How is it that we are so quick in discovering, and so stern in condemning, a slight fault in another man, and are unconscious that we ourselves are guilty of a greater fault — and, perhaps, a greater fault of the same kind? About the fact there can be no doubt. Conscience in some men seems to consist chiefly in a keen eye for other men’s sins. They cannot have much time for self-examination, for they are nearly always occupied in the close scrutiny of the character and conduct of their neighbours. They expend so much moral indignation on the sins of others that they can have very little left for their own.
But “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye.” There is surely nothing very difficult, there is certainly nothing impossible, in the law which that question suggests. But if it were obeyed, what a mass of uncharitableness and evil-speaking would at once disappear ! The keen, cruel east-wind which is always blowing in some families, in some sections of society, in some Churches, making it hard for the gentlest to keep a gentle temper, and destroying the fair blossoms of sympathy and trustfulness, would cease to blow, and life would become beautiful as an orchard under a warm sun, and kindly breezes from the south.
This question of Christ’s suggests that as soon as we think we see a fault in another, and before we condemn him, we should ask ourselves whether we are guilty of the same fault. And we should not take it for granted that we are innocent because it has never occurred to us that we are guilty. We may see the “mote” — a very small fault — in our brother’s eye, and not know that there is a “beam” big enough to support the roof of a house in our own eye. It seems strange, but nothing is more common.
People have complained to me that some of their brothers and sisters were intensely selfish in the arrangement of business affairs, in which all the members of the family had a common interest; and the people who complained were showing a reckless disregard of every one’s claims but their own. Some of the most intolerant men I have known were vehement in their denunciations of intolerance. I have heard men uncharitable in their denunciations of uncharitableness. Sometimes the fault appears in a most amusing form. The complainants are self-convicted. Out of their own mouths they are condemned. For instance, some years ago I used to occasionally hear that my congregation was very unsocial; that people came and went, and no one showed them any attention; and the censure was sometimes sustained by what appeared to the complainant unanswerable proof. “I have attended this church,” they have said, “five years, ten years,” — and in one instance a man said to me, “I have attended thirteen years and no one ever spoke to me.” Whether the censure was really just concerning the congregation generally is an open question. I think that for the most part we were no worse than similar congregations in which there are always very many strangers, and in which the regular attendants are drawn from remote parts of a large town. But so far as the persons who made the complaint were concerned the censure was clearly well founded. They proved their own case, and no reply was possible. They had been members of the congregation for many years and nobody had ever spoken to them; of course that meant that through all those years they had spoken to nobody. Perhaps it was because they were reserved, or shy, or modest; but whatever may have been the reason, there was clearly a “beam” in their own eye, though there might have been a “mote,” and something larger than a mote, in their brother’s eye.
There is something amusing when a man makes a complaint which recoils so plainly upon himself, but the instances are innumerable in which precisely the same thing happens, though in forms less flagrant and grotesque. I have noticed that the sins to which men are specially sensitive in others are precisely the sins to which they are themselves most inclined; so that there is a certain measure of prima-facie evidence that we are guilty of the faults which we are quick to discover in other people.
Of course this is only a broad general statement, which must be taken with many qualifications; it is specially true, however, in reference to those imperfections of character which give us personal annoyance. If any one is constantly irritated by what he supposes to be the conceit of most of his friends and acquaintances, it is quite certain that he is conceited himself. A really modest man is seldom struck with the vanity of other people. Vanity and conceit are offences against our good opinion of ourselves, and the more modest we are, the less likely are we to be wounded. Modest people are rather disposed to feel an innocent admiration of a man who is perfectly satisfied with himself and his doings. They think he knows more about himself than they can know, and they take it for granted that he has adequate reasons for his self-complacency. They wish they had similar reasons for being satisfied with themselves. Perhaps they may see that the man actually possesses the cleverness and the brilliance on which he plumes himself, and it seems quite natural to them that any one possessing such powers should be pleasantly conscious of them. Since they know that they are destitute of shining qualities, his conceit — to which they give another name — does not annoy them. If they gradually discover that the man over-rates himself, has an exaggerated estimate of his capacity and achievements, they are not angry but sorry — sorry because they think that his mistake is likely to bring him into trouble, and sorry because the brilliance they admired has faded. Yes, it is the vain man who is quickest to discover vanity in others. If I think myself the cleverest or the most important person in the room, and want other people to think so too, I am annoyed by the conceit of any one who thinks his own claims greater than mine. If I have a humble opinion of myself, it gives me no pain that other people agree with me, and think themselves wiser, abler, and more accomplished than I am.
