FORGIVENESS OF INJURIES
by John Angell James
Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" "I tell you, not seven times," Jesus said to him, "but 70 times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22)
After this follows one of the most beautiful of all our Lord's parables, I mean the merciless creditor, who having had ten thousand talents forgiven him took his fellow-servant by the throat and cast him into prison for a hundred pence.
FORGIVENESS is a word which occupies a large and conspicuous place in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New. It meets us at every turn. It comes before us in the form of a doctrine to be believed, in the proclamation of Divine mercy through the blood of Christ to sinful man—and in the form of a precept to be obeyed, in the injunction to man to forgive his erring fellow-mortal. The scriptures resound with the word forgiveness, and are radiant with the brightness of its blessings. At every step we hear the announcement from heaven, "I am he who blots out your sins, and will not remember your transgressions any more; and do forgive as I have forgiven you." Hence, it is as impossible to make out our claim to the character of a Christian without performing the duty of forgiveness ourselves, as it is without believing the doctrine of God's forgiveness. For that cannot be a true faith which does not work by love; nor that a true love which does not act in the way of forgiveness. One might suppose, did we not know the contrary both by experience and observation, that it would be at once the easiest and the pleasantest of all duties, for the man who professes to have received forgiveness from God to forgive an offender; that in the fullness of his gratitude, joy, and love, for having received the pardon of his twice ten thousand sins, and in the consciousness of his inability to make any adequate returns to God, he would hasten to his "offending" brother, and say, "I have had so much forgiven, that I freely forgive you all." It would seem as if, by a kind of moral necessity, a forgiven man must be a forgiving man. And yet is it really so? Is not the very contrary the case? Is there any duty so difficult, so rare, or so reluctantly, grudgingly, and sparingly performed? Is it not almost as true in reference to the church, as it is to the world, that "a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle."
I.As no duty is more mistaken, as well as neglected; and as forgiveness includes much more than is generally supposed, I shall show what it is really to forgive. This may seem to need no explanation, and it would need none, if men's judgments were not imposed upon by the deceitfulness of their hearts. It is to be feared that very many imagine they have discharged this duty when they have been brought to say, "I forgive him with all my heart, and pray to God to forgive him also." It is well to go thus far, instead of saying, "Forgive him! No never, I will pursue him to the utmost." But good words without good feelings, are but adding hypocrisy to revenge—and there is no doubt that forgiveness is often upon the lip, while revenge is in the heart. Men deceive themselves with their own professions, they believe their own lies. Genuine forgiveness is not only the declaration that we forgive, but an entire feeling of forgiveness. It is the heart saying, "I forgive," and the conscience attesting the truth of the assertion. The following things are all necessary to the right discharge of this duty.
It implies that we extinguish, or take great pains to do so, all feelings of ANGER and wrath towards the offender. The first impulse of the soul on the reception of an injury is to become angry, to look at the offence in the most aggravated form, to brood over it, and at every returning reflection upon it to kindle afresh into indignation. This is always the case with the relentless and implacable man. But the forgiving one calms the perturbation of his mind, keeps down his rising passions, and curbs the fury of his temper. Forgiveness puts a stop to the spreading conflagration of the soul. It extinguishes the flames of our fiery tempers and allows not even the embers to burn. We have never forgiven, whatever we may say, or however we may outwardly conduct ourselves towards the offender, until we have quite laid aside all bitterness, anger and wrath.
Every man that forgives an injury, must have a mind free from all intention and all wish to REVENGE. This is a word which most professors abjure, but it is a thing which very many practice. By revenge they mean great acts of injury returned for others as great; but it should be considered, any return, in whatever small way, of injury for injury, though it be a spiteful word, is revenge. And it is pitiable to see what petty acts of retaliation some will be guilty of, who perhaps imagine that because they have not openly and mischievously avenged themselves, they have really practiced forgiveness. All intention or wish to resent an injury, in any way, is or must be entirely banished from the mind, if we really forgive.
So neither must we desire that others or that God would take up our cause and revenge the injury. Some will say they forgive, and yet secretly wish that though not inflicted by themselves, some evil may be done by others to an offender. "I forgive him," say they, "and leave him to God." For what purpose? To be pardoned or to be punished? Alas, how often does it mean the latter—but we never forgive until we can pray to God to forgive our enemy, and to bestow upon him good, rather than evil.
Forgiveness implies that we endeavor to FORGET the offence. We have a beautiful instance of this in God's language to the Jews—"I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins." And how impressive is that language of the prophet Micah, "Who is a God like You, removing iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not hold on to His anger forever, because He delights in faithful love. He will again have compassion on us; He will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Wonderful language! This is one of the finest images to represent the completeness of God's pardoning mercy to be found in all the Bible. He casts our sins not into a brook nor a river where they might be found again, no, nor into the sea near the shore where the tide might cast them up again, but like a stone into the depths of the sea, where they can never be fished up again, but lie forever buried and forgotten at the bottom of the ocean! This is divine forgiveness, casting all our sins into oblivion!
Yes, and this is human forgiveness too, where it is genuine. "I will forgive," say some, "but I cannot forget." This means that they really do not forgive at all, for they do not wish or intend to forget the evil but to cherish a remembrance of it. They write it down in their memory, preserve it there with care, often read it, and always with feelings of ill-will towards the offender. Absolute oblivion is impossible. To determine actually and absolutely to forget anything which has once been known to us is a thing beyond our power; and there may be cases in which, in order to govern our behavior towards the offender in future, it may be desirable and proper to retain an accurate recollection of the offence. But the remembrance which true forgiveness prevents, is that which is cherished for the mere purpose of perpetuating a sense of the injury received. This we must endeavor as far as possible to forget, and not imitate Darius the Persian, who when the Athenians had plundered Sardis, resolved to remember the evil and revenge it, and commanded one of his servants, that every day at the royal supper, he should thrice repeat, "Let us remember the Athenians." "The devil," says Jeremy Taylor, "is ever ready to do this office for any man; and he that keeps in mind an injury will need no other tempter to uncharitableness than his own memory."
