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Is this the most destructive element in human nature?


Seth Woodworth CC

David Mills - published on 04/26/17

If it is, then shouldn't Christians avoid it, perhaps especially online?

“We are inclined to look upon bad temper as a very harmless weakness. We speak of it as a mere infirmity of nature, a family failing, a matter of temperament,” writes a theologian you’ve undoubtedly never heard of. The 19th-century Scottish Presbyterian Henry Drummond is trying to explain what St. Paul means by telling the Corinthian Christians that love is not easily provoked. You may well feel that he and Paul have your number.

Writing in about 1880, Henry Drummond more or less predicted the reality of the web, including the Catholic web. The medium changes, but the temptations to which we so easily fall stay the same. As does God’s judgment on our failure. “The Bible again and again returns to condemn it [ill temper] as one of the most destructive elements in human nature.” Ill temper is the worst:

No form of vice, not worldliness, not greed of gold, not drunkenness itself, does more to un-Christianize society than evil temper. For embittering life, for breaking up communities, for destroying the most sacred relationships, for devastating homes, for withering up men and women, for taking the bloom off childhood; in short, for sheer gratuitous misery-producing power, this influence stands alone.

The peculiarity of ill temper

It gets worse for us. Not only does ill temper destroy so much, we Christians seem to be especially guilty of it. “The peculiarity of ill temper is that it is the vice of the virtuous,” Drummond says. Some people “would be entirely perfect, but for an easily ruffled, quick-tempered, or ‘touchy’ disposition.”

A lot of vices combine to make us ill-tempered. “Jealousy, anger, pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, touchiness, doggedness, sullenness … these are the ingredients of all ill temper.” Drummond uses the Prodigal Son’s elder brother as an example. He says, in effect, that at least the prodigal son had a good time. The elder brother was mean, peevish, cold-hearted, resentful. He made himself as unhappy as he made everyone else.

Ill-temper may be the vice of the virtuous, but it’s not the vice of the holy. I think Drummond means to distinguish the two. The elder brother was virtuous in a by-the-book way. He wasn’t the guy you’d want at a party, though. He’d bring everyone down, and that’s why the ill-tempered will find themselves left outside.

“There is really no place in Heaven for a disposition like this,” writes Drummond. “A man with such a mood could only make Heaven miserable for all the people in it. Except, therefore, such a man be born again, he cannot, he simply cannot, enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” In other words, if you can’t go inside for your long-lost-assumed-dead brother’s welcome home party, you’ll really hate Heaven.

Drummond also describes ill-temper as a diagnostic tool. It’s one of those outward actions that tell you and everyone else what’s really inside. This worries me, and perhaps should worry you. “It is a test for love, a symptom, a revelation of an unloving nature at bottom,” he says.

It is the intermittent fever which bespeaks unintermittent disease within; the occasional bubble escaping to the surface which betrays some rottenness underneath; a sample of the most hidden products of the soul dropped involuntarily when off one’s guard; in a word, the lightning form of a hundred hideous and un-Christian sins. For a want of patience, a want of kindness, a want of generosity, a want of courtesy, a want of unselfishness, are all instantaneously symbolized in one flash of Temper.

We’re all busted

I posted some of these words on Facebook and my friend and colleague Joanne McPortland shared them with the note, “Busted.” I had felt the same way. Others joined us in the comments. Basically, among my Facebook friends, Elder Brother R Us.

That leaves the question of what to do about our ill-temper. As Drummond says, it tends to burst out of us, the bubble escaping to the surface. It seems too ingrained, too deep, to do much about. It really comes out when we write on the web.

Here are my suggestions, which I’m trying to do myself. Besides the obvious, grow in holiness, but those of us who are not yet saints can act like one.

  • First, don’t react. Keep your mouth shut till you can speak without excess passion. Type the comment if you have to, but don’t post it. Only comment when you advance the discussion, not when you’re putting down someone who said something you think stupid. Don’t correct errors unless they might well lead someone astray.
  • Second, ignore insults, including the passive-aggressive ones. Don’t respond, even sarcastically. Let them go. (I have trouble with this one, to be honest. I find particularly vexing the people who tell me I said something I didn’t say and criticize me for it.)
  • Third, pray more. Pray before you go out with people who might set you off or scan Faceook or read some provocative website. You are heading into temptation. A quick but sincere Our Father and Hail Mary can give you some of the patience, kindness, generosity, and courtesy you need.
  • Fourth, or maybe first, try to imagine the person. We read others as icons and a voice on the page. They’re not exactly people to us. They’re something less human, something easier to hit. We might be less ill-tempered if we tried to think of them as friends.

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