This is not about what you might expect. We have heard so much about the sixth commandment and preserving life over the past year—a very necessary emphasis. But there are other dimensions to the commandment as well. Showing love for our neighbour through this command is not simply about what we do or do not do. Scripture shows us that it reaches to our hearts also (1 John 3:15; Matthew 5:22). Our heart attitude and thoughts are expressed in our words and behaviour towards others. If there is an attitude of animosity in the heart or abusive words are used, we are not preserving the spirit of this commandment. It is a constant issue but perhaps more obvious in a time when there may be many conflicting opinions. How do we respond to others, especially when we disagree or feel they have failed us in some way? The natural tendency is to let our irritation show. It is easy to bottle up resentment as well as erupt when provoked. What sort of words should we use if we need to point out where they have gone wrong? How do we avoid responses that cause lasting spiritual damage in our zeal for the truth? We need to positively cultivate and put on the graces of love, humility, patience and forbearance to do this. And if we think this is a good message for someone else, we probably need it more than we realise.
The Larger Catechism draws on the rest of Scripture to help us understand this aspect of the sixth commandment. If we are to put off anger then part of doing this involves putting on patience, kindness and forgiveness. The Larger Catechism shows that we pursue “lawful endeavours to preserve the life of ourselves, and others, by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any…by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness, peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behaviour, forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil, comforting and succouring the distressed” (Q135). So also, this command forbids “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge, all excessive passions…provoking words, oppressing, quarrelling” (Q136). Some Bible passages which support this are as follows. The sixth commandment requires us to:
- subdue passions which tend towards unjust destruction of life (Ephesians 4:26-27)
- avoid all temptations which tend towards unjust destruction of life (Matthew 4:6-7; Proverbs 1:10-16)
- maintain a serene mental attitude and cheerful spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 1 Peter 3:3-4; Psalm 37:8-11; Proverbs 17:22)
- show kindness and love in thought, word and deed (1 Samuel 19:4-5; 22:13-14; Romans 13:10; Luke 10:33-34; Colossians 3:12-13; James 3:17; 1 Peter 3:8-11; Proverbs 15:1; Judges 8:1-3).
It is possible to have a holy zeal and yet think, speak and act charitably. This means having compassion for others, grieving over where they have erred and seeking the best and most effective way to have them restored or for them to be saved. Holy zeal will focus itself against what is wrong rather than the person who has done what is wrong (Psalm 101:3). It is not focused on how we have been harmed or wronged personally but on whether God has been dishonoured. It is motivated by the honour of God not our own pride.
Righteous anger without sinning is certainly possible but all too rare (Ephesians 4:26). But we must be very careful as to whether this it truly has this holy zeal. If we are not careful our sinful anger will give room for the devil to exploit any conflict (Ephesians 4:27). He will use it to stir up sinful attitudes and responses in ourselves and others. He will also use it to make us unfit for spiritual activities and so rob us of the benefit (Matthew 5:23-24).
We can have the best of intentions, but we all know how difficult it is to keep our cool when we encounter an irascible hot-headed person. We resent unfair implied accusations and are ready to show it. How do we respond to words and behaviour that only seems to rile us up? There is no easy answer that is quickly learned. It requires great wisdom (Proverbs 14:29; 17:27; 19:11). We are battling the most powerful of enemies (Proverbs 16:32). We need to avoid being quick to speak if we are going to be slow to become angry (James 1:19). We need much patience and grace to turn away wrath with a soft answer (Proverbs 15:1).
These thoughts have been helped by Thomas Ridgeley’s commentary on the Larger Catechism. One of the books that influenced the Larger Catechism was A Body of Divinity by James Ussher. The following updated extract is drawn from his treatment of the sixth commandment. In a helpful question and answer format he shows how the commandment requires a loving spirit.
1. What inward duties do we owe to our neighbour?
To love our neighbours as ourselves, to think well of them, to be charitably affected towards them, and to strive to do them good. We are all the creatures of one God, and the natural children of Adam. For this reason, we are to cherish all good affections in our hearts.
2. What good affections are required?
(a) Humility and kindness, proceeding from a loving heart to a fellow human being because they are human (Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:32).
(b) Contentment to see our brother pass and exceed us in any outward or inward gifts or graces and giving thanks to God for endowing him with such gifts.
(c) Compassion and fellow-feeling of their good and evil (Romans 12:15-16; Hebrews 13:3).
(f) Patience, long-suffering and slowness to anger (Ephesians 4:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
(g) Easiness to be reconciled and to forget wrongs done to us (Ephesians 4:32).
(h) A peaceable mind, careful to preserve and make peace (Romans 12:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Matthew 5:9).
