« PreviousContinue »
Thirdly, when another has offended against us, are we bound to overlook his offence, or to continue to him the opportunity of repeating it. If, for instance, a person has cheated or deceived us, we are not obliged to trust him again ; because that would probably encourage him to persist in his bad practices, which is doing him as much harm as it can do us. Nor,
Fourthly, ought we so to forget men's bad behaviour, as to caress and countenance all characters alike, to preserve no respect or distinction for virtue, to testify no dislike or indignation against vice. Men, good as well as bad, act with some view to the opinion of the world and the loss of character; the being ill received and looked upon is often the only punishment which the wicked fear; so that it seems to be necessary, in order to uphold and maintain the interests of virtue in the world, to treat the vicious differently from the virtuous, to withhold or withdraw our civilities or communications from such as would only disgrace the acquaintance of honest men. This sort of discipline is what St Paul authorises, and even enjoins; • I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat. But what we do on this score is easily distinguished from what we do out of revenge, by this mark; that we should do the same had the person who offended us acted in like manner to any other; because if it be the guilt and not the injury which offended us, the offence will be the same whether we are the objects of it or another. These are the chief cases in which we can make others suffer for their faults, without disobeying our Saviour's command to forgive them.
With regard to the command itself, let it be observed, that it certainly extends, not merely to trifling offences or imaginary affronts, but to real and actual injuries. Thy brother is supposed to have transgressed against thee, to have done thee wrong, and to have behaved ill ; so that the common excuse, that your adversary began first, that he was in fault, or most to blame, is no excuse at all for quarrels and resentment; I mean, upon the principles of our Saviour's command.
This duty, the forgiveness of injuries, is rather in the nature of a disposition, than a single act; that is, does not so much consist in determining expressly to forgive this or that particular injury, as in working ourselves into such a softness and mildness of temper as easily and readily to forgive injuries. Be ye kind,' says St Paul, one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another; even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven
you.' Is that fulfilled whilst we recompense evil for evil, and return railing for railing; seek and study only to be even with our adversary; whilst we try to do him an ill turn when the opportunity comes in our way, and when we cannot bear the sight and the thoughts of him without pain ; whilst we refuse to allow him the praise or merit really due to him; whilst we cannot see his success without mortification, or his misfortunes but with secret pleasure ? As long as we continue in this disposition, at least whilst we continue without endeavouring to correct it, we have not the spirit of Christ; we have not complied with his command.
There are several considerations, which properly attended to and applied, may help to mollify our hatred, and bring us by degrees to that tenderness of heart and temper which makes so great a part of a good Christian. I will mention two. The first is, that the only way of overcoming evil is with good. The most generous and effectual method of subduing our adversary's animosity, and making him sensible of his error and unkindness, is to repay it with kindness and good offices on our part. He that requites one ill turn with another is only even with his adversary when he has done. He that forgives it is above him ; and so his adversary himself will confess one time or another. And thus does St Paul exhort us ; •Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. If thine enemy hunger, give him meat; if he thirst, give him drink; so shalt thou heap coals of fire upon his head;' a singular expression, but very just and beautiful when rightly understood. It was the custom to melt down hard metals by heaping coals of fire upon the head of the vessel they were put into. And so St Paul comes to speak of heaping coals of fire upon your adversary's head to melt his heart. But the great consideration of all, and which should never fail, one would think, to produce this forgiving temper within us, is that we stand in so much need of forgiveness ourselves. Imagine our own offences all disclosed and brought to light; imagine, again, ourselves obstinately persevering in revenge, in a denial of satisfaction, refusing to be intreated, disdaining to forgive, extreme to mark and to resent what is done or said amiss; imagine, I say, this, and you can hardly paint to yourself a greater instance of arrogance and absurdity. It must be intolerable, if any thing is, in the sight of God. This sentiment is described by our Saviour, in one of the finest parables in the whole book; which I desire to leave upon your minds, as being what we should always bear about us ; a lesson which it is a shame to be ignorant of, and
impossible, one would think, to forget. It is to be found in the latter part of the 18th chap. of St Matthew.
