Mastering Temper

Practical Issues of This Life, Watchman Nee


After a believer has received the grace of the Lord, his conduct and personality ought to undergo certain changes. One of those changes is related to his temper. It is most pathetic to observe many whose temper remains unchanged after they have believed in the Lord for a number of years. This brings much dishonor to the Lord. One should therefore have his temper problem solved immediately after he is saved. He should not allow his bad temper to continue in him without any drastic change occurring for some years after he has believed.

Certain Expressions of the Christian Life

There are certain distinctive expressions of the Christian life which a person should exhibit after he has trusted the Lord.

The Lord commanded His disciples to “love one another” (John 15.12). One expression of a Christian life is love. We ought to love people. We must love all men as well as love our brethren.

The Lord himself also said: “Blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5.5). A Christian’s attitude should be one of meekness, not arrogance. We ought to learn to be meek and lowly, for our Lord’s demeanor is gentle—“Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and riding upon an ass” (Matt. 21.5).

Further, in Luke we are told: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, . . . and follow me” (Luke 9.23). A Christian’s life is one of self-denial. He does not speak for himself, nor does he strive for his own self. Instead of building up himself, he denies himself.

 “Beareth all things” (1 Cor. 13.7). A Christian’s life is not overbearing but bearing all things. “Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5.16). A Christian’s life should be joyful. He must not permit anything to disturb his peace. God’s children must maintain their peace continuously.

Matthew 11.29 is also very significant, for the Lord himself there says: “I am meek and lowly in heart.” A Christian should be humble. A Christian’s attitude should not be haughty but one of humility.

Losing Temper Is Inconsistent with Christian Living

The love, meekness, self-denial, bearing, joy, peace, and humility which we have just mentioned are all the normal expressions of a Christian life. It is therefore evident that the loss of temper is incompatible with these expressions.

Where love is, there is not ill-temper. No one can express love on the one hand and be out of temper on the other. The Lord’s command to us Christians is to love people, whether believers or non-believers. Should love fill your heart, harsh temper is dispelled from you. You should see how important it is for a child of God to love others. Love must become your disposition as well as your action. It is not just for you to love once or twice; love is your constant attitude. This being the case, you have no way to lose your temper.

The Lord charges us to be meek. How meek He was while on earth. He rode upon an ass to show that His kingship is not based upon sternness but meekness. During His earthly days He was One who could be easily talked to, easily invited, and easily approached. Some people are difficult to talk with; but a Christian should not be so; instead, he should be one who is easy to be approached. A Christian ought to be a meek person. If we are meek in our disposition as well as in our attitude, we will just naturally not lose our temper. For all the outbursts of temper are ill-mannered, being the rudest of human emotions; whereas the most delicate of all man’s emotions is love or kindness. A person who is meek before the Lord leaves no ground for harsh temper. He who easily loses his temper or is quarrelsome expresses the roughest of emotions, which is totally incongruous with meekness.

The Lord exhorts us to deny ourselves. He wants us to learn to be self-denying people. It is obvious that a man who is willing to deny himself and to lay down his personal rights will not lose his temper. The reason for losing temper is self-seeking. If a person does not strive for himself, he will hardly lose his temper. We who are children of God ought to deny rather than preserve ourselves.

Sometimes people are really unreasonable towards us and many things done to us are truly irritating, but the Bible informs us that love “is not provoked” (1 Cor. 13.5). And the Lord shows us at the same time that we ought to bear with one another. If the Lord allows anything to come our way, He will certainly enable us to bear with it. The Lord’s command is that our Christian life be a life of patience and endurance. If we endure, there is no possibility of losing our temper.

A Christian should always rejoice, for joy is life. How can a person be in a fit of temper and in the meanwhile be joyous? Such a combination is absolutely impossible. Either you are joyful or you are in a bad temper. You cannot be joyous and lose control of your temper at the same time. If the joy of the Lord should fill your heart, you will give no place to ill-temper in your life. The Lord leaves no ground for us to get into a temper. Were our lives full of joy, our bad temper would naturally fall away.

The Lord wants us to have our hearts filled with peace. He desires that nothing whatsoever may disturb our peace and that we may retain peace in everything. The peace of the Lord will garrison or guard our hearts and minds so as to keep them from being assaulted (see Phil. 4.7). Should our hearts truly be full of peace as we have just stated, there can be no possibility of getting into a fit of temper.

We, the children of God, are humble people. God has not called us to be arrogant, neither has He inspired us to seek high places. On the contrary, His Son lived humbly on earth. God’s will for us is that we be humble and condescend towards the humble. Losing one’s temper is incompatible with humility. We should learn to follow the humble Lord in this humble way.

