The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prov and strife

We may well seek the instruction of the wise man regarding strife, for it is an ever present evil in human life. Nations have warred with each other all through history, using all their power to wound and destroy. In times of temporary international peace there has always been the strife of rivals seeking wealth and power in the markets and in the seats of the mighty. Even in the Christian Church there has been bitter strife among men claiming to be the servants of the Lord, willingly forgetful of the fact that the servant of the Lord must not strive but be gentle and patient and apt to teach. [2Ti 2:24,25]

We do not need the apostle's words to convince us that such strife is an evil in human life. Not only does it prevent constructive work by its greedy absorption of human energy, but it has a definite and obvious influence for ill on the minds of those who engage in it. Men who aim to be fit for the Kingdom of God only need to have a little experience of such strife and sometimes they become hardly fit to live even in the kingdoms of men.

In the book of Proverbs we have the following statements regarding strife:

From these we may gather that to be fond of strife is a sin; that the main causes of harmful strife are pride, hatred and wrath; that the course of strife is like the breaking forth of water, very difficult to stop when once it starts; and finally that the right way is to stop the argument before it reaches the quarrelling stage.

There is a fund of wisdom in these simple thoughts, and they would make a great difference to human life if men could always remember and apply them.

There is no need to raise difficulties over the use of the words. We have to contend earnestly for the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is only honest in fact for us to uphold that which we think is right and true in all matters whether we are dealing with the world or the brotherhood, but surely we appreciate the difference between the earnest contention which can yield good results and the strife which is definitely evil. We can remember meetings in which there was much argument, different points of view being presented and the discussion waxing quite lively, yet the results of the meetings were excellent, all members gaining something with no element of bitterness to mar the effect. We can remember other meetings in which discussion became contention and contention degenerated into quarrelling which might continue without cessation as long as disputants had sufficient breath to be uncharitable. Such strife could not be of the slightest good, for no one was willing to be influenced by it. Pride, hatred and wrath have all been in evidence at such a time. These and other evils fostered by strife are able to drag men and women down to eternal death.

Often it is possible to see the warning signs long before the water breaks forth. Then, even if we have to let an opponent have the last word or the last hundred words, it is wise to leave off contention before it degenerates into quarrelling. If the opponent is a reasonable man, he will think of the ideas we have presented, and if there is any cogency in our arguments, they will have much more effect on him in this quiet meditation than in the heat of battle. When the subject is raised again we may find that he states his position rather differently in an effort to meet our arguments. It is conceivably possible that we may find some reason for restating our views in rather different language. As the result of quiet thinking instead of noisy strife, there may be a better understanding of matters on both sides. If this clearer view does not enable us fully to agree, it may at least enable us to reach an honourable cessation from strife.

There are differences of conviction which forbid fellowship, which may even prevent association, but there is no reason for them to cause quarrelling. If men differ from us as to the God whom they worship, the hope they cherish, or the rule of faith they observe; if we are certain that they are wrong in their conception of duty or their attitude toward divine revelation, we cannot join with them or in any way sanction their error, but there is no reason for us to feel in the least degree angry with those who are so unfortunately blind. The only insistent reason for us to speak to them is that we might convince them of their error, and all experience shows that the strong argument gently presented is the one that will prevail. It is the soft answer that turneth away wrath, and it is the soft tongue that breaketh the bone (Pro 25:15). There is no incongruity in these
apparently opposing thoughts. The gentle and reasonable answer to angry declamation will calm the storm. The fire of anger will die down for lack of fuel, or the irate man will make an effort to calm himself for very shame. At the same time the reasonable appeal, gently stated, will sometime prevail even against ossified determination.

We ought to be so well instructed that in large measure the reactions of opponents can be anticipated. If we present an argument which seems to deprive a man of a cherished hope, it is natural for him to be angry. If he cannot find an answering argument a personal hit may serve instead. In public debate with shallow supporters, the personal hit may be appreciated and applauded most, but whether in public or private, we ought not to retaliate, however tempting an opening may present itself. Sarcasm may destroy the individual, cursing both him that gives and him that takes, but it can very rarely assist toward a better understanding of truth or effect a change of mind in one who has been in error. Angry words only do good when they are gently answered. Then they may play a part in reproving the one who used them.

It is a strange fact that men are often more disposed to lose temper over a slight divergence than over a great one. A narrow-minded theologian may be quite affable with an atheist, but bitterly resentful toward a brother worshipper who ventures to deviate by a hair's breadth from his conception of rectitude in faith and practice. The Jews hated the Samaritans far more than they hated barbarians. The Lord Jesus administered a stinging reproof to this uncharitableness when he chose a Samaritan as an illustration of the neighbour who was to be loved.

Sometimes men who would deny that they have any feeling of bitterness, and who perhaps in truth are actuated by good motives, nevertheless do harm by contending too much. They are so imbued with the conviction that their exact way of looking at things is the only right way, that they will go to almost any lengths in the effort to enforce it. In ecclesial life this type of brother is the author of much harm. It would be so much better if he would be content to state his opinion, trying to persuade others to the same way of thinking, arguing the matter when it is "a time to speak". When a decision has been taken he should submit, for that is "a time to keep silent". If he is honestly convinced that a vital principle has been breached he may be right in withdrawing altogether, thus finding peace of mind for himself and leaving peace behind him. If no such principle is involved let him remember that we all have to be subject to one another in love. It may be an evil that matters should not be conducted in the best possible way -- that is, his way -- but strife and discord among brethren are still worse evils.

Alas! We have known many such troubles and we have no great hope that either this or any other appeal will do much good. There are men who will agitate until they swamp the boat rather than have the sails set in any way other than their own. There are many occasions in life when "it is an honour for a man to cease from strife", [Pro 20:3] but this is an honour to which many men do not aspire.

The wise man says that one who meddles with strife not belonging to him is like one who takes a dog by the ears. This surely would be bad for the dog and bad also for the one who interfered. The intervener can rarely do any good in such a matter and he may easily do harm. Probably the only way in which such interference can end the original dispute is by turning the wrath of both combatants upon the would-be peacemaker.


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