Forgiveness Of Injuries - Part II
Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22
Last week we were reminded of perhaps the greatest illustration of the necessity of forgiveness in our Lord's parables of the unforgiving servant, who having had ten thousand talents forgiven him took his fellow-servant by the throat and cast him into prison for a hundred denarii.
We were reminded of what forgiveness consists of: The extinguishing of all feelings of anger towards the offender; the forsaking of any idea of revenge; the endeavor to completely forget the offence; and not only to not chastise the offender but to be prepared to do all the good we can and restore him when at all possible to the same relations as before the offence.
Then we were shown how deep real forgiveness is by some circumstances connected with it: How often it is we are required to forgive, and how even the impenitent must be forgiven.
And finally we were shown the indispensable necessity of our exercising this disposition of forgiveness: Scripture solemnly declares that the one who does not forgive will not be forgiven.
This morning we will conclude the subject with:
IV. In the fourth place, some reflections about why a duty so obvious is so much neglected.
V. Next, some means and helps which we should use in performing this duty.
VI. And finally some encouragements by appropriate and effective motives to perform this duty.
IV. The fourth heading, then, is a question: How does it come to pass, that a duty so obvious is so much neglected, and so rarely performed to the extent it ought to be?
It is sad to observe 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 on duties! We have been intent on 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, we have failed to analyze that part of it, forgiveness, and enquired into what it really means. We have not set it out by itself, and looked at it, and weighed its meaning, and considered its importance, and pressed its necessity upon our consciences. 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.
The duties of the Christian's life, and man's conduct to his fellows, ought to be clearly set before the understanding and enforced upon the conscience. We 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 we are inclined to hate; and to forgive where we desire revenge.
How much and how often have we heard the duty of forgiveness insisted upon—which we are now hearing of? Has it had that place in the discourses of the Christian church which it does in those of our Lord? Have people in effect not been led to neglect this duty?
Is it then any wonder that professing Christians should think so little, when they hear so little, about it. And therefore 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 shrink back from committing many other sins, have no misgiving 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 immediately set their minds on retaliation as naturally as if it were the thing most proper to be done.
And sadly, it is frequently the case that those who are inclined to exercise 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 heart of him who is softening and melting into kindliness, and blows the coals of strife into the flame of ungodly passion. How often have third parties thus obstructed the progress of reconciliation by subtle appeals to pride and passion!
To every intruder who would thus prevent the broken bonds of love from being again united by an act of forgiveness, say, in the indignant language of Christ to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God." (Matt 16:23) Tell him he mistakes you and interprets your heart by his own, if he supposes you cannot forgive. Third parties, by this 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 fall on the face of an incarnate angel, no lightning of ungodly 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 being, 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. 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 out to war against God, who had expelled him from Paradise. There is a gratification to our corrupt nature in returning evil for evil; there is no disputing 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 putting our corruptions to death.
There is no more convincing or moving proof of the low degrees of vital practical Christianity in a church of God, than this prevalence of irritability. 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 of forgiveness. 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 so promptly and entirely to yield to Christ, and in this way 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 for sure, and therefore a true one.
V. We now go on to consider the means and helps of which we should turn to carry out this duty.
"Means," say some, "why speak about means? Just tell them to 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 a holiness so imperfect as ours, we need all the means and helps we can get.
The control of the irritable passions is the most difficult thing in the work of the putting to death 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 is discovered even with only a single fault of drunkenness, or of adultery, his character has received a dark stain, which floods of sincere repentance and all future good conduct can scarcely erase; but he may cherish the malignant passions, and make his soul the dwelling place of almost fiend-like tempers, and yet not lose 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 un-charitableness towards a fellow-member; and yet, though he will eat and drink judgment to himself, continue to be regarded as a reputable man. But how differently does God estimate what a man does! The penitent adulterer cast out by man, is both holy and honorable compared with the dark soul who never forgives. We need instruction then as to how to perform this duty, and to this we now turn.
1. First, 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 an attractive 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 to be imitated.
2. In the second place, there are some things to be considered.
For lack of consideration, duties are neglected, sins are committed, souls are ruined. We would all be holier and happier if we would but consider. It is a vital word, consider.
We have to 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 decency refuse to forgive, than we can refuse to be faithful or honest.
We have to 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 one 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 have to consider that it can be done—it is not impossible. Many have done it. The most irritable tempers have (with great effort) been controlled, and the most stubborn 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. 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 set yourself directly to the business of forgiveness before this service has ended. You are not to wait for the next offence. 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 make it more and more difficult to perform; more difficult and more precarious.
3. In the third place, there are some things to be done.
The next time you engage in private prayer, open your Bible, and read very solemnly and seriously the parable of the unforgiving servant 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 conquered you.