“Every one who is angry with his brother [many ancient authorities insert ‘without cause’] shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5.22). The Lord does not like His people to lose their temper and become angry without cause. To be angry with a brother is especially unbecoming. A child of God should learn not to lose control of his temper and not to get angry easily.

The Root of Losing Temper: Self

The losing of temper is a common problem shared by many people. We must recognize that this is a highly superficial problem which ought to be solved shortly after one is saved. It should not take eight or ten years to discover how one’s temper is out of control. If so, then why do so many people lose their temper? And why is this problem unsolved in the lives of many Christians? Without a proper answer, we shall find no way to be good Christians. We need to understand why a person is so prone to lose his temper, and thus we may know how to solve this problem.

This matter of losing one’s temper is a considerably big problem to us, yet in the Bible we are not even able to find the word “temper”. What we view as a most common fault seems to be ignored completely in the Bible. Why? Because the losing of temper is a symptom, not a disease. Disease and symptom are two different things. A person may have appendicitis—and this is a disease. His fever runs high—but this is a symptom. The symptom is caused by the disease. It is futile to treat only the symptom without treating the disease as well. The fever may subside temporarily, but it will return if the disease is still present. Losing control of temper is not a disease, it is a symptom. Hence we must search out the source of the disease. If the root is found and eliminated, the symptom will quite naturally disappear. Should we mistake the loss of temper as a disease, we miss the way; and no wonder, then, that we cannot solve the problem.

Many brethren confess that Romans 6.11 is problematic in their lives due to this matter of losing the temper. It is said in Romans 6.11 that we must reckon ourselves to be dead; but many find difficulty in applying this scripture verse. During an outburst of temper many try hurriedly to repeat Romans 6.11, saying “I am dead”; though “if I were dead,” they say afterwards, “I could not have lost my temper.” Such recital produces no result. For Romans 6.11 is not meant to relieve the symptom, rather is it meant to remove the disease. It will not be effective if it is used on a symptom. To reckon oneself dead during a fit of temper will not stop the outburst. Even if it may suppress temper from bursting forth, it still will not prevent temper from boiling within.

What, then, is the root of the disease which causes the symptom of losing the temper? There is a simple answer: losing the temper has to do with one’s “self”. A person’s search for a solution ends at the wrong place if he does not deal with his own self but instead thinks of dealing with his temper. He loses his temper because of his own self. That self of his is his disease, his temper is not at all his disease. Due to the fact of this self, there is the outburst of such temper. If his self is being dealt with before God, his temper will naturally fade away. For this reason, the Bible pays attention to the self rather than to the temper. Were the problem of self solved, the problem of temper would automatically be solved also. If the basic problem of self is not solved, the secondary problem of temper will not be solved either.

As to this “self”, let us look into several of its characteristics. First, some people are highly subjective. A subjective person must be full of self. He has his opinion on every matter, and he has his conviction on every subject. He considers his own opinion and conviction as infallible. And he insists on seeing his own idea adopted. He cannot tolerate any obstruction or frustration or rejection. His view must be accepted and his opinion must be carried through. If on any day his opinion is not respected and his view not adopted, his subjectiveness is unable to bear with it. And what will be the outcome? He will lose his, temper and be thrown into a fit.

Oh dear friends, you are always attentive to your temper, and therefore you cannot cure the disease. The real disease is your subjectiveness. It lies in your stubborn will, not in your temper. When your subjective attitude is broken and your opinion and view are mortally wounded, you will then say to the Lord, “Lord, this is of Your doing and I submit.” Will you be able to lose your temper after that? As your opinion is being shattered, you will kneel down and say, “Lord, this is Your business. Lord, this is Your act.” Can you then be angry with anybody? There is no possibility to get angry.

The reason why our temper gets out of control is because we are determined to carry through with our own opinion and idea. We have conceived a set of plans which must be carried out. Our “self’ comes out, and so our temper flares up. No one is able to be ill-tempered if his “self’ has already been dealt with. For the source of bad temper is the self. It is rather foolish to spend time on dealing with temper while forgetting to deal with the self. As soon as we believe in the Lord, we should learn the lesson of brokenness: My own self is not worth preserving before the Lord, my self has no lingering value in His presence. Though baffled and tried on all sides, I will not lose my temper if there is no “self” in operation.