And so, if anyone complains that most people are selfish, unsympathetic, absorbed in their own pursuits, their own happiness, and their own sorrow, the chances are ten to one that the complainant is conspicuous for the very, faults which he condemns. His thoughts are so concentrated on his own concerns that he is impatient because other people think of their concerns and not his. He is unable to enter into their grief or their joy; when he is wretched he is amazed and indignant that anyone can be happy; when he is happy he thinks it intolerable that other people should be so oppressed with their own sorrows as not to make merry with him in his gladness. He has so high an estimate of the importance of his own work that he thinks other men ought to spend a large part of their time in watching and admiring it, and he wonders at the selfishness which keeps them close at their own occupations when they ought to be showing their sympathy with his. This absorption in everything that relates to himself is the explanation of the universal indifference of which he complains. To secure sympathy we must give as well as take. The country that exports nothing will have no imports; but if it infers that all the rest of the world is in wretched poverty, with no mines, and no timber, and no glorious harvests, the inference will be a false one. As soon as a man finds that he is beginning to think that all human hearts are cold let him suspect himself When an iceberg floats away from the frozen fields which lie near the pole it cools the waters into which it drifts; the very Gulf Stream sinks in temperature as soon as the mountain of ice touches it.
In a crowd it is the man that pushes hardest who thinks that everybody is pushing him; it is the man who is resolved to make his way to the front who complains that everyone wants to get in front of him. If people speak to you roughly, take warning; the probability is that you speak roughly to them.
It is not safe, however, to infer that you are gentle because other people speak to you gently. I remember reading many years ago an essay on the advantages of having a bad temper, and my observation strongly confirms the principal point made by the writer. If a man’s temper is bad enough his wife, his children, his friends, the people who have to work with him in business or in public life, will always be on their guard against provoking it. They will keep everything out of his way that is likely to irritate him. They will anticipate his wishes, yield to his whims, and humour his prejudices. They will take care never to say a hasty word in his presence, just as people take care not to throw lighted matches about in a shed where cartridges are being loaded. So that while it is tolerably certain that we treat other people roughly if other people treat us roughly, it is not certain that we are exemplary in our gentleness and courtesy if other people treat us gently and courteously. It may be that we are so touchy and irritable that they are obliged to exercise unusual forbearance and self-control for the sake of averting perpetual storms.
If our faults sometimes discipline the people about us to exceptional virtue, sometimes they have the precisely opposite effect; and in the defects of which we complain in others, we may recognise a moral reaction against much graver defects in ourselves. If a man is always condemning his neighbours and acquaintances for their coldness and reserve, if he says that they keep him at a distance and show him no friendliness, it is very probable that he himself is extremely officious and forward. If he thinks they are cautious, unenterprising, and destitute of enthusiasm, we should not accept his account of them until we have had time to discover whether he himself is exceptionally rash and reckless. If he condemns them as wanting in moral vigour, and as always ready to make excuses for people who have done wrong, we should wait to learn whether he is harsh in his judgments and unmerciful.
The Mote and the Beam — the illustrations of the proverb are endless. Young people especially ought to remember it. There are no critics of human character half so severe as those whose own character is as yet unformed; none who denounce human imperfections with such an air of infallibility as those whose inexperience of life disqualifies them for forming any true conception of the infinite varieties of human temperament and the infinite varieties of temptation by which human virtue is tried. To young people life seems extremely simple. As soon as they hear a stranger speak, they know everything about him. A sentence is a complete and final revelation. A single action is sufficient to glorify a man, or to condemn him to perpetual infamy. They seem to think it possible to judge character as corn-merchants judge a sack of wheat, by looking at a sample which they can take in their hand, or as tailors judge a piece of cloth, by examining a pattern three inches square. They will find by-and-by that most men are not of the same quality all through, and that they are not all of a piece. Human character is very complex. In most of us the base and the noble, the selfish and the generous, the courageous and the cowardly, earth and heaven, are strangely mixed. Even when a man’s life is over, the whole story told, the complete evidence put in, it is sometimes hard to give a verdict. But young people are prepared to acquit a man or to hang him as soon as they see him in the dock.
Still more remarkable is the confidence of some men who are no longer young, in their ability to correct other men’s faults. This is a task from which wise men shrink. The image which our Lord uses to illustrate its delicacy and difficulty is exquisitely felicitous: “How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye, and lo! The beam is in thine own eye.” Trying to correct a friend’s fault is like trying to remove a piece of gravel or of straw from his eye. Your friend must be very patient and must have a great deal of self-control to submit to the operation, for even if you have a keen eye and a firm, delicate hand, you will be almost certain to inflict irritation and distress while you are trying to help him. If you have a “beam” in your own eye and cannot see very well, or if your hand is rough and clumsy, you will force the “mote” in deeper, in stead of removing it, increase your friend’s torture, and perhaps injure his eye instead of relieving it.
