“Fret not thyself because of evil doers.”
Preached on Fast Day,
April 18, 1839.
By Samuel Hopkins
Pastor of the First Congregational Church
In Saco, ME.
[Published by Request]
S. L. Goodale
Psalm 37. 1.
Fret Not Thyself Because of Evil Doers.
The world abounds with evil doers. You may find them – without search – among the polite and the vulgar; in high ways and by-ways; abroad and at home. They beset you, they face you, they thwart you – everywhere. If you will, you may spy some deformity of conduct, or policy, or principle – some flaw or defect – some excrescence or putrefying sore – upon every one you look at; upon chief magistrate, law maker, judge, and petty justice; upon pedagogue and school-boy; buyer and seller; husband, wife, and child; maid and mistress; deacon and minister of the Gospel.
How this strange and universal degeneracy comes to pass – how it dare sustain itself against the tremendous warnings of all past history – I do not stop to enquire. The fact is all I want. Everybody – at least everybody else – does wrong, more or less. They do not do what they should. They do what they should not.
Another thing. The eyes and ears of the present generation are peculiarly occupied with each others’ faults. Not that we are quicker to scent, or more ravenous to devour, the offal [refuse] of human wickedness than our fathers were. But times have changed. The ends of the earth are brought together. An evil done at a distant point–in a twinkling–is bruited in our ears. The press tells it. Steam power carries it. Strolling lecturers trumpet it and denounce it. And the result is, that whereas past generations could see but little of the deeds of evildoers, beyond their own firesides or hamlets – we have an interminable succession of abominations, floating before us from every quarter of the globe, thrust upon us by every wind that blows, chattered to us by every tongue that talks, till we are sickened – verily sickened – with the uncleannesses of a world lying in wickedness. All this is well. God has his design in it. And God will make it tell – with power, too – in the accomplishment of his purposes of grace.
These two facts, then, are now before us; the one – that the world is full of evil doers; and the other – that the deeds of evil doers, to a degree unknown in former times, are forced upon our minds.
These things being so – if ever there was a generation for whom the words of our text were specially designed; if ever there was a generation who needed specially to weigh and remember these words – that generation is our own. And perhaps the careful consideration of their import can never be more timely than upon a day like this; a day set apart “in view of our manifold transgressions as individuals and as a community”; a day which we are as prone to occupy in brooding over the sins of others, as in confessing and forsaking our own.
The duty enjoined in the text can hardly be stated in plainer terms – “Fret not thyself because of evil doers.” In presenting it to your consideration I shall endeavor.
I. To illustrate the behavior here prohibited.
II. To present some reasons why we should avoid it.
I. Let us examine the behavior here prohibited.
A man of a right spirit will feel the spirit stirred within him against Sin; whether the Sin be in himself or in others; whether it rise before him in the misdeeds of the oppressor, in the vices of the inebriate, in the arts of the libertine, or in the waywardness of a little child. He will not wonder, yet never feel – he will not behold, yet never care a feather – when evil doers are scattering firebrands, arrows and death. Neither will he be roused because men do evil here or there, in this way or that – yet blink and nod and go to sleep over wickedness in some other shape or some other place. It is impossible for us, if we obey the Bible, to look upon any sort of evil doing with indifference.
There is, then, a feeling, an excitement of heart against evil doers which is duty. To describe it; it is – dislike – strong aversion – abhorrence. All this exists in the spotless citizen of heaven. It exists in God.
But – there is a kind of excitement which, forsooth, because it is against evil doers, calls itself good, and passes for good, though it is kith and kin with the evil it opposes. It is not an excitement which leads us to yearn over the worker of iniquity. It is not an excitement which sends us to our closets to weep and plead in their behalf. It is an excitement which hurries us to harshness and bitterness; of look, of word, of deed. It is – passion. It is – ill humor. It is – wrath. It is what, in common talk, we call “getting cross.” It is what the Bible calls “fretting ourselves.” When we indulge it, we get out of all patience and into all agitation – perhaps, beside ourselves – because somebody does not do, or believe, or feel, or preach, what we think is right. When a child teases us; when a jockey cheats us; when a friend neglects us, or a neighbor defames us; when a man-seller or a rum-seller will not mind us; when an impudent fellow insults us; when any one refuses our party, our doctrine, or our measures; when Congress thrusts out our petitions; when a Christian brother or a Christian minister seems to us to say “God speed” to the wicked; – whatever be the evil, and how great soever the provocation – the moment we lose our temper, the moment we get angry and vexed, we fall into the very behavior forbidden in our text. We “fret ourselves because of evil doers.”