The kingdom of heaven,' that is, God's dealing with mankind under the gospel, is,' says our Saviour, ' like unto a certain king which would take account of his servants; and when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him which owed him ten thousand talents; but, forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and Į will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out and found one of his fellow servants which owed him an hundred pence, and he laid hands on him, and took hitn by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest; and his fellow servant fell down at his feet and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all; and he would not, but went and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt because thou desiredst me; shouldst not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the torinenters till he should pay all that he owed unto him. We can readily see the monstrous cruelty and ingratitude of the servani's behaviour. Oughtest not thou also to have had coinpassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee,' is an expression that goes to the heart. We must agree also in the justice of his lord's conduct when he delivered him to the tormenters till he had paid all that was due to him. It is impossible not to own it is what he deserved, but our business with it is to see, what also a little secret reflection will convince us of, that this is no other than the case of each and every one of us who does not from the heart forgive his brother his trespasses.
The beginning of strife is, as when one letteth out water. Therefore leave off
contention before it be meddled with.
There is not found throughout the Book of Proverbs, or in any book, indeed, either of ancient or modern morality, a maxim which contains more of truth and wisdom, or which we see more frequently verified by instances of public and private misfortunes, than this of the text. The meaning is plain ; as in a bank by which waters are confined, the first breach is generally small, easily prevented, or as easily repaired, but if the Hood be suffered even for a short time to gain head and go on, the torrent soon gathers force and violence, continually working its passage wider, till it bears down every obstacle that opposes it, and overwhelms the country with deluge and ruins, admitting perhaps of no remedy which human art or strength can apply, or requiring operations so expensive as to impoverish all who are concerned in them; so is it with the beginning of strife. Some small slight or neglect, some frivolous dispute, some affront scarcely perceptible, easily avoided, and at first as easily made up, commonly lays the foundation of those quarrels and animosities which, in private life, are sure to make those miserable who are involved in them; and when they fall out between persons or parties of powerful and extensive influence, are apt to fill a whole neighbourhood with rancor, calumny, and confusion. The breach at first might have been closed up with little cost or trouble. It is seldom that the occasion of the dispute is worth a thousandth part of the uneasiness which each side suffers by it; or that there is any proportion between the importance of a quarrel and the heat with which it is carried on. A hasty, angry, or inadvertent word, or sometimes not so much as that, even a cold, suspicious, or unkind look, may be enough to give birth to a contention which in its progress and effects may involve a whole neighbourhood ; may divide friends, disturb families, set up unnecessary parties and odious distinctions, put an end to all the comfortable intercourse of society, and, what is much more to be lamented, to
all charity and good will and good offices one towards another. What does either side gain? What do not both sides lose? lose in the composure and tranquillity of their own minds, in the society of those about them, in the opportunities of performing and receiving kind offices, which render the journey of life easy and comfortable? As the causes of the bitterest quarrels are generally the most frivolous, so condescensions equally unimportant would in the early stages of the dispute generally close and heal them. A soft expression, a friendly countenance, a kind salutation, are all, probably, it would have cost to reconcile enmities which have since become fierce, implacable, and deeprooted ; but we must not condescend, we must maintain our right, we must not be wanting to our dignity, we are ready to accept acknowledgment, but we will not yield or give way first! We have declared our resolution, and it were meanness to give it in! Whilst both sides choose to argue thus, both sides may entertain an internal desire of reconciliation, and yet never be reconciled. The opportunity will soon be lost. The season of peace will soon be over. Offences are easily given, where both sides are on the watch to take them. Jealousy and suspicion are apt to convert undesigned words and actions into marks of what is already believed to be lurking within. One shyness is returned with another; every return becomes a fresh injury, and every injury requires a fresh retaliation. The distance between the parties is rapidly increasing, till all connexion and communication becomes odious to both; they no more approach each other, and therefore have no more opportunity, if they sought it, of bringing one another back to their former friendship; they are alienated incurably, and for life. A riveted hostility takes place; mutual reproach and mutual railing, invective, slander, and backbiting, are sure to follow. It is become a gratification and a triumph in each to depress and mortify the other. Thus are two neighbours and two friends set down for life to torment each other and themselves, not without almost constant disquietude and heartache; I may say also, with a constant violation of God Almighty's laws. Are not the evils and calamities of life enow? Is not the distress we suffer from sickness, from the loss of friends, from unavoidable misfortunes sufficient, that we must aggravate and magnify it by quarrels amongst ourselves ? Disputes of real moment and of serious consequence will sometimes arise between parties peaceably and amicably inclined ; but such disputes, we may observe, are generally conducted with decency and with moderation. It is for small, and sometimes