Forgiveness requires that we do not UPBRAID the offender with his sin after we have pardoned it. It seals our lips, as well as ties our arms from injury. To reproach one for his offence after we have professed to pardon it, proves that our profession was insincere. Except that if he repeats the injury, it may then be mentioned as aggravating the new offence; for it is a great enormity to renew again the transgression we had generously forgiven. And as we do not upbraid the offender himself with the offence, so we must not repeat it to others for them to upbraid him with it. To go round from individual to individual with the tale of a transgression which we profess to have forgiven can be only to do him who has committed it an injury, or to magnify our own 'false charity' in passing it by—the first of which is unkindness to him, and the other a contemptible vanity of our own.
Forgiveness is not genuine unless we are prepared to do the offending party all the good in our power. Merely to abstain from evil is not enough, for we must be willing to do him good. To do actual evil is positive revenge; and to abstain from doing good is negative revenge. A beautiful incident occurs in the life of Lycurgus the Spartan legislator. In a tumult raised against him by some of the citizens he lost an eye. The people resenting the injury gave the man who did it into the prince's power, and he most worthily used it; for he kept the assailant in his house a whole year, where he taught him virtue, and then brought him forth a worthy citizen. Yet Lycurgus was a pagan. What Christian could have done more? How few Christians do as much! But we have higher examples than this, even the conduct of our God in Christ, who not only forgives all our sins, but "blesses us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." Our mode of dealing with offenders must in this particular resemble God's.
He that really forgives must, except in certain extreme cases, restore a person to the same relations to himself as he occupied before the offence. There are I have said exceptions to this rule. The offence may have been of such a nature, and containing such a development of character, or the confession and repentance may be of so equivocal a character, that to take the offender back again as entirely into our confidence, or our esteem, or our love, as he was before, is more than can be expected, or even required. In other cases restoration should follow reconciliation, and the latter is not complete without the former. The man who has offended me, but who has acknowledged to me his offence, (with all the sorrow that the act called for, and with all the alteration of his behavior which the sincerity of that sorrow demands for its proof,) gives evidence of a degree of excellence which should restore him to a place in my regard at least as high as that he held before. If that were all he did to injure me, his humiliation and reformation are a more convincing demonstration of a radically good character, than the offence was of a bad one. When a man says to me with obvious and undoubted sincerity and sorrow, "Sir, I have wronged you; forgive me," that man rises more by his penitence than he sunk by his transgression. To withhold from him my love, to keep him at a distance, and to treat him with coldness and suspicion, is still to punish and not to pardon him. It is useless to say to him, "I forgive you," for he feels that you have not done so.
It is not thus God deals with us. God has so pardoned us that He has not only averted from us the punishment which our sins have deserved, but He has received us back to His favor, and He treats us with all the love He would have borne towards us, if we had never offended Him. A repulsive method of meeting a returning offender; a cold, distant, suspicious line of conduct to him, has often, like a frost, nipped the opening bud of his penitence and reformation; while kind, generous, warm-hearted confidence like the sun, will bring on and develop it, and ripen it into the beauty and the fragrance of the full-blown flower.
Such then is true forgiveness; and let any one looking
back upon the description, say, if such a disposition is not much more rare
than many people are ready to imagine. If all this be included in this
beautiful branch of a Christian's duty, (and is it not?) then how few of us
have made any great attainment in this evangelical virtue, and how much do
we all need to be stirred up again and again to enquire into its nature, and
our own advancement in it.
II.Let me now consider some circumstances connected with the exercise of forgiveness.
1. We may inquire, HOW OFTEN are we required to forgive the same offender?Our Lord, in His reply to Peter's question, has answered this. That apostle came to Jesus, and said, "Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" The Jews in their corrupt morality had a maxim that we should forgive an enemy three times, but not a fourth. Peter doubtless in proposing his question imagined he was giving his charity a wondrous stretch, in extending it to seven times forgiveness. How must he have been astonished at the answer of Christ. "I tell you, not seven times, but 70 times seven." Astounding idea! We are to be so full of love as to forgive the same person four hundred and ninety times, if he so often offends, and as often repents! And was this too much for Jesus to demand, who has repeated His own forgiveness more than seventy times four hundred and ninety, to each one of us? We do not wonder to hear the apostles reply to such an injunction "Lord, increase our faith." Nothing but a very strong faith can do this.
What then shall we say of those who have not faith enough to forgive once! Of course our Lord in this case used a definite for an indefinite number, and meant that our pardon is to be repeated as often as our brother's offence—when that offence is followed by sorrowful confession and the fruits of repentance. If Christ were to stop in pardoning us at the four hundred and ninetieth time—what would become of us? True it is that the oftener a sin is committed, the more striking and convincing must the evidence be of sincere repentance; and the more difficult it is to determine its sincerity—and also the more cautious we should be in restoring the offender to our confidence and favor. Nor can it be expected, however truly we may forgive him so far as to abstain from doing him evil and to be willing to do him any good, that we should take him back into our favor and confidence, and trust him altogether as we did before. "He has proved himself by repeated offences hardly to be trusted; for it is plain he has not been cured of the evil principle, the malicious heart or the evil eye—the slanderous tongue or the unjust hand—his covetous desire, and his anger—and thus though he must be pardoned charitably, and prayed for heartily, he must be handled cautiously. In this, our love must be neither credulous nor morose; too difficult, nor too easy."
2. Are we to forgive a person—if he will not confess his fault?Forgiveness has various degrees, and in the fullest and most complete sense of the term it is not required of us, until confession is made. God does not forgive us unless we acknowledge our sins. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Christ makes the duty of forgiveness dependent upon the repentance of the offender. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."