But if this fails, find this sermon and read it on your own. 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 on your bed and be still. At night, when you are removed from the hurry of business; when the noise of the world is hushed; when the darkness of your room, which enwraps the outer man, contrasts with the light of God's presence in which your soul stands; then silence your passions, 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 on your bed to forgive you your offences, ask whether you can indeed forgive those of a brother.
But in addition to all this there has to be much deep, solemn meditation on God's love in forgiving you. Professing Christian, can it be possible that you need all this strong encouragement to induce you to forgive others, you who have had so much forgiven? Meditate, meditate intently, on your own 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 the Cross—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;" (Matt 27:46) and ask why was this scene of blood and torture; and you will hear a reply in the language of Scripture, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace." (Eph 1:7) Can you gaze upon that scene, 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?
If that cross does not crucify your hostility, and bring you to love—you have never seen its glory, never felt its power. Is it possible that you can bring an unrelenting heart from that scene, which made the rocks shiver, and the veil of the temple tear in two? Can you truly see there what it cost God to forgive you; and 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 will not—come away from that scene of forgiving mercy, an unforgiving spirit.
Nor is it only the dying, but the living Saviour that you have to contemplate—that perseverance of His in His work of miraculous healing, notwithstanding the opposition, the insults, 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 three times, 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;" (Luke 23:34) that command to His apostles, go preach "repentance for the forgiveness of sins … beginning from Jerusalem;" (Luke 24:47) 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.
Believing Christians, think of all this—study that wondrous character—contemplate that illustrious pattern—dwell upon that beautiful model, until the ice on your cold, hard heart has melted; and your tears of love and gratitude to Jesus become tears of love and forgiveness towards your brother.
But this is not all, there has to be much earnest supplication for the help of the Spirit of all grace. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mar 9:29) 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 has to 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 does not yield to reason, but only to God. We have to 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. And so we are to watch as well as pray, to use our reason as well as call on Divine help; 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 hard duties, great effort is not only necessary at the time, but a robust and healthy constitution is also needed.
This applies with equal force to the soul; the duty laid down in this sermon 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, is sickly and feeble, and needs to be brought about by strong inducements of a sermon from the pulpit, or the ardent advice of a friend.
What we need for the regular and consistent carrying out of this, and all difficult duties, is a healthy 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 insensitive, 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 to this height.
VI. And now we close with some motives to encourage us in this duty.
i) It is to be urged in regard to your offending brother.
You must not, you dare not, be indifferent to his welfare. "Am I my brother's keeper?“ (Gen 4:9) 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 challenging 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 in un-confessed 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. By all the love you bear to your brother, and by all the love you bear your common Father, forgive him.
Can you pretend to have brotherly love if you cannot exercise brotherly forgiveness? But if it is 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 in this way that you would draw him to Jesus? Is this the way to win his soul for the Lord, to predispose him in favor of religion, to melt his hardened heart? Who can tell if 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. It is a shameful thing for a Christian 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.
ii) It is to be pleaded 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! This is an impossibility! You are under an awful delusion. The deceitfulness of the heart has overcome you. The pure white light of holiness is made up of many 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 on your own imagination, constitute the witness of the Spirit to your sonship—but the conformity of your disposition to that of God. The most profound emotion, the most ecstatic delight, ever yet excited in the heart 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, renounce 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—"Thank you Lord, 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 disposition, 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 before." O, what enemies are some men to themselves, what self-tormentors, and how they torture their own soul—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 your hand; 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 does not condemns him—and with what an unfaltering tongue may he present the petition, "Forgive me my sins—even as I forgive those who sin against me."
iii) This duty is to be urged for its influence on 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 heart the spirit of love dwells, and who had blotted out from their vocabulary that 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, sadly, 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 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 far from it.
They are afraid it will do them no good, indeed, that it will even do them harm, by adding hypocrisy to their other sins. And in this sense 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 have to be more holy, and in order to do 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 slanderous reproaches, and the indifference of stupidity. Sermons and books will not do it. There may be eloquent words about forgiveness, and the rhetoric of the orator may be admired; but if we want religion to prosper, those who profess it must be seen and known to pardon those who injure them.
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 thought, 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. This gentle yielding of our nature, these soft and gracious currents of our soul, these evidences 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 this one now offered, which is—that forgiveness is a virtue which we will soon no longer need to exercise. When we have arrived in heaven we will have reached a world, where we will no longer need to seek forgiveness from God, nor to ask it from, or to bestow it upon our brother. There we will 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 throughout 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. Believer in Christ, it is but a little while before you will be freed from the conflict, and utter the shout and wear the crown of victory! Every offence you forgive, may be the last you will ever have to forgive. And then even amidst the bliss of that glorious state to which the last enemy will introduce you, yes, even there it will be a part of your inexpressible joy—to look back and remember that in some humble measure, you were enabled through sovereign grace, "to forgive—even as you were forgiven."