The difficulty is that in most cases we cannot make men believe that there is any “mote” that needs removing. We think that we see it, but they persistently deny that it is there. If we insist on trying to remove it we hurt them so much that they get angry; our good offices produce inflammation and make matters worse.
I have sometimes tried to persuade men that they had a “mote” in their eye, and I confess that I have very rarely succeeded. Now and then you may be able to persuade a man who makes no profession of religion that he has done some wrong thing or has said something that is indefensible; but if I may judge from my own experience, it is very hard to persuade a man who is really a Christian that he has committed any moral fault. Sin, in general, he is always ready to acknowledge; but he will not admit a specific moral offence. The reason does not seem far to seek. When a man is conscious that his general purpose is to do the will of God, when he is honestly endeavouring to avoid sin, he is very apt to take it for granted that, in the region of common morality, he cannot have failed seriously. He re-treats upon his habitual integrity. He is sure that in the main he means right, and this seems to him to be a sufficient proof that in any particular case he cannot have been in the wrong. His motives are so good that he resents the suggestion that any part of his conduct can deserve blame.
The gift of removing motes from other men’s eyes seems to me as rare as that combination of qualities which makes a surgeon a skilful operator. And considering how beautiful and noble a gift it is, I wonder that some people who suppose that they possess it should always exercise it in a way which prevents the persons whom they mean to benefit from knowing even the names of their benefactors. From my own experience of their work, however, I am not sure that they are as skilful as they must imagine themselves to be. Every man that has to do with public affairs will probably agree with me that of the innumerable remonstrances which he receives from anonymous correspondents, there are hardly any that show any keen penetration, any accurate knowledge, any high moral qualities; in most of them the stupidity and the ignorance are about equal.
When attempts of this kind are made to remove the “mote” or the “beam” from the eyes of men accustomed to the rough criticism of public life, they do no harm. They afford a moment’s amusement; they confirm the purpose to strike harder at the errors and the sins which are defended by such ignoble and timorous protectors, and then they are thrown into the waste-paper basket and are forgotten. But when similar attempts are made to correct the alleged faults of private persons, they are as cruel as they are cowardly. Anonymous letters of rebuke, signed “Your brother in Christ,” “Your faithful but unknown friend,” “A Fellow-Christian,” “One who prays for you,” “One who trusts that God will forgive and sanctify you,” — such letters, I say, when written, not to men like myself, accustomed to fighting, but to private persons, are so dastardly, so base, so cruel, that the writers of them, if they could be discovered deserve to be held up to public scorn, and to be branded with public infamy. Their unctuous, rancid words about their Christian affection for the person to whom they are writing, about their desire that he may be more holy and may live nearer to God, and about their constant prayers that the letter may be useful, their lying assurances that they write anonymously lest they should give unnecessary pain, when they know that their only reason for writing anonymously is that they have not the courage to sign their names, aggravate the offence. Such persons may have discovered a “mote” in their brother’s eye, but they show that they have a “beam” in their own eye, big enough to support — not merely the roof of a house — but the roof of a gaol. Unhappily they often inflict great suffering and sometimes serious moral injury upon the victims of their Christian fidelity. When what seems to a man to be his conscience tells him to do evil that good may come — and a cowardly act is always evil — he may be quite sure that he is being led by the devil rather than by the Spirit of God.
I cannot understand why people write anonymous letters. If they are ashamed of what they write, why do they write it? If they are not, why do they write anonymously? I can imagine only one reason. A man may say — If I signed my name to this letter of rebuke, the man who receives it would be wounded; I should like to give him a hint, but I do not want to inflict on him any unnecessary suffering; if I write anonymously, he will feel sure that the letter must have come from some weak, cowardly, disreputable person for whose opinion he will care nothing; the moral end will be secured, but his scorn for the anonymous writer will prevent him from feeling any pain.
As I have said, this casting out of the “mote” that is in our brother’s eye is always a difficult business, and yet it must sometimes be attempted. When we attempt it we should take special care that our treatment of our brother’s faults does not make it harder for him to forsake them. If we can do nothing to remove the “mote,” let us at least do nothing to force it in. The secret of right conduct in this matter, as in so many other things, lies in a genuine charity — a charity that shall make us far more desirous that our brother should set himself right than that we should be successful in showing him to be in the wrong — a charity that shall prevent us from assuming an air of superiority over the man whose faults we are trying to amend, and which shall make us feel that for the faults of our brother we ourselves are, perhaps, partly responsible. For we are all members one of another. The moral defects which pain us in our brethren may, perhaps, have been occasioned by grave defects in ourselves; and in condemning others we should always remember that if we ourselves had been nobler, more upright, more generous, they, perhaps, might have sinned less flagrantly.