But still there are certain duties to be performed towards him even in this obdurate and unrelenting state of mind. We should in the exercise of meekness and gentleness endeavor to convince him of his wrong-doing in the manner laid down in the former essay. We are not, on discovering his impenitence and obduracy, at once to turn away from him in anger and disgust, and leave him to himself, and thus allow sin to lie upon him. And even after all suitable expostulations have been used, and he still remains stubbornly bent upon making no concession, we are not to allow ourselves to cherish enmity and malice towards him; we must harbor no ill-will towards him; we must pray for him—and be willing to do any good to him. Kindness shown to an impenitent offender, in a way that will not seem to connive at his sin, or encourage a repetition of it—may melt his hard heart. This is what the apostle calls heaping coals of fire on his head, and by the agony of a guilty conscience, rendered more susceptible by your forgiveness, melting down the cold, hard substance of his iron heart.
Here we act like God, who though he does not receive
impenitent offenders to his favor, or bestow upon them the blessings of his
children, still continues to them many providential comforts. And for what
purpose? The apostle declares this, when he says, "Or do you despise the
riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience—not recognizing that God's
kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?" This is extraordinarily
beautiful—the goodness of God, instead of turning its back upon the
unrepenting sinner and retiring from him in wrath and disgust, turns towards
him its lovely countenance, and even takes hold of his hand to lead him to
repentance. Here is our pattern. We cannot receive the offender to our favor
until he has confessed his fault; but we can be kind to him, and like our
Heavenly Father take him by the hand and lead him to a better state of mind.
He is not even in his sullen obduracy, to be an object of our hatred and
III.I shall now consider the indispensable necessity of our exercising this disposition of forgiveness. This duty cannot be placed among the non-essentials of religion; as that without which a man may be a real, though an incomplete Christian. It is not to be ranked among those matters about which good men may differ, and be nearly as good, which ever side they take. Nor is it to be viewed as merely a graceful and ornamental appendage to religion, a sort of tasteful decoration of character, which a few fine spirits, men made of softer clay or cast in a more ornamental mold, may wear; but which can very well be done without. Nothing like it. Reader whoever you are whose eye passes over these pages, here pause and ponder the truth, which I now lay down, for it is such—you are not a Christian, you never can be one, you are not in the way to heaven, but on the road to perdition, your trespasses are not forgiven you, but are all upon you at this moment—if you are habitually an unforgiving man. This is a solemn fact, which, with dark and frowning aspect now stares you in the face. A voice from the unseen world uttered in thunder could not make it more certain. Take the following evidences of this fact.
1. Forgiveness is positively commanded in holy Scripture.How frequently, how solemnly, and how authoritatively is this duty enforced by our Lord himself! Read with devout and fixed attention the following passages, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,"—the same thing is repeated in four other places in the gospel. "And be kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you." "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do you." "Confess your faults one to another." Remember this is law, not merely advice—a command, not only counsel—as truly law, as that which requires honesty or chastity; so that a man who is unforgiving, is as truly a rebel against Christ, as he who does not pray, or he who is a whoremonger, or an adulterer.
If Christ is our Master, and we are bound to obey Him in everyything—and in this among the rest. If we cannot forgive, we cannot be disciples of Christ. We resist His authority; we cast off His yoke; we trample under feet His commands. We tell Him in effect He has passed a law which we cannot—or will not, obey. We cannot plead ignorance either of the existence or of the meaning of this law. Here it is laid down as the rule of our conduct. A child can comprehend it; nothing can be more unmistakable. The command lies upon the very surface of Christianity, and the meaning lies upon the surface of the law. Is not forgiveness necessary? Can we even pretend to be Christians without it?
2. It is not only a command of the Christian religion—but it is one of the commands which peculiarly belong to it, as in a very extraordinary manner appertaining to it.Paganism knows nothing about it. Revenge has ever been its spirit in all forms and all ages. No wonder, its deities have usually been impersonations either of lust or cruelty; its orgies have been blood, and its litany groans. To Judaism it was not unknown, but, like the doctrine of a future state, was far less clearly revealed than it is under the Christian dispensation. That bright economy which has revealed so clearly God's forgiving love, through the atonement of Christ, has also as clearly revealed our duty to forgive one another, as God has for Christ's sake forgiven us. The 'olive branch of forgiveness' is suspended from the cross. Like the duty of loving one another, the duty of forgiveness is especially Christ's commandment, for the latter is included in the former. So that we may say of this, as well as of love, "By this shall all men know you are Christ's disciples—if you forgive one another." Christ will not own us as disciples if we do not forgive. He in effect says, "Look at that man who cannot forgive—is he like me? Does he bear my image? Does he carry about my mind? Does he breathe my spirit? No! Let all men therefore know that though he bears my name—I disown him. He bears false witness against me. He misrepresents me—he is a living slander, a foul calumny upon me; and is at the same time a traducer of my religion. If men believe that I am like him, as his profession assumes, they will, they must conclude, that I am instead of a Savior a destroyer—instead of an incarnation of mercy an impersonation of revenge. Believe him not, when he says he is a Christian—for no habitually unforgiving man can be one."
