than to be always endeavoring to change each other's ways. The other fellow may be as inclined to change me as I am to change him, and if we concentrate our energies on this, love will soon evaporate.
It is pride that stands in the way of forbearance—-pride that thinks itself the standard of truth or propriety, pride that thinks the other fellow always in the wrong, and that often without half understanding why he is as he is. But perhaps he is in the wrong. Perhaps his dirt and din and confusion, which so try my patience, are all wrong. What then? Is there nothing in my ways which try his patience? Most likely there is, for Paul tells us to “forbear one another in love.” If I must bear his ways, he must bear mine.
And what a blessed place of peace and harmony the church of God will be when we all learn to forbear one another in love! Will not the very world look at us and say, How these Christians love one another! Will they not be drawn to such a place, and to such a religion?