The Bible everywhere commends patience, gentleness, quietness and kindness. Though Jesus overthrew tables in the Temple, in righteous anger–and drove out the moneylenders with a whip–Scripture primarily characterizes him as being “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). Scripture teaches us that those who are united to Christ by faith are being conformed to his image. This means that true believers are those who are being transformed by the Spirit of Christ into patient, meek, gentle, kind and compassionate people.
That being said, the church faces a perennial danger in relation to this subject. The Proverbs state, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). This simultaneously teaches us to value the quality of quietness and that just because someone is naturally quiet doesn’t mean that he or she is spiritually wise. The same can be said of a person of a calm spirit. There are many who do not know Christ or who are not spiritually wise who, nevertheless, have a naturally quiet and calm disposition.
In his monumental work The Mortification of Sin, John Owen–a master physician of the soul–noted that it is altogether possible to mistakenly think that a calm disposition proves a godly heart. He wrote:
“Some men may [pass] in their own thoughts and in the eyes of the world for mortified men, who yet have in them no less predominancy of lust than those who cry out with astonishment upon the account of its perplexing disturbance–yea, than those who have by the power of it been hurried into scandalous sins. Only their lusts are in and about things which raise not such a tumult in the soul, about which they are exercised with a calmer frame of spirit, the very fabric of nature being not so nearly concerned in them as in some other” (Mortification, pp. 36-37).
In other words, Owen explained that men and women can mistakenly convince themselves that they are godly because they are not naturally explosive or high-strung individuals. Owen insisted that there are those whose depravity hurries them into scandalous sins and then there are those whose lusts do not rise to the same level of disorder in the soul. A man or woman may not be quick tempered but may have a heart full of greed. Greed and lust may be tucked away in the heart in such a way that it does not rise to the same level of outward disruption and display as anger and irritability.
Recognizing this means that we should be slow to judge the spiritual condition of a man or woman–or even ourselves–by external marks. For now, we only see scaffolding. What we perceive to be a mark of godliness may simply be part of the natural disposition. Manipulators seek to master the art of hiding what is inside without dealing honestly with their heart sins before the Lord. Legalists emphasize character and external demeanor. Believers emphasize regeneration and mortification.
The Scripture commends “a man of a calm spirit” (Prov. 17:27). God teaches us that “a fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11). These are things that we should most certainly be pursuing by the power of the Gospel and a prayerful and diligent use of the means of God’s grace. However, quietness and calmness are no sure mark of regeneration or sanctification. I have known many unbelievers who have had naturally calm and quiet dispositions. It is only as we fix our eyes on the one who perfectly exemplified righteous anger and gentleness of spirit–the one who took the punishment for all of our greed, lust, anger, irritability, etc.–that we will truly be transformed into his image in our hearts, minds, words and actions.
1. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 6, p. 29). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.