3. Forgiveness of others, is a condition of our own forgiveness from God.When I say condition, I do not of course mean a meritorious one, but that state of mind without which he cannot be forgiven, the evidence and demonstration of our pardon. It is a condition in the same sense, though not for the same purpose, as faith is, and is as necessary. There is no merit in either, but both are required as indispensable. Yes, for one is included in the other, for the faith which believes the doctrine of forgiveness by God; believes also the duty of forgiveness towards others. A true faith works by love; and a true love works by forgiveness. Nothing can be more explicit than our Lord's words, "If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
This is again repeated with still greater emphasis where the beautiful parable of the merciless creditor who was forgiven ten thousand talents, and yet could not forgive a hundred pence, is delivered to enjoin this duty, and which closes with the declaration, "Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn't you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed. So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart!" How can this be evaded? By what logic of even our deceitful hearts can this be answered? None can be so blind, so utterly ignorant of the nature of religion, or the prerequisites to salvation, as to imagine he can be forgiven—while continuing to live in lying, stealing, or adultery; and yet it is as certain that he can be saved while indulging in these sins, as while living in the habitual indulgence of an inexorable, malicious, and unforgiving disposition! Can a man he saved without love? Let the apostle answer this by his language in the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, where he tells us that neither the power of miracles, nor the eloquence of angels, nor the most diffusive almsgiving, nor even the sufferings of martyrdom, can be a substitute for love. "Love is patient; love is kind. Love does not envy; is not boastful; is not conceited; does not act improperly; is not selfish; is not provoked; does not keep a record of wrongs; finds no joy in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
There must, whatever men may imagine, be the absence of faith where there is the absence of love; for love is the natural and necessary fruit of faith. Is it possible for any man really to believe that he has sinned against God ten thousand times, and that God has fully and freely forgiven him all; is it possible he should have gone with a broken heart to the cross, groaning under the burden of his guilt, and heard the voice of redeeming mercy say to him, "Go in peace, your faith has saved you, your sins are all forgiven you!" and while rejoicing with gratitude and love in a sense of God's pardoning grace—refuse to extend the mercy to a fellow creature who has not sinned a millionth part as much towards him as he has towards God? Incredible! Impossible! How can an unforgiving man put up the petition to God, "Forgive me my sins—as I forgive those who sin against me." Does he understand, does he consider what in reality in such a case is his prayer? "O God, enter into judgment with me, and be extreme to mark all my offences. Blot out none of my sins, but deal with me according to my transgressions. Let me never know a sense of your pardoning love, but let your arrows stick fast within me, and the poison thereof drink up my spirit. Banish me from your life-giving presence, and consign me to the regions of hopeless despair, and let me pass through eternity under a sense of committed and unremitted sin!"
You tremble at the very idea, it makes your blood curdle,
and sends a chill of horror through your frame—to think of a sinner thus
petitioning for damnation. But what else, or what less, is the petition,
"Forgive me my sins—even as I forgive the sins of others," in the lips of an
unforgiving man? His forgiveness is revenge. I put the case thus strongly,
because it cannot be put too strongly! I put the case thus strongly, with
the hope of rousing attention! I put the case thus strongly, for I am
persuaded multitudes are deceiving themselves! To them I say—the gates of
heaven are closed, barred, and bolted against the man who refuses to forgive
his brother! They would as soon fly open at the approach and knock of a
continual swearer or a fornicator—as at the application of a man who has no
mercy in his soul.
IV.I may now well ask the question—How does it come to pass, that a duty so obvious is so much neglected, and so rarely performed in such a manner as to evince any peculiar excellence of character? Here I assume, as I did with regard to the subject of the former essay, that it is neglected; that it is too little practiced, even by professing Christians. Can anyone doubt this? Is anyone so blind to what is passing around him, so ignorant of himself, so unaccustomed to witness the unsettled quarrels between professors, as not to know, and not to be willing to admit, that among all the duties of the Christian life, the performance of Christian forgiveness—is among the rarest branches of evangelical holiness? Who does not know by experience how quick our resentment is, how slow our forgiveness?
The neglect of this duty may be accounted for in part, by our lack of consideration of it. We have never dwelt upon it as we ought. We have been taken up with doctrines, and have not dwelt enough upon duties! We have been intent upon privileges, and have forgotten moral obligations! We have been hungering and thirsting after comfort, but not after righteousness. Or if we have coveted and prayed for holiness, but have not analyzed that word, and enquired how many species and varieties were comprehended in that generic term. We have not set it out by itself, and looked at it, and weighed its meaning, and considered its importance, and pressed upon our consciences its necessity. We have not said to ourselves, "This forgiveness; this momentous forgiveness; this necessary forgiveness; I must practice it. I who have had so much forgiven—ought I not, shall I not—forgive others? Must I not be like God in this respect as well as in other things?"
And why is it that Christians think so little about it, but because it has not been sufficiently insisted upon by ministers from the pulpit. It has long been my conviction that there is a great deficiency in evangelical churches, of the practical enforcement of Christian duties in detail; especially of what may be emphatically called the Christian virtues, the passive graces of the Christian character, the exercise of brotherly kindness and love. It is wonderful, I know, to hear a fine, eloquent and richly theological sermon upon redeeming love and pardoning mercy; to have the imagination and heart regaled with rhetoric; radiant with the glories of the cross; and redolent with the odor of that Name which is above every name! It is gratifying to the thinking mind to have the intellect pleased with fine logical sermons, and the fine abstractions of clear and strong thinking—it will be well enough also to have the subjects of moral obligation discussed in vague generalities and in elegant composition.
But it is not so acceptable to have all the special and difficult duties of the Christian's life, or man's conduct to his fellows, set clearly before the understanding and enforced upon the conscience. Men do not well like to be followed through all the labyrinths of the heart's deceitfulness, beaten out of every refuge of lies, and made to feel the obligation to love where they are inclined to hate; and to forgive where they desire to revenge.
And we ministers pander too much to this taste. The pulpit has not done its duty. We have preached to the intellect, to the imagination, and to the taste—but not enough to the heart and to the conscience. In our endeavor to please, we have not been sufficiently intent upon the greater object, to profit. We have not preached justification too much—but sanctification too little. We have been so intent upon urging men to obtain the forgiveness of their own sins from God—that we have neglected to urge them to forgive the sins of their fellow-creatures against themselves. We have urged faith with a becoming vehemence—but not love. We have descanted upon the evil of licentiousness, and falsehood, and dishonesty, and covetousness—but have said far, far too little about malice and bitterness. We have urged men to zeal and liberality—but not enough to humility, forbearance, and forgiveness. We have led men to view the cross of Christ—but we have not sufficiently urged them to take up their own. We have entreated them to view him as their Righteousness—but not sufficiently as their Example.
How much and how often have we insisted upon the duty of forgiveness—which I am now discussing? Has it borne that place in our discourses which it does in those of our Lord? Have we not led our people to neglect this duty? I for one plead guilty, and feel as if I had not made this sufficiently prominent in my ministry, though I have not only preached, but written upon it.