II. Let us consider some reasons why we should avoid fretting ourselves because of evil doers.
1. One reason is – it does no good. True – it sometimes passes for an evidence of piety; and sometimes is all the evidence we can get. We may point to our feelings and our bold words and our schemes and our labors against evil doers and say – “Lo our zeal – ; our zeal for the Lord of Hosts.” [Isaiah 37:32] – We may point conscience there and say – “Peace – Peace.” We may feel Pharisaical, and self-righteous, and self-pleased, and safe, because we are hot against the wicked. Thus our opposition to evil doers may give a temporary comfort; it may bolster up, for a day, our souls – lull to sleep, for a night, our fears – and keep at bay, for a while, our convictions.
But does this do us good? Does it make us better? Does it mold us into the likeness of God? Does it help us in our preparatory work for heaven? What! – fretfulness – ill temper – self-righteousness – the light of our own fire – the sparks of our own kindling – guide us to glory and to God! Fretting ourselves against the wicked – is this attuning our hearts to the music of heaven! But, if not – what doth it profit us?
“But it does the wicked good. It takes off their chariot wheels. It troubles their consciences. It sometimes makes them leave off their wickedness.”
Does it? What! You’re getting peevish do all this! Your ill humor physic away iniquity like this! The mere lightning and grumbling of a towering passion – of yours, of mine, or of a hundred others leagued together – will they do so much? Will a scowl – all alone – quell a willful child? Will a volley of angry words – and nothing else – reclaim a thief? Will the flashing indignation of priests and elders – all alone – convert a heretic? Will the trumpeted wrath of the north – all alone – bring to repentance the slaveholder of the south?
Try it – then. To the work – then; good men and true. And – by all your pity for the oppressed, your fears for the unbeliever, your regard for order, and you love for domestic peace – use no truth, no persuasion, no authority; but raise one united and untiring peal of wrath – till the wilderness bud and blossom – till the world put on righteousness for her robe and beauty for her diadem.
“But, nay – ; this is absurd. No one affirms it. Truth is wanted, for the conscience. Power is wanted, for the perverse.”
Well – then; has Truth grown halt and lazy, in her old age, that she must needs be whipped and spurred by Passion? Has Power lost its nerve and right that it must be bolstered up by anger? – If truth for the conscience, and power for the intractable – be the legitimate and effective means of dealing with the wicked, why not trust to them? Why foist in something else? Can we not publish truth – can we not use our power (when we get it) without being in a passion? To be sure we can. And if we can, and if a sour temper neither convicts the conscience nor subjects the forward pray how does it mend the matters of a wicked world? Not at all. Then it does no good. And God has well said – “Fret not thyself because of evil doers.”
The truth is – when a man’s desire is purely to do good; to convince, to reclaim, to gain, the evil doer; he coincides, instinctively, with the precept we are considering. He is moved; but not to wrath. He is excited; but not with fretting. He goes about, the gentle and hopeful bearer of “the Truth as it is in Jesus.” A precious testimony, this, to the righteousness and wisdom of the text.
2. But – another reason. Fretting ourselves because of evil doers does hurt.
How is our own comfort affected by it? Well – or ill? Watch the man who is out of humor at somebody’s wickedness; the man whose words are quick and sharp and hot; the man who looks and tones and gestures show you that he is out of patience – vexed – that someone does not think as he thinks and do as he does. Is he happy? – No. that fretful gust must pass away; that swell of passion must subside, before he can enjoy himself or anything that God has made. But we need not look to others, to understand this. We have all felt it. Anger and enjoyment cannot live together. They are contrary the one to the other. We must either train ourselves to consider, and to endure evil doers without being irritated; or – in this world where they whirl around us like the leaves of autumn – we must lead wretched life to our graves.
Beside; a man in a passion is no comfortable companion. In matters not what his passion concerns. Whether fretting himself because someone has done right, or because someone has done wrong – he sends discomfort all around him.
And again; when we are irritated because of evil doers, we shall act accordingly. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” [Matthew 12:34] “Out of the heart are the issues of life.” [Proverbs 4:23] Like does not more surely beget like, than a fretted temper, some evil fruit. It makes us speak wrong. It makes us do wrong.
And yet more. A vexed spirit vexes a spirit. Passion excites passion. If you do wrong, and I fret about it, you are not excited by my wrath to do better, but to do as you please; and that is – to do wrong the more. Let a man see that you cannot bear him because he is so bad – you excite his anger. He cannot bear you. This is human nature. Miserable stuff, I grant; nevertheless, the very stuff you have to deal with. And a fine beginning you have made in the scheme of mending a sinner, when, by your fretting, you have brought him to fretting too. Why! You have made him bristle like a porcupine. He says “touch me if you dare.” You have made him set his feet like a mule; and there, in the midst of evil deeds, dogged the perverse – while he pleases, he will stand. And he will please to stand while – you fret. You have made him blind. You made him deaf. And now you may show him truth, pure as the blush of morning; he will not hail it. You may show it to him, vivid as the lightening’s glare; he will not see it. You may peel it to him like the rolling of a thousand thunders; he will not hear it.
