Differing Spiritual Temperaments
This past year, I have been preaching a sermon series through the gospel of John. One of the things that I have been struck with is the way in which Jesus interacts with various disciples having differing spiritual temperaments. By temperament, I mean, that "aspect of personality concerned with emotional dispositions and reactions and their speed and intensity." Not all the disciples are in the same place or have the same fervor. Some are more timid. Others are more outwardly zealous. Still other show a warm tenderness and affection for Christ that differs from the way in which others do so. This is not meant to downplay the call to spiritual maturity and growth in grace. It is, however, to recognize that we are called to be patient with one another and not to treat one another monolithically with regard to spiritual temperament or maturity.
J.C. Ryle, reflecting on the principle of differing spiritual temperaments–in his exposition on the disciples running to the empty tomb on that first Easter morning–wrote,
"[We discover diversity of temperament] in the conduct of Peter and John, when Mary Magdalene told them that the Lord’s body was gone. We are told that they both ran to the sepulchre; but John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, outran Peter, and reached the empty grave first. Then comes out the difference between the two men. John, of the two more gentle, quiet, tender, reserved, retiring, deep-feeling, stooped down and looked in, but went no further. Peter, more hot, and zealous, and impulsive, and fervent, and forward, cannot be content without going down into the sepulcher, and actually seeing with his own eyes. Both, we may be sure, were deeply attached to our Lord. The hearts of both, at this critical juncture, were full of hopes, and fears, and anxieties, and expectations, all tangled together. Yet each behaves in his own characteristic fashion. We need not doubt that these things were intentionally written for our learning."1
Ryle then proceeded to make a pastoral application about the way in which we ought to respond to others who may not have the same fervor or affection for Christ as another. He wrote,
"Let us learn, from the case before us, to make allowances for wide varieties in the inward character of believers. To do so will save us much trouble in the journey of life, and prevent many an uncharitable thought. Let us not judge brethren harshly, and set them down in a low place, because they do not see or feel things exactly as we see and feel, and because things do not affect or strike them just as they affect and strike us. The flowers in the Lord’s garden are not all of one color and one scent, though they are all planted by one Spirit. The subjects of His kingdom are not all exactly of one tone and temperament, though they all love the same Savior, and are written in the same book of life. The Church of Christ has some in its ranks who are like Peter, and some who are like John; and a place for all, and a work for all to do. Let us love all who love Christ in sincerity, and thank God that they love Him at all. The great thing is to love Jesus."2
One of the fascinating things about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is the way in which the Savior acknowledges this reality and deals with His disciples respective to their own proclivities. Jesus will wipe away Mary's tears, dispel Thomas' doubts, and restore Peter from his backsliding. Taking note of the post-resurrection interactions of Jesus with Mary, Thomas, and Peter, Eric Alexander wrote,
"In each of these three pairs of stories Jesus is ministering to some troubled and needy individual. Have you noticed this? In the first case it is Mary. He dries her tears of sorrow. In the second case, it is Thomas. Jesus dispels his doubts and brings him to faith. And in the third case, it's Peter brokenhearted because of his failure. Jesus restores him to himself and to service. Now, very clearly, John is telling us in his account of the resurrection that the Lord Jesus has ascended from the grave and is now the conquering victor over death. He is still the one who, by his mighty hand, touches the lives of the broken and the needy and the doubting and the failures. And where there are tears, he dries them. It is His risen ministry still to do so. Where there are doubts he dispels them; and where there is failure, he restores and renews.”3
A divinely inspired application of this principle is revealed in Peter's interaction with Jesus immediately after Jesus restored him (John 21:20-22). No sooner had Jesus restored Peter with the three-fold question "Do you love Me?" that Peter turned and compared himself with John. We read,
"Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, 'Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?' When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, 'Lord, what about this man?' Jesus said to him, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'"
Peter was comparing himself with John. Perhaps it was out of care for his fellow disciple. More than likely, he was asking about what kind of death would befall John since Jesus had just told him by what kind of death he would die. There may even be in Peter a jealously of sorts on account of the affectionate relationship that John had with Jesus. Whatever the case, of this much we can be sure: Jesus dealt with Peter according to his own personal temperament and responsibility to follow Him. Matthew Henry wrote,
"Peter seems more concerned for another than for himself. So apt are we to be busy in other men’s matters, but negligent in the concerns of our own souls,—quick-sighted abroad, but dim-sighted at home,—judging others, and prognosticating what they will do, when we have enough to do to prove our own works, and understand our own ways. Peter seems more concerned about events than about duty. . .Whereas, if God, by His grace, enable us to persevere to the end, and finish well, and get safely to heaven, we need not ask, ‘What shall be the lot of those that shall come after us? Is it not well if peace and truth shall be in my days? Scripture predictions must be eyed for the direction of our conscience, not for the satisfying of our curiosity."4
There is a word here for those of us disposed to compare ourselves with other believers, to look down on those in whom we do not see virtues we believe that we personally possess, or to judge those with temperaments that differ from our own. It would do us a world of good to come to terms with the fact that the Lord has so ordered His church as to reflect a diversity of personalities, spiritual conditions, and temperaments. As we embrace this principle and focus on our own relationship with the Lord, we will learn to love, bear long with, and appreciate what–though not true of us–may be true of a brother or sister in Christ.
1. J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1880), 348–349.
3. An excerpt from a sermon preached by Eric Alexander on John 20.
4. J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1880), 465–466.