Is it then any wonder that professing Christians should think so little, when they hear so little, about it. And hence there is another result, the obligation of this duty is not felt. It is surprising to see how lightly it presses upon the consciences of many people. Those who would scruple to commit many other sins, have no scruple on the subject of not forgiving. They have no deep solemn sense of being constrained to practise it, no feeling of being bound to do so, their consciences do not urge them to it. An injury is inflicted, and instead of at once saying, "Here is a call upon our love," they at once in the quickness of resentment, say, "This is a matter to be resented," and they directly form a purpose of retaliation as naturally as if it were the thing most proper to be done.
It is frequently the case that those who are inclined to the exercises of generous forgiveness are prevented by the interference of a third party, who goads on the injured person to revenge. This true child of the devil does all he can to magnify the trespass, and thus inflames the resentment of the sufferer. He endeavors to extinguish the kindling spark of love in the bosom of him who is softening and melting into kindliness, and blows the coals of strife into the flame of unhallowed passion. How often have third parties thus obstructed the progress of reconciliation by artful appeals to pride and passion!
To every officious intruder who would thus prevent the broken bonds of amity from being again united by an act of forgiveness, say, in the indignant language of Christ to Peter, "Get behind me Satan, for you savor not of the things that are of God." Tell him he mistakes you and interprets your heart by his own, if he supposes you cannot forgive. Third parties, by this officious malignant interference, have done more to perpetuate animosity and to prevent the healing of friendship's bleeding wounds, than those who have been engaged in the feud themselves. Instead of performing the work and ensuring the blessing of the peacemaker, they have had an opposite ambition, by endeavoring to prolong the strife, to bring upon themselves the malediction of heaven, and the infamy of being called the children of the devil.
But after all, the chief and radical cause of this deficiency in our Christian duty—is the corruption of our nature. A perfectly holy being would find it as easy to forgive as to act. No cloud of stormy passion would lower on the brow of an incarnate angel, no lightning of unhallowed wrath would flash from his eye, no growl of angry thunder would roll from his lips—against the offender. He would look and speak and act in love and peace.
On the other hand a demon finds a malignant pleasure in revenge. It is the only gratification which can ever arise in his miserable bosom, the only pleasure, if such it can be called, that he ever knows; and a pleasure it is, which, when it is over, turns from honey into wormwood. Brutes appear to take the same ferocious gratification in worrying each other in the way of revenge. Now there is in human corruption so far as it prevails, something similar with this fiend-like, beast-like disposition—a satisfaction in retaliation; hence the dreadful adage, "Revenge is sweet." This is a saying we may imagine caught from the lips of Satan, an echo of his command to his armies when he sent them forth to war against God, who had expelled him from the seats of Paradise. There is a gratification to our corrupt nature in returning evil for evil; there is no disputing it. The revenge of some people is like that of the wounded lion, who turns upon the assailant, drinks his blood and devours his flesh, thus gaining compensation for his injury; while that of others resembles the rage of the rattlesnake which bites and kills but gets nothing by it. To our grief and shame we must all acknowledge we have tasted it. We have had more of this evil gratification than we like to confess, or to dwell upon. This is the operation of the flesh lusting against the spirit, and shows how imperfectly we are yet sanctified, and how much we need to carry on the work of mortification of our corruptions.
I know of no more convincing or affecting proof of the low degrees of vital practical Christianity in the church of God, than this prevalence of irascibility. How clearly it is seen that Christians are far less in subjection to the authority of Christ than they imagine, when they are with such difficulty persuaded to yield to him in this one particular. It is easy to do many things which he requires; to hear sermons, to believe comforting doctrines and promises, to make a profession of religion, to observe the Lord's supper, to attend public meetings, to engage in schemes of public usefulness, even to give our property; but to ask forgiveness, if we have offended, and to forgive from the heart an injury, if we have received it—how few are prepared thus promptly and entirely to yield to Christ, thus to show their love and obedience to Him. Yet this is the test, this is what He demands from His followers. It is a severe test I know, and therefore a true one.
When I stand by, as sometimes I do, and as we all do, and
see the strife of two professing Christians, it may be the members of the
same church, and observe their unhallowed tempers, with what recklessness
the one party has committed a trespass on the other; then with what keen and
bitter resentment the injured party has taken up the offence; then with what
stubborn obduracy the offender persists in his determination to make no
concession and ask no forgiveness, resisting alike the remonstrance of
conscience from within, and the expostulations of friends from without; then
the wrathful and revengeful temper of the aggrieved party; and then the
permanent and bitter alienation of both; when, I say, I stand by, the
afflicted spectator of this incurable feud, I ask with grief and surprise,
where is the submission to the authority of Christ, which both these parties
profess? Ah, here is the test of the degree of obedience to Christ, as our
Lord and Master, which prevails in his own house; and verily, I am afraid it
is but small.
V.I shall now consider the MEANS and HELPS of which we should avail ourselves for the performance of this duty. "Means," say some, "why speak about means? Bid them do it." Yes, and this would be all that is necessary if it were an easy matter, and one to which the heart was naturally and strongly inclined; but for a duty so hard, and with hearts so resistant, and holiness so imperfect as ours, we need all the means and helps we can command. The control of the irascible passions is, as I have already often said, the most difficult thing in the work of mortification of sin; just because their indulgence is a sin we are not only most prone to indulge, but a sin which we are most ready to excuse, and which we can commit to a great extent without injuring our reputation in the estimation either of the world or of the church. A man knows that if he be overtaken even with only a single fault of drunkenness, or of fornication, his character has received a foul blot, which floods of sincere repentance and all future propriety can scarcely obliterate; but he may cherish the malignant passions, and make his soul the dwelling place of almost fiend-like tempers, and yet not forfeit his standing in society, or be expelled from the communion of the church, or feel himself called upon for penitence and humiliation before God. He can go and worship in the house of God, and take his seat at the table of the Lord, full of malice wrath and all uncharitableness towards a fellow-member; and yet, though he shall eat and drink judgment to himself, continue to be regarded as a reputable man. Ah! how differently does God estimate the criminality of actions to what man does! The penitent fornicator cast out by man, is both holy and honorable compared with the dark malignant who never forgives. We need instruction then as to the performance of this duty, and I will now suggest it.