Second, some people lose their temper because they deem themselves to be extraordinary and look upon themselves as superior. In short, they are proud. The proud not only think highly of their own selves but also desire others to admire them and look up to them. They are never satisfied with their speaking good of themselves; they want other people to praise them too. In other word, the “self” of the proud will not stop at themselves but will try to extend such self-exaltation through others. They wish to be admired and exalted by all the brothers and sisters. If any brother should come to them and fail to discover how valuable and important they are, or what spiritual position or high spirituality they have, they will feel hurt and their temper will break lose. What causes the temper? Pride of self. People show bad temper because they are proud. If you get rid of your pride you will get rid of your temper. How impossible it is to try getting rid of your temper without getting rid of your pride. The root of temper is pride.

If you are a humble person before God, and if you realize that the ridicule, despising, and slander which come from people are parts of the discipline of the Holy Spirit, you will accept such discipline, saying: “O Lord, You are always for my good. All these things come to me that my pride may be dealt with. Lord, I thank You for edifying me with these things.” Then you will not lose control of your temper. Even if, for example, a brother should disobey you and damage your position, you know you should not be proud but will instead say to the Lord: “Lord, You are right in dealing with my pride.” You learn to recognize the hand of the Lord, and thus you will not lose your temper.

Let us realize that the losing of temper is not a disease. If you deal with it as you would deal with a disease, you will certainly fail. You should learn to fall down before the Lord and say, “Lord, You may do anything You like with me.” When you put your self aside, willing to deny it and to deal with it, you shall see that during these days you seem to have lost the strength to get thrown into a temper.

You have no desire to go into a fit and your temper has relinquished its control over you.

Third, in the very concept of self-exaltation is the thought that no one else could be as high as one’s own self. A person will expect himself to rise higher while expecting others not to rise at all. He anticipates gain for himself but not for other people. He rejoices at others’ failure and grieves at peoples’ success. This concept is called jealousy. Such jealousy is evident in spiritual affairs as well as in worldly affairs. The proud is pleased with his brother’s fall but is unhappy with his brother’s progress. Such an attitude is the meanest of all attitudes; there is no mentality lower than this one. If a person delights in another’s fall, he shares the attitude of Satan, for Satan loves to see people fall. How shameful it is for God’s children to harbor Satan’s feeling! To be happy rather than burdened over the stumbling of a brother is the most despicable and vilest of all feelings.

Yet what causes such a feeling? It is the craving for self-exaltation. He wishes everybody around him to falter but he alone to stand high up. Yet the one who knows God should expect other people to be raised up as well as his own self. But the one who does not know God would only hope for his own exaltation and not that of others. Worse than that, he even wishes others to fall so that he may appear to be higher. This kind of attitude is very base, for the source of many outbursts of temper lies in the jealousy within the heart. If you are one who exalts your own self, you will grow angry when you meet someone better and higher than you are. Jealousy stirs up the temper. You and I will never succeed if we forget to deal with jealousy and only deal with the temper. We must eliminate jealousy from our heart before we can ever control our temper. As long as the spirit of jealousy remains, there will be the breaking out of temper.

Fourth, some people show their self in another area—that is, self-love, the loving of one’s own self. Among so many people, the one he loves most will be his own self. The center of attention and affection is himself. He considers himself to be the most important person in eating and lodging and in all the affairs of life. He hopes his profit will increase, and that he will be more comfortable. All his thoughts are woven around his own self. He is aware of only himself and treasures himself dearly. If he encounters anything that would cause discomfort to him, he will respond with an outbreak of temper. Many lose their temper because their self-love is wounded. A person who loves himself so very much will be most reluctant to have himself suffer a little loss, pain, or difficulty. In case anyone should hurt his self-love and cause him some discomfort or loss, he will be set on fire and burst into a fit of temper. But for a man who has been instructed of God, he knows that he lives for the Lord and he lives by the grace of God, not by his self-love. It is God’s grace, not his self-love, that sustains him and makes him stand. However much may be the reason to become angry, he will not be so because his self-love has already been dealt with. May you and I see that all tempers are produced by the self. If the self has not been dealt with, the temper will cling to us. How can we possibly expect to have control over our temper if we ourselves are not being dealt with?

Fifth, some brothers and sisters love themselves to such a degree that they look only to their own things and have no concern or interest for the things of others. They have no desire to help other people. All their deeds and thoughts are centered upon their own selves. They themselves are the most important persons in the world, and their affairs are the most urgent. For a person whose thoughts and deeds are all for himself and who is always busily occupied with his own self, how will he have the leisure for other people? If someone should come and seek him out too much, he will feel annoyed, and his temper will break out. This is because all his activities are centered on himself, so that he has no sympathy for anybody else. He loves his own self so much that he has no time to sympathize with other people. He is so busy with himself that he has no strength to bear the sufferings of others. Many lose their temper simply because of the intrusion by others upon their self-centered love. They are irritated, agitated, and therefore blow up.

