Lee Gatiss preaches Part 2 of the Homily against Contention (1547), as our Lenten series on the Anglican Homilies nears its end.
It has been declared to you in this sermon against strife and brawling what great misfortune comes from it, and especially from contention in matters of religion. It has been declared how, when no one will give way to another, there is no end of contention and discord, and that unity which God requires of Christians is utterly neglected and broken. And I have said that this contention consists chiefly in two things: picking quarrels, and making argumentative answers.
Now you shall hear St. Paul’s words: “Dearly beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written ‘Vengeance is mine, I will revenge,’ says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them drink. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with goodness” (Romans 12:19-21; Deuteronomy 32:35). All these are the words of St. Paul. But those who are so puffed up and think so much of themselves that they cannot abide so much as one critical word to be spoken about them will perhaps say, “If I am reviled, shall I stand by like a goose or a fool, with my hand over my mouth? Shall I be such an idiot and simpleton to suffer everyone to speak about me whatever they like, to rant as they like, to spew out all their venom against me as they please? Is it not more fitting that the one who speaks such evil should be answered accordingly? If I use such gentleness and softness, I shall both increase my enemy’s argumentativeness, and provoke others to do the same.” Such are the reasons people give in defence of their impatience.
Is there a hope of remedying argumentativeness, by answering argumentative people with argumentativeness? If so, it would be less offensive to answer in that way, not from anger or malice but only in order to reform the one who is so argumentative or malicious. But if one cannot amend someone else’s fault, or cannot amend it without a fault of your own, it is better that one should perish than two. If you cannot quiet them with gentle words, at least do not follow them in wicked and uncharitable words. If you can pacify them with suffering, then suffer; and if not, it is better to suffer evil than to do evil, to speak well than to speak evil. For to speak well against evil comes from the Spirit of God, but to render evil for evil comes from the opposite spirit.
The one who cannot temper or rule their own anger is weak and feeble, and not a strong person. For true strength is to overcome wrath and to think little of injury and other people’s foolishness. Besides, when one thinks little of the wrong done to them by their enemy, everyone perceives that it was spoken or done without cause; whereas, on the contrary, the one who fumes and is inflamed at such things helps the cause of their adversary by creating suspicion that the thing they allege is actually true. And so in trying to avenge evil, we show ourselves to be evil; and while we want to punish another person’s folly, we double and enhance our own folly.
Those who wish to excuse their own impatience find many pretences to do so. “My enemy,” they say, “is not worthy to have gentle words or deeds, being so full of malice and argumentativeness.” The less they are worthy, the more you are encouraged by God, the more you are commended by Christ (for whose sake you should render good for evil), because he has commanded you and also deserves your obedience in this. Your neighbour has perhaps offended you with a word: remember with how many words and deeds, how grievously you have offended your Lord God. What was mankind when Christ died for us? Were we not his enemy, and unworthy to have his favour and mercy? Even so, with what gentleness and patience does he forbear and tolerate and suffer you, although he is daily offended by you?
Forgive your neighbour a light trespass, therefore, that Christ may forgive you (who every day are an offender) many thousands of trespasses. For if you forgive your brother or sister, when they sin against you, then you have a sure sign and token that God (to whom all are debtors or trespassers) will forgive you. How would you have God be merciful to you, if you are cruel to your brother or sister? Can you not find it in your heart to do that towards another (who is your fellow), which God has done to you (who are but his servant)? Ought not one sinner to forgive another, seeing that Christ who was no sinner, prayed to his Father for those who spitefully and without mercy put him to death? “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return, and when he suffered wrongfully, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
What do you think of your Head? If you do not labour to be in the body, you cannot be a member of Christ — if you do not follow in the steps of Christ who (as the prophet says) was “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7), not opening his mouth to revile, but opening his mouth to pray for those who crucified him, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Immediately after Christ, St. Stephen followed this example (Acts 7:60), and after him, St. Paul: “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly” (2 Corinthians 4:12-13 NIV). As St. Paul taught, so he did; and what he did, he taught. “Bless”, he said, “those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). Is it a great thing to speak well of your adversary, to whom Christ commands you to do good? David, when Shimei cursed him, did not scold him in return, but said patiently, “Let him curse. Perhaps the Lord will have mercy on me” (2 Samuel 16:11-12).
