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A Critical Spirit
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A Critical Spirit

This article was written and published at the beginning of this century. Its content, however, is timeless. The vocabulary and grammar may seem unusual, but the message is clear.

by George D. Watson, D.D.

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Censoriousness - What It Is

Censoriousness is composed of self-conceit and severity; a self-conceit that we are superior to others, and are entitled to some sort of lordship over them; and then a severity of judging others by the outward letter of righteousness instead of by the Spirit. There are other people who are censorious besides Christians, but it does not look so conspicuous in their lives, for it is the very nature of religion to make a streak of badness look more ugly.

Censoriousness has a special facility of fastening itself on a religious person, and on persons professing a great deal of religion, and its very intensity is in the proportion to the intensity of religious zeal, and seems to find its greenest pastures in those who profess the perfection of love.

It is a parasite which, like the mistletoe, fastens itself on the tree of religion, and seeks to spread itself until it claims to be the tree, and, in fact, if not killed off, will succeed in killing the tree, which, indeed, it often does.

There seem to be certain weaknesses, and ugly, disagreeable infirmities, latent in the soul that nothing even develops till be becomes religious, and sometimes the more intense the religion the more glaring are these infirmities. There is nothing disagreeable in handling a piece of dry wood, but if you undertake to make the wood pass into a live coal of fire then will develop the unpleasant concomitant of smoke, and soot, and ashes, which would never have been known but for the process of burning, and there is something like this in the soul's transition from a state of nature to that of the pure, burning love of God, and though all souls do not manifest the same disagreeable things, yet, as God's grace is burning us through, it seems inevitable that there will be a smoke in the shape of some religious infirmity.

Censoriousness is not grace, but is assumes the profession of grace, and oftentimes of great sanctity, and it seems to develop in some characters only when they are really under the operations of grace, as an iceberg throws off a heavy fog when it comes near the Gulf stream. One thing is certain, that many professors of very high grace are very censorious, and they were never very censorious until some time after their declaration of entire yielding to God. Perhaps we can never understand the metaphysics of it, but we know it is a delusion of Satan to get religious people to mistake censoriousness for sanctity. One of the remedies against it is a clear understanding of what it is.

A Wrong Standard

A censorious person sets himself up as a standard of religious experience, or practice, by which to judge all others. He has almost a boundless confidence in the superiority of his own character. He never admits that he has been back-slidden in heart or life; he stoutly defends some ugly things in his disposition or conduct with the plea that they proceeded from the highest righteousness. His anger is clothed with the pretty title of righteous indignation. His stinginess is softened into holy economy. His harsh words are under the sweet cognomen of being true to other people's souls. He lives under the one supreme thought that he came into the world for no other purpose than to set people right. If he was not always reproving something, or pitching into something, he would think himself false to his calling. His opinion concerning any church, or any association of Christian workers, or any preacher, or evangelist, or writer, or book, is already made up in advance, and labeled like so many bottles of poison on the shelves of his judgment, and he is not going to change his opinion concerning any of these things, and does not want any further light, but knows enough already to settle him in his views.

How many thousands of times have we denounced, or severely judged others, not so much because they were displeasing to God, but because they were displeasing to us; not because they were in reality breaking the word of God, but because they were breaking our notions and offending our artificial taste. Oh, it is a miserable view of life, to turn ourselves into wooden yardsticks, and metalic scales, by which to weigh and measure our fellow Christians, and then to do this under the profession of holiness.

A Fake Calling

A censorious person persuades himself that he has a special religious calling to correct others, and especially to correct them with severe methods, and that this is the greatest proof of his righteousness. If it were not for the religion that is in the censorious soul, and that is has a special vocation from God, it would lose all its seriousness and be a comical joke; but the censorious man thinks his salvation depends on the vinegar in his nature.

There are two side to religious self conceit; one is where the soul mostly contemplates its own superiority; this produces the peacock professor; and the other side is where the soul mostly contemplates the defects of others; this produces the bull dog professor. The censorious man belongs to the latter class, for while spiritual vanity is a part of his make-up, yet spiritual inquisition and severity with others constitutes the major part of his life. There are many who think that mere power to detect evil is a proof of holiness, and that growth in grace itself shows itself by an increasing aptness to ferret out the weaknesses and shortcoming of others. Now, it is the fact that the practice of detecting the defects of other will soon reach the point of almost scientific accuracy.

The world is full of evil, and Christians have many defects, though they be not actually committing sin; and even fully sanctified Christians have weaknesses of manner, and taste, and conversation, and ways of doing things that look to a critical eye as if something bad were behind it, and the well-practiced eye of a censorious spirit will, in most cases, diagnose a subject with great skill. When he finds he has hit his game so accurately, it is only another proof to him of his superior holiness. And so lives on hunting his game, and resembles a hunting dog that is so passionately fond of the chase that he fails to take time to eat, and keeps himself a living skeleton; because of all his strength is spent in the pursuit of the game. Who ever knew a censorious person to be genial in company, or a lover of little children, or sweet and amiable in their private lives.