1. There are some things to be AVOIDED.We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by the incitements and persuasions of others. Forgiveness is not a palatable doctrine with the world, nor is it held in general esteem, and those who cannot practise it themselves, will hinder us from it if they can.
We must not brood over the offence, but endeavor as far as possible to forget it; every look at it, like a glance at a forbidden object, will excite our passions, and exasperate our feelings. Nor must we talk to other people of the injury we have received; for nothing is more likely to inflame our resentment than the recital of our wrongs. The man who is forward to tell of an injury, will ever remain backward to forgive it. The people to whom he relates the affair will generally have some similar tales of their own to tell, and in accompanying them with descriptions of the manner in which they received them, will propose, and with too much success, their own bad example for imitation.
2. There are some things to be CONSIDERED.For lack of consideration, duties are neglected, sins are committed, souls are ruined. We should all be holier and happier if we would but consider. It is a momentous word, CONSIDER.
We must consider that forgiveness must be practiced. We have no option; there is no room for doubt or dispute about it. It is not a matter we may or may not take up. We can no more with propriety refuse to forgive, than we can refuse to be chaste or honest.
We must consider that we must do it. "Forgiveness," we must say, "is not only the duty of all, but it is my duty. I am the man who must practise it." We are very apt to shift obligation from ourselves as individuals, to the multitude. We lose ourselves in the crowd.
We must consider that it can be done—it is not impossible. Many have done it. The most irascible tempers have (by great pains) been controlled, and the most inexorable minds softened into meekness—and what others have done, we can do.
We should consider it to be an immediate duty; a duty in reference to the point in hand. Many who will read this tract are while they read it in a state of hostility against someone who has injured them. They have been insulted or wronged. You who are in this situation, you are the person to whom this duty applies. That very matter which now grieves, vexes, and irritates you, is the subject of the duty. You are to forgive that enemy, to pardon that offence. Now, at once you are to do it. You are to begin immediately. You are to lay down this tract and set yourself directly to the business of forgiveness. You are not to wait for the next offence—by taking proper steps to bring the offender to a right sense of the one already committed, you may prevent a repetition of it. You are not to wait until some future time. You may die without forgiving the offender, or he may die without confessing and lamenting his sin. Procrastination in this, as well as in every other duty, is likely to render its performance more difficult and more precarious.
3. There are some things to be DONE.The next time you go into your closet, (and you should go there for the very purpose), open your Bible, and read very solemnly and seriously the parable of the merciless creditor in Matthew 18. Pray to God before you begin, to give you grace to understand its meaning, and to see whether it applies to your case. When you have read it once, pause and say, "Can I now forgive?" If you can, fall down and give God thanks, and ask for grace to fulfill your purpose. If you cannot, read it over again, and say a second time, "Can I now forgive?" Read it again and again, until it has subdued you.
But if this fails, take with you this tract into your closet. Read it alone; read it through; read it with prayer—and when you have finished it, lay it down and say, "Can I now forgive?"
If your resentment is not yet subdued, then, "Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still." At the night-time, when you are removed from the hurry of business; when the noise of the world is hushed; when the darkness of your chamber, which enwraps the outer man, contrasts with the light of God's presence in which your soul stands; then bid your passions be silent, and let your conscience speak. There talk with and to yourself about this duty. There when you have perhaps asked God before you ventured to lie down upon your bed to forgive you your offences, ask whether you can indeed forgive those of a brother.
But in addition to all this there must be much deep, solemn meditation upon God's love in forgiving you. Professing Christian, can it be possible that you need all this expostulation to induce you to forgive others, you who have had so much forgiven? Meditate, meditate intently, upon your multiplied transgressions, your sins before conversion, and your sins after conversion; all, all, blotted out, not one, even the most aggravated, excepted. Think of the means by which this pardon of yours has been obtained. Go, go, to Calvary—behold Jehovah giving up the Son of his love to all the agony, degradation, and horrors of crucifixion—hear the piercing cry of the holy and patient sufferer. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me;" and ask why was this scene of blood and torture; and you shall hear a reply in the language of Scripture, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." Can you gaze upon that scene of love's wondrous triumphs, can you leave that spot where you hope your own pardon is thus sealed, and not feel even happy at the opportunity given you of expressing your gratitude, by forgiving your brother? You often sit and sing at the sacramental table,
"Sweet the moments, rich in blessing,
Which before the cross I spend;
Life, and health, and peace possessing
From the sinner's dying friend—
Here I'll sit forever viewing
Mercy's streams, in streams of blood,
Precious drops my soul bedewing
Plead and claim my peace with God."
Yes, and they plead no less urgently, and claim no less justly, your peace with your offending brother. If that cross does not crucify your enmity, and bring you to love—you have never seen its glory, never felt its power. O, is it possible you can bring an unrelenting heart from that scene, which made the rocks to shiver, and the veil of the temple to rend? What, see there what it cost God to forgive you; see there all the blessings of eternal salvation flowing in upon you through the wounds opened in the body of his Son, and yet find it hard to forgive! You cannot, you must not, you dare not, you shall not—come away from that scene of forgiving mercy, an unforgiving spirit.
Nor is it only the dying, but the living Saviour that you must contemplate—that perseverance of His in His career of miraculous healing, notwithstanding the opposition, the insult, and the base ingratitude of the people; those tears and groans devoted to the city which had already treated Him with such indignity, and was about to complete the tragedy of His death; that look bestowed on the cowardly apostle who had denied Him thrice, a look which while it administered rebuke, conveyed the assurance of pardon; that prayer for His murderers, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;" that command to His apostles, "Go preach repentance and remission of sins, beginning at Jerusalem;" that first outpouring of the Spirit on the very men who had hurried Him to the cross; that conversion of one of the bitterest foes He ever had into the chief of His apostles. O, Christians, think of all this—study that wondrous character—contemplate that illustrious pattern—dwell upon that beautiful model, until the frosty incrustations of your cold, hard heart have all melted, like icicles before the sun; and your tears of love and gratitude to Jesus become tears of love and forgiveness towards your brother.