Coping with insults Histories are full of examples of heathen men who took very meekly both abusive words and injurious deeds. And shall those heathen men excel in patience more than us who profess Christ, the teacher and example of patience? Lysander, when someone was raging against him, reviling him, was not moved but said, “Go on, go on, speak against me as much and as often you want, and leave nothing out, if it means you may be able to empty yourself of the vicious notions with which you seem to be fully laden.” Many people speak evil of everyone, because they can speak well of no one. This wise man avoided people of this sort and their injurious words spoken against him, imputing and putting them down to the natural sickness of his adversary.
Pericles, when a certain scolder or ranting fellow reviled him, answered him back not a word, but went home. As night fell, this scolder followed him raging still more and more because he saw that Pericles was taking no notice. When he arrived home it was dark, so Pericles commanded one of his servants to light a torch and take the ranter home safely to his own house. He not only suffered this brawler quietly and patiently, but also repaid an evil deed with a good one, and that to his enemy.
Is it not a shame for us, who profess Christ, to be worse than heathen people, in a thing of chief importance to Christ’s religion? Shall philosophy persuade them, more than God’s word shall persuade us? Shall natural reason prevail more with them, than religion does with us? Shall human wisdom lead them to that, to which heavenly doctrine cannot lead us? What blindness, wilfulness, or rather madness is this? Pericles was provoked to anger by many insulting words, but answered not a word. But we, stirred by one little word — what tragedies do we claim! How do we fume, rage, stamp and stare like mad men! Many people make a great matter out of every trifle, and with the spark of a little word will kindle a great fire, taking everything in the worst possible way. But how much better is it, and more like the example and doctrine of Christ, to make a great fault in our neighbour into a small thing, reasoning with ourselves in this way: “They spoke these words, but it was in a sudden heat, or the drink spoke them, but it was not them”; or, “They were prompted by someone else to speak them, or they said this because they were ignorant of the truth”; or “They spoke them, not against me but against the person they thought me to be.”
Think of the future When it comes to speaking evil against other people: first, let us examine ourselves, whether we are faultless and clear of the fault which we find in others. For it is a shame when someone who blames another for a fault is guilty themselves either of the same fault or an even greater one. It is a shame for the one who is blind to call another person blind; and it is more shameful for the one who is completely blind to call someone else blinkered, who is only partially blind. For this is to see a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). So let us consider, that the one who speaks badly of other people shall commonly also be spoken of badly. And the one who takes pleasure in speaking how they like, shall be compelled to hear what they do not like, to their displeasure. Moreover, let them remember the saying that we “shall give an account for every idle word” (Matthew 12:36). How much more then shall we have to give an account for our sharp, bitter, brawling, and critical words, which provoke our brothers and sisters to be angry. We shall have to give an account for this breach of love.
When it comes to evil replies: even if we are extremely provoked by other people’s evil speaking, yet we should not follow their argumentativeness by answering evil with evil. We must consider that anger is a kind of madness, and that the one who is angry is (as it were, for a time) in a frenzy. Therefore, let us beware, lest in fury we say something which we may afterwards rightly regret. And the one who would defend themselves and say, “Anger is not the same as fury”, and that they have their reason even when they are most angry, let them reason like this with themselves when they are angry: “Now I am so moved and inflamed but in a little while I may have changed my mind. So then, why should I say something now in my anger which cannot be changed later if I do change my mind? Why should I do anything now being (as it were) out of my mind, about which I shall be very sad when I come to myself again? Why do I not do now what I know time will eventually persuade me of? Surely reason, godliness, and indeed Christ, demand that?”
If someone is called an adulterer, usurer, drunkard, or any other insulting name, let them earnestly consider whether they are called this truly or falsely. If truly, let them amend their fault, so that their adversary may not afterwards rightly charge them with such offences. If these things are laid against them falsely, let them consider whether they have given any occasion to be suspected of such things. And so they may both cut off that suspicion which gave rise to the slander, and in other things they shall live more warily. And behaving in this way, we may take no hurt, but rather much good, from the rebukes and slanders of our enemy. For the reproach of an enemy may be to many people a more effective spur to the amendment of their life than the gentle warning of a friend. Philip the King of Macedon, when he was badly spoken of by the chief rulers of the city of Athens, thanked them heartily, because he was made better by them, both in his words and deeds. “For I endeavour,” he said, “both by my sayings and doings to prove them liars.”