Hence the root of temper lies in man’s self. If we did not make ourselves the center, we would be able to sympathize with others and to learn to love people. We would then quite naturally not feel disturbed at all when we are bothered. We take interest in helping people, knowing that this is one service to God. Let us therefore never deal only with the temper, since the root of the trouble is not there. We must deal with the root which is self. If man’s self is properly treated, the problem of temper is solved automatically. The more completely the problem of the self is solved, the greater the problem of the temper is resolved.

Sixth, some people not only love their own selves, they also have another kind of love, which is, that they love things, they love money. This kind of people has never been delivered from things or wealth. To them goods and money are precious. Their “self” is a self which loves material things. Their self is expressed in loving these things. If any one thing belonging to such a person should be overturned, broken, or lost by other people, he cannot keep back his temper. His self is being wounded, his love of things is being hurt; therefore, he is bound to blow up.

Yet the cause for his temper resides in himself, not in other people. For example, if with your hand you hit a piece of wood, what sound do you hear? The sound of wood. If you beat the wall, what sound do you hear? The sound of the wall. Or if you strike a glass, what sound do you hear? The sound of glass. The same hand, the same hit, but different sounds. For the wood will give out the wood sound; the wall, the wall sound; and the glass, the glass sound. Their sounds are different because their substances are different. Outward phenomena betray the inward nature of things. Turning back to the subject before us, then, we can see that our temper resides in us, not in the environment. If there were no self within us, no circumstance could induce us to lose our temper. The reason for losing our temper lies in the fact that there is still self in us. With the presence of self still there, the temper will burst forth whenever the self is served with a proper environment. Environment does not create temper, it only brings out the temper that was already in us.

To sum up, then, temper comes from within one’s self. Whoever loses his temper only proves that one specific area or several areas of his self has or have not been dealt with. Whether or not the problem of the temper is solved depends on how much one’s self is being dealt with before God. The deeper his self is taken care of, the greater is his deliverance from temper. If his self is not dealt with, his temper will remain with him. Do not be so foolish as to treat the temper only. Let us always remember that the problem of self is much deeper than that of the temper. With self left undealt with, the matter of the temper will never be solved. In the process of learning, we receive enlightenment which causes us to see, on the one hand, the actual conditions of our “self”, and, on the other hand, God’s mercy in making all sorts of arrangements in our circumstances. When things begin to come to us, one after another, and if we have learned anything before God, we will bow our heads and say to the Lord: “Lord, what You have arranged is the best. Your way in dealing with my self is the best. I submit and I accept.” Thus shall we find the impossibility of losing the temper.

Contrariwise, though, if we do not recognize the hand of the Lord—just as the senseless mule does not recognize the hand of its master—we will consider everything to be of man or of environment. And hence our eyes will be upon man or environment, and so we will fret and fume. We will resist and remonstrate by reacting with anger. If a person does not treat the self but thinks of treating the temper alone, he will be disappointed. He needs to see that the root of the outburst of temper lies in the self. For a Christian to lose his temper, it simply reveals his resistance to the discipline of the Holy Spirit. He shows that he is unhappy with the arrangement which the Holy Spirit has ordered for him. Consequently, let us learn to accept the discipline of the Holy Spirit and learn to put ourselves aside, seeing how useless we are. Then shall the problem of temper naturally be solved.

As soon as we believe in the Lord we should attack this problem of the temper. We should not allow this problem to remain until we begin to tackle it several years later. As Christians we must be self-denying people, not being subjective, proud, jealous, self-loving, self-regarding or money-loving. We ought to realize how we must deny our “self”. We should also learn to accept the discipline of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that all things which happen to us are arranged by the Holy Spirit for our good. Do not deal with temper, which is only a symptom; instead, deal with the self, which is the disease. We cannot deal with an outburst of temper and not deal with the self. For where temper is, there is always the self. No one may excuse himself by saying that he is prone to an outburst of hot temper because his temperament is quick. Do not be deceived into thinking that the slow in temperament do not lose their temper. They can lose control of their temper just the same, though it may come forth in a different form. Wherever the self is, there the temper is. In order not to lose our temper we must deal with this self of ours. And as we are enlightened concerning this self of ours, we eventually will be delivered from our temper.