A few years back, I re-connected with a high school buddy who confessed that our decade-long estrangement was his decision. On one occasion, I made what I thought was a joke that deeply offended him. In another instance, I failed to speak up on his behalf. Both times I was acting in accordance with temperament – the desire to make light of tense situations or, in the second example, not add to the stress. This inclination is desirable and useful when people are blowing petty issues out of proportion. On the other hand, it is unhelpful – and even destructive – when matters of morality and justice and eternal life are at stake. I must not, under any circumstances, fail to follow Jesus because it will annoy or offend.
As a body of believers, we do well to understand temperament: when it helps and when it hurts. One illustration of this involves John Mark or, simply, Mark. In the book of Acts, he accompanies Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Scripture does not specify the reason but Mark decided to break away and return to Jerusalem when the companions reached Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) in modern Turkey. Given Paul’s passion for finishing strong, it is no surprise that he lost confidence in John Mark (15:38), who may have grown discouraged by the intense spiritual warfare and meager number of converts made in Cyprus (13:4-12).
Christian writer Gary Thomas has a model he calls the “Nine Spiritual Temperaments.” Forgoing a description of each one, we can reasonably consider Mark an “enthusiast” and Paul an “activist.” The enthusiast thrives in group worship and gains energy from the joy of other believers. The activist, by contrast, best experiences God when confronting God’s enemies and assorted scoffers. Without pigeon-holing either of these early leaders, it is safe to assume Paul was more comfortable with associates who would mix it up with the opposition; people more like him. So adamant was the apostle that he had words with Barnabas, who still saw value in a reunion with Mark, anticipating the second missionary journey. The result was that Paul embarked for Antioch with Silas while Barnabas and Mark returned to Cyprus.
Cyprus was that place where the warfare was strong and the harvest was low; Cyprus, where, perhaps, John Mark’s temperament got the better of him. Mark and Barnabas (his cousin) went back even so. It may have gone better this time. We really do not know. What we do know is that Paul, over the years, came to appreciate Mark, indicated by kind references in Philemon and 2 Timothy 4. Maybe Paul realized the importance of enthusiasts. For his part, Mark did not give up, stretching himself enough to return to a venue of a spiritual defeat. This is the great lesson of John Mark and the issue of temperament.
Temperament plays a large role in how we convey the Gospel and how we relate to fellow believers. While it nudges us to certain ways of doing things and dealing with others, it is nevertheless subject to defiance when necessary. So, if church leadership is calling, do not be so quick to dismiss it because “that’s not me” or “I’m not wired that way” or “my gifts lie elsewhere.” Like John Mark charging back to Cyprus, we too can overcome natural inclination and do the work of building our Lord’s kingdom. We have no better example than Jesus at Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Mark may well have echoed those words before packing his bags for Cyprus.
John Gregory is a Ruling Elder.