Now we may philosophize about this as we please. We may speculate, till we are gray – and lecture, till the season of our stewardship is spent – about the omnipotence of truth; but we cannot make one hair of this matter white or black. It still remains true an angered man is immovable. The omnipotence of Truth notwithstanding – no sinner, since the world has stood, has been converted from the error of his way, or his doctrine, in a passion. – And while the world standeth, no sinner will be. The passion must be subdued – even in the operations of Divine grace – or the truth fails. Wake it up – sustain it; and you have reared a wall of defense and defiance; a wall which must come down ere the citadel can be won.
Now, if fretting ourselves because of evil doers works mischief like this – mars our comfort – and others’ comfort – provokes us to bad deeds – and rouses in those against whom we fret a spirit which prevents their reform – we had better give it up; we had better forswear it forever. We had better hold the truth in righteousness, and “speak the truth in love.” [Ephesians 4:15] We had better – first of all – and last of all – “take heed to our spirits.” [Malachi 2:15]
3. But another reason; – fretting ourselves because of evil doers is unseemly.
It is becoming to feel towards those who do wrong, as Paul did towards his unbelieving “kinsmen according to the flesh;” [Romans 9:3] as Stephen did, when he prayed “Lay not this sin to their charge;” [Acts 7:60] as Jesus Christ did, when he wept over Jerusalem – when he cried “Father forgive them.” [Luke 23:34] But, that it is becoming to feel fretful, in the case, is what none can show.
But, take another view. When we get vexed at evil doers it is not because they abuse God, but because they abuse ourselves, or our fellow creatures. We do not fret at a man because he is unconverted, spiritually; but because he is somehow irregular, outwardly. I have never seen a man cross because his neighbor was not born again. But I have seen hundreds cross because their neighbors–born again, or not – transgressed the second table of the law. Now we ourselves are guilty of deeds more evil than our neighbor’s deeds which anger us. Perhaps we have not, like him, cheated in a bargain; or extorted usury; or sworn profanely; or enticed men to drunkenness; or held our fellow men in bondage; – but, we have done things worse – all of us; we do things worse, all of us, every day. We have done, and do things compared with which the deed of his we fret at, is as a mole hill to a mountain–as a bubble to a world–as a feather to a universe of lead. He wrongs his fellow creature–(for that is the only thing which frets us)–we wrong our God. He treads upon the claims of blood to blood–we, in every error of our lives and secret thoughts, upon those of matchless Grace, of pure redeeming Love.
True – our sin against God is no counterpoise to his against man. His sin is just as heavy and just as ill deserving as though we were sinless. It merits our abhorrence just as much. Our greater wickedness is no reason why we should like or justify his. But it is a reason why we should view his, and bear it too, – without wrath.
It does not become an evil doer to sit in haughty, angry, judgment upon an evil doer. It does not become one who has a beam in his own eye to scowl and chafe at the mote in his brother’s eye.
4. To fret ourselves because of evil doers is wicked.
It is against the Bible. It is as truly disobedience of God as any other thing. It is as openly, as pointedly, disobedience of God. Has he forbidden idolatry? So he has, this. Has he forbidden oppression? So he has, this. Has he forbidden domestic broils–and fraud–and lying–and stealing–and adultery. So he has, this; just as decidedly, just as plainly.
If it be sin to disobey God in one thing–is it not, to disobey him in another? If it be sin to hold flesh and blood of man as chattels, so it is to fret ourselves because of him who does it. if it be sin to be a drunkard, so it is to be vexed against a drunkard. And which is the less and which the greater sin–to be an evil doer in this or that; or–to be an evil doer in fretting ourselves against an evil doer? Which is the least a disobedience of God; and which the most?
True– this fretfulness is natural. It is hard to avoid it. We slip into it unawares. We see the best of men indulge it. And sometimes it seems as though one could scarce do God service–briskly–without it. But all this weighs nothing, nothing, against–“Thus saith the Lord.” “Therefore–thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever though art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself–for thou that judgest, doest the same things.” Thou who frettest against an evil doer, and he–alike and equally–disobey God.