But this is not all, there must be much earnest supplication for the aid of the Spirit of all grace. This kind goes not forth, but by fasting and prayer. We need the help of the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, even for the least and easiest of all the duties of the Christian life. How much more for this, one of the hardest. A naturally unforgiving temper must be carried often to the throne of grace with profound humiliation and fervent supplication. Nothing short of Divine grace can subdue it. Such a disposition yields not to reason, but only to God. We must take hold of His strength, or there is no hope. The demon of revenge can be cast out only by that voice which expelled the legion from the man who dwelt among the tombs. Thus we are to watch as well as pray, to use our reason as well as call on Divine aid; but only that voice which lulled the tempest, and smoothed the billows on the sea of Tiberius, can calm the stormy passions of an angry and troubled spirit. And He will do it, in answer to the prayer of faith.
It is also necessary that there should be an endeavor to
raise the tone of our personal religion in general. For vigorous and
athletic exercises of the body, and for the performance of laborious duties,
there needs not only an extraordinary stimulus at the time and for the
occasion, but a robust and healthful constitution. This applies with equal
force to the soul; the duty laid down in this treatise is a very difficult
one; a duty which in this disordered world is often called for. And there is
little hope of its being well done, if the soul, as to its religion, be
sickly and feeble, and needs to be stimulated to its performance by the
strong excitement produced for the occasion by the elixirs and cordials of a
sermon from the pulpit, or the ardent advice of a friend. What we need for
the regular and consistent discharge of this, and all difficult duties, is a
healthful and robust religion, a well instructed mind, an eminently
sanctified heart, a tender conscience, a fervent love. If we are not living
much under the constraining love of Christ, we cannot perform this duty. A
worldly, lukewarm state of soul, a heart not in some measure filled with the
Spirit, a conscience dull and obtuse, are not equal to this high exercise
and attainment in the divine life—it is only when we are strong in the Lord,
and in the power of His might, that we can reach this elevation.
VI. I now urge the performance of this duty by some appropriate and effective MOTIVES.
I urge it by regard to your offending brother. You must not, you dare not, be indifferent to his welfare. "Am I my brother's keeper?" was the cold-blooded question of a murderer, and there is murder in it. The word of God everywhere enjoins a tender regard to the spiritual welfare of others. To love our brother as ourselves is half the law of God, and obedience to it is essential to a right performance of the other half. If you allow sin to lie upon him by not expostulating with him; or if you tempt him to be more guilty by not forgiving him—you are imperiling his eternal interest. By not telling him of his offences, you allow his conscience to slumber upon unconfessed guilt; and by cherishing towards him an implacable disposition, you exasperate him into malice, or break the bruised reed, and quench the smoking flax. That brother whom you cannot forgive has perhaps been forgiven by Christ, to whom he has confessed the sin with penitence, even as he is willing to confess it to you. I beg you, by all the love you bear to your brother, and I add, by all the love you bear your common Father, forgive him.
Can you pretend to brotherly love if you cannot exercise brotherly forgiveness? But if it be not a brother that has injured you, only a fellow-creature, one who is no Christian, is your unforgiving spirit likely to make him one? Is it thus you would draw him to Jesus? Thus you would win his soul for the Lord, thus you would prepossess him in favor of religion, thus you would melt his obdurate heart? Who can tell, your forgiveness may lead him to seek God's. By not forgiving him you petrify his already hard heart and drive him further from God. For shame, Christian, for shame, to have so little regard for the salvation of souls—to manifest so little of the mind of him who died for them, to have no more sympathy with him who died for his enemies, and died for you among the rest.
I plead with you on the ground of your own comfort and sanctification. You sometimes say, and tell God, you want to be holy. Is this all hypocrisy? Is it lying to God? What is holiness? Conformity to God's image—and is it not one part of this to be merciful and to forgive sins? Would you limit holiness to chastity, justice, truth, and sobriety—and leave out mercy, the brightest jewel in the crown of heaven, the loveliest feature in the countenance of God, the very beauty of holiness, and the delight of Jehovah's heart? To be holy, and not to forgive! Impossible, man, impossible! You are under an awful delusion. The deceitfulness of the heart has imposed upon you. The pure white light of holiness is made up of many prismatic colors, and mercy in the way of forgiving sin is one of them.
You want evidence you are a child of God, you wish to know your sins are forgiven. How do you expect it? By a voice from heaven, or by searching the hidden rolls of the eternal decrees? You will not, cannot have them. Neither these, nor any secret, unintelligible, enthusiastic impression upon your own imagination, constitute the witness of the Spirit to your sonship—but the conformity of your disposition to that of God. The most rapturous emotion, the most ecstatic delight, ever yet excited in the bosom by silent meditation, or by sacred eloquence, or by religious poetry—has not half the strength of evidence of your sins being forgiven, that one act of forgiveness has, which has been performed for Christ's sake towards an erring brother. When by one glance at the cross, and one vivid recollection of the twice ten thousand sins of mine which have themselves been cancelled by the mercy of God, I can calm the impetuous passions of my heart, abjure the act, and extinguish the very wish, of revenge, and say to one who has injured me, "I freely from my heart forgive you for Christ's sake, as well as your own," there, in that act of obedience to the command of Jesus, and conformity to the image of Christ, I realize my discipleship, and exclaim—"Thanks, O Saviour, for that grace which by enabling me to perform this act of mercy, has enabled me to realize my union with you, as a branch in the living Vine."