It is said that fortune tellers start out with a knack of reading natural character, and by some practice they soon find a few general principles, such as a love affair, or some money, or a dark suspicion, or a dream of ambition, apply to most lives, and so they often tell things with amazing accuracy, until in some cases the devil actually gets them to believe that they are prophets sure enough. So the censorious person practices his gift of ferreting out the evils of others until he loses all his love, mistakes a sharp eye to be a pure heart, and, with the help of one of Satan's messengers, comes to think he is an ordained prophet of God, only instead of telling food fortunes he is always telling bad misfortunes. Hence these censorious people, with great calmness of decision, will consign their fellow Christians to hell for any trifling thing that don't agree with them.

An Unfruitful Life

A censorious spirit is never fruitful in saving or perfecting souls in grace, and fortunately if it grows on a person it becomes so offensive as not to reproduce its own self, and so often hinders others from becoming censorious. Persons who are gifted with the discerning of spirits, are very seldom useful, in fact, never so, except in those cases where they have been crucified so thoroughly as to be utterly humble and loving, as was the case with Bramwell.

I have met several persons who had an extraordinary gift of discerning people, whose lives were almost utterly fruitless, and I have me a few ho. Like Bramwell, while having deep discernment, were deeply ballasted with meekness and charity. But discernment by itself is like a razor in the hands of a lunatic. The sharper the instruments, the greater need of brain in the surgeon that handles them; and power to detect sin needs fathomless humility and boundless love to render it useful. A censorious man is one who lives in his head instead of his heart. We can never keep our hearts warm except by living in them. A creature that should be nothing but an enormous eye, with a breast or a heart, would be a monster; and a censorious person lives in his eye, and lets his heart out to freeze. Truth of itself can never bear fruit. It is only when truth is heated with love that is has the power of reproduction.

Censorious people think they bear fruit because they make such a stir, and if they can cause other distress, or vexation, or bring on a quarrel, or a sharp debate, or brow beat some timid soul till they weep, they think that is fruit. Fecundity, that is the fountain of fruit bearing, lies in the heart and is destroyed by censoriousness. As a rule, a censorious person has some glaring and serious inconsistency in his own life, and while he represents the part of holiness as very hard to others, he makes it exceedingly easy for himself. There is nothing more costly than to let our love crucify our judgments, and always run out beyond our discernment. A censorious spirit is a mule in the moral species, an adept at kicking, but having no fecundity.

An Unhappy Life

A censorious person is always uneasy at the large-hearted charity of a holy soul. He seems distressed lest some people should slip through the gates into heaven that he thinks ought to go to hell. Whenever he mentions having charity for others, he generally prefaces it with, "I believe in charity, but not in sentimentalism, or letting people off too easy." Nothing so shocks a censorious spirit as coming in contact with a great ocean hearted love that makes allowances for people and looks at the hopeful side. There is a sort of mania for religious severity which is developed by the practice of censoriousness. It is said that butchers after a while grow nervous, and morose, and develop a tendency to suicide, from the habitual slaughter of cattle and the sight of so much blood. The case is similar with a censorious person; if he is not tempted to commit literal suicide, he does kill himself spiritually.

Severity, even though accompanied with many gifts and some charitable grace, will soon wear its welcome out, make enemies where there is no need to, cripples weak believers by binding on them artificial burdens, disgusts quiet, sensible people, keeps itself in constant hot water, and than imagines itself a heroic martyr.

In many cases censorious people at last get broken down and mellowed into a little love just before they die. It is not a rare occurrence, that people prophesy the death of some professing Christians by this symptom of mellowness and love that at last breaks through the crust of their harsh lives, and proves that divine grace was strong enough to live hid in their souls through long years of frostiness of disposition. Oh! What a loss, to wake up at last and find that years have been thrown away in censorious, self-righteous fretting over the defects of others, instead of pouring the soul out in a constant stream of humble kindness and fruitful love for others. Even sulphuric acid cannot hurt pure gold, but a censorious person will terribly eat away the crown of rewards that is being prepared for many a brow.

A censorious preacher in presenting Christ on the cross, will magnify the iron nails far more than the blessed person of Jesus. Some people talk as if there was nothing more about crucifixion except the nails, where-as it is the living, loving heart that consents to be nailed, which is the only thing worth our attention. Severe people talk much of crucifixion, but the deepest crucifixion possible on earth is to agree persistently to have our whole nature turned into love. To make a censorious person forever relinquish all his severity toward all people, and at all times, and in all ways, would be the deepest crucifixion and involve the most painful death to self possible in this life. So, after all, nothing kills us to sin and self but divine love.

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