Another thing will illustrate this sin. What would be your thoughts, and what, your emotions, should I tell you that our Savior used, at times, to foam with passion against evil doers in his day, as you have seen his professed disciples do in yours? You would start at it as blasphemy. Why? If it be not a sin thus to feel toward the wicked–why?
But take another test; for the matter in hand is worth it. –The influence of petulance towards the wicked upon devotion shows it to be a sin. Any feeling which is wrong prevents our access to God. We must first smooth down our ruffled spirits before we can commune at the mercy seat. –Now how is it with an angry, peevish spirit toward the wicked? Does it help, or hinder, prayer? While we are in the heat–are we ready for the communion of our closets–or not? A certain writer answer the question. He says–“prayer is the daughter of charity and the sister of meekness; and he that prays to God in an angry spirit, “is like him who retires into a battle to meditate, and sets up his closet in the out quarters of an enemy, “and chooses a frontier garrison to be wise in. anger is a perfect alienation of the mind from prayer; “and–is contrary to the attention which presents our prayers in a right line to Heaven. For so have I seen “a lark rising from his bed of grass, and soaring upwards, singing as he rises, and hops to get to heaven, “and climb above the clouds. But the poor bird was beaten back by the loud sighings of an eastern wind, “and his motion made irregular and inconstant; descending more, at every breath of the tempest, than “he could recover by the libration and frequent weighings of his wings; till the little creature was forced “to sit down and pant, and stay till the storm was over; and then–it made a prosperous flight and it did “rise and sing as if it had learned music and motion from an angel, as he passed sometimes through the “air, about his ministries here below.
“So is the prayer of a good man, when anger raises a tempest and overcomes him. Then his prayer was “broken, and his thoughts were troubled, and his words went up towards a cloud; and his thoughts “pulled them back against, and made them without intention. And the good man sighs for his infirmity; “but he must be content to lose his prayer; and he must recover it when his anger is removed, and his “spirit is becalmed, and made even as the brow of Jesus, and smooth like the heart of God: and then is “ascends to heaven upon the wings of the holy dove, and dwells with God, till it returns like the useful “bee, laden with a blessing and the dew of heaven.”
Surely, then, if fretfulness be disobedience of God; if it be contrary to the spirit of our great Example; if it spoil the hours of our closet devotion; there is something wrong about it. It is wicked to be vexed at the ill-behavior of others; as verily wicked as the evil we fret at.
Brethren beloved–there is reason why we should guard ourselves against this sin. Fretting is in vogue. We see it. We hear it–every day. We are tempted to it every day. And, truly, we ought to watch against and resist the temptation–because, God has forbidden the thing–; because, it is unseemly; –because it does much hurt and no good.
In times past we have been guilty. Not one of us but has lost his temper; more or less. Somebody has been lax, and somebody else has been ultra, on some subject of practical moment; and it has made us fretful. Some school boy has been a rogue; some vixen in our families has molested us; some sharper has over-reached us in trade; some canting tyro in politics, or religion, or morals, has aspersed our integrity; silly dupes have gulped the libel; and we–have been nettled about it. –Verily, verily, we have been guilty.
Brethren–suppose we should do better. Suppose we should cleave to the Bible in this matter. Suppose we should mind God. Come–let the past suffice, and more than suffice wherein we have fretted ourselves because of evil doers. In our families, in our streets, in our church meetings, in our enterprises of moral reform, never let us fret ourselves. If heretics and sinners, publicans and Pharisees, thwart us and throw dirt at us–by scores–by thousands–let us never fret. Should the world grow ten times as wicked; should Satan come down with tenfold wrath; nay–should the church of the living God–the family of our espousal and vows, of our hope and love–apostatize; should priest and people go and do abominations, together, on the altar of Belial–whatever else we do, let us never prostitute our own integrity; never let us allow ourselves in a fretful, snarlish temper.
Let us abjure it. Root and branch, let us expel it. We shall be the better. We shall be the happier. We shall die the easier. We shall love each other the more. We shall do the more–a deal more–toward the conviction and reform of evil doers. It would be so strange a thing, if only you and I should look upon the wickedness, and bear the buffetings of evil doers, without ill humor–why! The wicked would suspect us, Christians; and–by the contrast–themselves, sinners. But, however this might be, life would be another thing to us. Our food would be sweeter; our sleep, better; our sunshine, brighter. Our fellowship would be heartier; our pilgrimage, smoother; and the evening twilight of our days, softer.
Brethren–brethren–remember these words–“fret not thyself because of evil doers.” And, remember, THEY ARE GOD’S WORDS. He gave them–to be obeyed. If you care for his approval; if you value the peace which he giveth; if you covet the refreshing dews of his grace–obey his word. “Be not overcome of evil; but overcome evil with good.” “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.”