3. What is required for the preservation of peace?
(a) Care to avoid offences.
(b) Construing things in the best sense (1 Corinthians 13:7).
(c) Giving up our own rights sometimes (Genesis 13:8-9).
(d) Passing by offences and suffering injuries patiently lest they break out into greater mischief.
4. What inward sins are condemned?
Consenting in heart to do our neighbour harm together with all passions of the mind, which are contrary to the love we owe to him.
(a) Anger when it is either rash or without cause; or when it is excessive in a just cause (Matthew 5:21-22; Ephesians 4:26, 31).
(b) Hatred and malice, which is murder in the mind (1 John 3:15).
(c) Envy, by which one hates his brother as Cain the murderer did, for some good that is in him (James 3:14; Proverbs 14:30; 1 John 3:12).
(d) Grudging and repining against our brother, which is a branch of envy (1 Timothy 2:8).
(e) Unmercifulness and lack of compassion (Romans 1:31; Amos 6:6).
(f) Desire for revenge (Romans 12:19).
(g) Cruelty (Psalm 5:6; Genesis 49:5, 7).
(h) Pride, which is the mother of all contention (Proverbs 13:10).
(i) Uncharitable suspicions (1 Corinthians 13:5, 7; 1 Samuel 1:13-14) yet godly jealousy over another is good if it is for a good cause.
(j) Stubbornness and not being easily intreated (Romans 1:31).
5. How should we resist these?
We should kill such affections at their first rising and pray to God against them.
6. What are the outward duties we owe to our neighbour?
They respect the soul principally, or the whole man, and the body more especially.
7. What duties are required of us for the preservation of the souls of our neighbour?
(a) Ministering the food of spiritual life (Isaiah 62:6; 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28).
(b) Giving good counsel and encouraging to well-doing (Hebrews 10:24-25).
(c) Walking without offence. This is required of rulers and ministers as well as everyone else in their calling. The apostle’s rule reaches everyone, give no offence neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God (1 Corinthians 10:32).
(d) Giving good example, and thereby provoking one another to love good works, (Matthew 5:16; 2 Corinthians 9:2; Hebrews 10:24).
(e) Reproving our brother’s sins by timely admonition (Leviticus 19:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Psalm 141:5).
(f) Comforting the feeble minded and supporting the weak (1 Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:14).
8. What is forbidden in our words?
(a) Speaking evil of someone, even although the matter is not in itself false is still wrong if it is not done with a right purpose or in a right manner and at the right time. False accusations are also condemned (Luke 23:2; Acts 24:5).
(b) Bitter and angry words or speech uttered in wrath or using evil or vile terms (Matthew 5:22) are condemned by this commandment.
(c) Mocking in general is sinful (Psalm 22:7-8; John 19:3). Mockery of a disability (Leviticus 19:14) or especially mocking others for godly behaviour (2 Samuel 6:20) are condemned. Sometimes, however, God’s children may use mocking in a godly manner as Elijah did to the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:27).5. When we complain about one another and grumble with malice (James 5:9).
(c) Brawling and angry shouting are sinful (Titus 3:9; Ephesians 4:31). Threatening, insulting and provocative speech is also condemned (1 Peter 3:9; 2 Samuel 16:5,7; 2 Kings 2:23-24;1 Corinthians 5:11 Psalm 57:4 Psalm 52:2 Psalm 64:3-4 Psalm 140:3)
(d) Spiteful, disdainful and harsh words are sinful, especially when they are uttered contemptuously (Proverbs 12:8; Proverbs 15:1).
9. What is required in our words?
That we greet our neighbour gently, speak kindly, and use courteous amiable speeches; which according to the Hebrew phrase is called, speaking to the heart of another (Ephesians 4:32; Ruth 2:13).
According to Paul’s counsel we should see that edifying words rather than “corrupt communication” are found in our mouths (Ephesians 4:29. Our speech should be always seasoned with the saltiness of grace so that we know how to answer every one in the right way (Colossians 4:6). If meat is not sprinkled with salt, it will smell. It will be so with those who do not have their hearts seasoned with the word of truth.
If we are not careful the words proceeding from our mouths will be angry, wrathful, and loathsome speech against our brother. Scripture compares such words to juniper coals which burn most fiercely (Psalm 120:4) or to a sword or razor cutting most sharply (Proverbs 12:18; Psalm 52:2). James therefore says that the tongue is an unruly evil, set on fire by hell (James 3:6, 8). We ought therefore to govern our tongues by the Word of God and beware of vile speech.
To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article The Mark of the Christian. Christ’s disciples are to be recognised by their love for one another. What does that look like and what if it’s not there?
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