And then how calm the bosom, how serene the mind, how peaceful the heart—where the flaming coals of malice have been put out by the water of love! How happy that man, how sweet his enjoyment, who has gained the victory over himself, and can truly say, "Yes, I have forgiven him—every spark of malice is extinguished! I can receive him to my favor, and be towards him as aforetime." O, what enemies are some men to themselves, what self-tormentors, and how they keep their own soul upon the rack—who cherish a lively recollection of an injury received, a burning wrath towards the offender, and a wish for an opportunity to revenge the insult! It is like keeping a live coal in the bosom; or a vulture preying upon the heart! While he who forgives has a mind calm as the heart of Jesus, and smooth as the brow of God when he blots out a sinner's transgressions, and receives him back to his favor. With what confidence may he now draw near to God, his Father in heaven, for his heart condemns him not—and with what an unfaltering tongue may he present the petition, "Forgive me my sins—even as I forgive those who sin against me."
I urge this duty by a regard to the character and progress of true Christianity. You profess to understand and to love religion, and to desire its progress in the world, do you? Do you really know and practically consider that all God's redeemed people are intended to be witnesses, not only for the doctrine of forgiveness—but the duty of forgiveness? Imagine what a sin it is to bear false witness on this point for God, and lead men to consider that his religion no more promotes forgiveness than the religion of paganism. Consider what an impression in favor of Christianity would be produced by the church upon the world if all professing Christians were seen and known to be people in whose bosom the spirit of love dwelt, and who had blotted out from their vocabulary, by the tears of their own penitence, the word "Revenge."
Why they would be strong by their weakness, and mighty by their meekness—for who would injure a man who was too loving to resent it? How many would ask, "Where did these men learn this lesson?" and on being told "At the cross," what an idea would it raise in the world of a system of doctrine that could produce such an effect! Now the religion of the New Testament has come into the world to bless men, to startle them with its novelty, and to attract them by its loveliness. And this is the new and beautiful thing by which it is to accomplish its end, by leading men first to obtain mercy, and then to show it.
But alas, alas, how slowly does it gain ground even in the land where it is professed! And why? Because its path is filled up with the stumbling blocks cast there by its professors. Professors misrepresent Christianity by their conduct, and lead men to suppose it is no better than other and false religions. The great bulk of mankind take the gospel just as it is set out before them in the lives of its followers—and as there is so much of the spirit of the world, the spirit of anger, wrath, and malice—they keep aloof from it. They are afraid it will do them no good, yes, that it will do them harm, by adding hypocrisy to their other sins. Yes, they are really afraid of religion. But this would not, could not, be the case, if all Christians were like Jesus—ever going about forgiving sins and doing good. Therefore we must be more holy, and in order to this, among other things we must be more meek and gentle, we must be more loving in order to be more lovely, and make our religion more loved. We must by forgiveness live down the suspicions of jealousy, the reproaches of calumny, and the indifference of stupidity. Sermons and books will not do it. Eloquence may descant upon forgiveness, and the rhetoric of the orator may be admired; but if we wish religion to prosper, all who profess it must be seen and known to pardon those who injure them.
Our religion is happily in this day putting forth its energies in the evangelizing spirit of the age—but all these things pass for very little in the estimation of the men of this world—in their estimation they are but effusions of enthusiasm, or paroxysms of sectarianism, and do but little to conciliate their esteem, or enlist their sympathies. They want an exhibition of the true spirit of Christianity which they can better understand, more admire, and which comes more directly under their observation—and here it is in this divine and heavenly love. When they see Christians coming out in all the spirit of love, meekly bearing the provocations by which they are assailed, and freely forgiving the trespasses by which they are injured, "Ah," they will say, "this is what we have waited for! This looks like a religion which is an emanation from a God of love."
By exalting the character, and aiding the progress of our holy religion, we bring honor and glory to Him who is its Head and Author. This is letting our light shine before men, whereby they seeing our good works, will glorify our Father who is in heaven. God is honored when his image is copied, and the rays of his glory reflected by his people. And should not the children of this great and good Parent, this Father of spirits, do all they can to make him known and honored? How wonderful and how ennobling is the conception, and what an ambition should it raise in the mind of the Christian, to consider and say, "Men may see something of God in me!" Yes, we can teach them what God is as to his moral character, and let them see in our merciful disposition a ray of the infinite sun of his own glory. These sweet relentings of our nature, these soft and genial currents of our soul, these effusions of love, these, we can remind them, are but the overflowings of his goodness, his own love, into our hearts, and are like the second rainbow, the reflection of the first, his infinite mercy.
And if another motive is necessary, dwell upon the last I now offer, which is—that forgiveness is a virtue which we shall soon have no longer need to exercise. When we have arrived in heaven we shall have reached a world, where we shall no longer need to seek forgiveness from God, nor to ask it from, or to bestow it upon our brother. There we shall never trespass against God, nor our brother trespass against us. In that region of love, where brotherly kindness, like everything else, will be perfect; there will be no occasion through eternity for one exercise of this part of Christian love. All the inhabitants of that world will be divinely amiable, and never need forgiveness. Everyone will be perfect for others to love, and see in them the perfection which they love in him. No one will ever offend; and none be ever offended. The understanding will be too clear to offend by ignorance, and the heart too holy to offend by design. The difficult virtue of forbearance will not be called for there; having been performed here on earth, it will be dispensed with in heaven, and nothing remain but the easy and delightful acts of taking delight in the unsullied goodness of all around us. And it is the performance here of that hard and trying duty of forgiveness, which is to prepare us for that future world of love and joy. It is the conquest of our proud selves in this scene of our discipline and probation, that is to fit us for that blessed state where no foe is ever to be seen, and no battle ever to be fought. O Christian, it is but a little while before you shall be freed from the conflict, and utter the shout and wear the crown of victory! Every offence you forgive, may be the last you shall ever have to forgive. And then even amidst the bliss of that glorious state to which the last enemy shall introduce you, yes, even there it shall be a part of your ineffable felicity—to look back and remember that in some humble measure, you were enabled through sovereign grace, "to forgive—even as you were forgiven."