Anger is one of the most seductive of human emotions. The great temptation when we’re hurt, threatened, or offended is to fight back. We want to respond in kind, to give as much as we get. And especially if we’re angry in what we see as a righteous cause, we’re likely to want to stand up and fight for what’s right.
Since we live in an age marked on all sides by anger, grievance, and resentment, including among Christians, it’s especially helpful to step back and listen to Jonathan Edwards’s wisdom on this topic. Though he lived in a time very different from ours, he often encountered these perennial human traits even among the parishioners of colonial New England churches.
In a striking, but too often neglected, passage in Religious Affections, Edwards insists an essential trait of any true Christian is “the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.” He presents this point as nothing less than a fundamental of the faith. He insists the evidence in Scripture is so “very abundant” as to prove such traits are essential marks of true Christians.
Scripture’s Gentle Vision
At the heart of the gospel are the radical teachings of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, that blessedness is to be found in the meek, the merciful, and those who become like little children.
Likewise, Paul repeatedly exhorts the elect to such virtues, as in Colossians 3:12–13 (KJV), where he urges “mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving.” Or in 1 Corinthians 13, where similar traits of humility and deference to others are among the traits of true charity. Or consider the “fruit of the spirit,” which includes “love, joy, peace long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23, KJV).
These are some of the best-known biblical highlights, but Edwards offers page after page of Scripture texts showing these aren’t only Christ’s characteristics but should be evident in anyone “in Christ.”
Our Militaristic Impulse
Edwards’ uncompromising firmness on this point is particularly needed today because it’s so seldom emphasized, let alone insisted on, in much of evangelicalism. Particularly in the United States, when people speak of “evangelical” Christians, these are rarely the qualities that come to mind. The Reformed segments of evangelicals generally haven’t been exceptions. Not that these biblical teachings are missing altogether, but the radically gentle and pacific implications of our new nature are rarely accentuated, as they are by Edwards, as essential marks of true Christians.
Edwards insists an essential trait of any true Christian is ‘the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.’
Many 21st-century evangelicals have been shaped in part by the 20th-century fundamentalist heritage. Fundamentalists, having understandable zeal to defend the essentials of the traditional faith, characteristically presented their concern as a cause for militancy. They emphasized the warfare imagery from the Bible, applying it to fighting against liberalism and many modern cultural trends. Indignation over such trends could often lead to anger toward those who were undermining traditional teaching. And righteous indignation was often an effective tool in mobilizing Christians to defend the faith.
Such emphases on embattlement persist in many evangelical churches, even those who have moved beyond classic fundamentalism. Even some in Reformed churches who have most celebrated Edwards have also celebrated manly militancy in ways contrary to what Edwards sees as an essential quality of a genuine child of God.
More broadly, we live in an age when social media puts an immense premium on cultivating anger and indignation. We’re experiencing a pandemic of addictive outrage that spreads uncontrollably on the internet. Polarized political hostilities have made the situation worse, and Christians of all sorts, whether on the right or left, are hardly immune. Edwards’s emphasis on “the lamblike, dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ” may be needed today more urgently than ever.
What About Christian Fortitude?
Edwards anticipates some who will object that there’s also a place for “Christian fortitude and the boldness for Christ, being good soldiers in the Christian warfare, and in coming out boldly against the enemies of Christ and his people.” There indeed is, he concedes, a place for fortitude and boldness in literal warfare. But he immediately adds that “many people seem to be quite mistaken about the nature of Christian fortitude” when they make the fierce and brutal attitudes of human warfare a model for Christian attitudes more generally.
Even some in Reformed churches who have most celebrated Edwards have also celebrated manly militancy in ways contrary to what Edwards sees as an essential quality of a genuine child of God.
“Though Christian fortitude appears, in withstanding and counteracting the enemies that are without us,” he acknowledges, “yet it much more appears, in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us.” These are the enemies of pride and self-aggrandizement, the opposites of “meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of mind.” As Proverbs 16:32 (KJV) says, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
When we think of “Christian warfare” as one of the metaphors that should shape the Christian’s life, says Edwards, we also should think of our captain Jesus Christ as the model for conducting such warfare. Christ could’ve resisted his oppressors with the fierceness of a roaring lion. But he instead showed his valor as a gentle lamb. If we’re to follow Christ in boldness and valor, it should not be
in the exercise of any fiery passions; not in fierce and violent speeches, and vehemently declaiming against, and of crying out of the intolerable wickedness of the opposers, giving ‘em their own plain terms; but in not opening his mouth when afflicted and oppressed, in going as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers, is dumb; not opening his mouth; praying that the father will forgive his cruel enemies, because they knew not what they did.
Edwards concedes some true Christians may have a naturally difficult temperament and a contrary spirit so that they sometimes act contrary to Christ’s lamblike nature. “But this I affirm,” he declares,
and shall affirm till I deny the Bible to be worth anything, that everything in Christians that belongs to true Christianity is of this tendency and works this way: and that there is no true Christian on earth, but is so under the prevailing power of such a spirit, that he is properly denominated by it, and it is truly and justly his character.
At the end of the day, Edwards insists all true Christians are dominated by Christlike traits.
This article is adapted from An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century by George Marsden (IVP Academic, June 2023).