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amendment, strengthen our resistance of temptation, break off our evil habits, and at length conquer every obstacle, and every adversary both spiritual and fleshly, which would stop and turn us out of our way in our progress to a heavenly reward.
THE FORGIVENESS OF INJURIES.
MATTHEw VI. 15.
If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
THE forgiveness of injuries is commanded in scripture, not simply as other duties are, but in a manner peculiar to itself; that is, as the absolute condition of obtaining forgiveness ourselves from God; a most awful consideration, and expressed in terms which cannot be mistaken or explained away; “if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.’ Words cannot be plainer or more positive. Nor is this all; for in the prayer which our Lord taught his disciples, and which from thence is called the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to petition God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us; which is as much as to acknowledge that so far from expecting forgivemess of our offences, we are not even to ask it upon any other terms than our forgiving the offences committed against us. Some wonder why this forgiving temper, which they reckon no better than tameness, or want of spirit, should be ranked so high by our Saviour, and hold so prominent a place amongst the duties of his religion; should be of more account with him than the most shining and splendid virtues. But such people do not sufficiently consider the importance of this duty, or the difficulty of it. By its importance, I mean its use to mankind; for what are half the vexations of life, the uneasinesses in families, betwixt neighbours, and all the strife and contention we see in the world owing to, but to the want of it 2 and how are they to be healed and put a stop to, but by one of the parties at least setting an example of forgiveness? As long as each is determined to be even with his adversary, there can be no end of provocation or offence. Every retaliation is looked upon as a fresh affront, and requiring consequently a fresh act of revenge; so that upon this principle hatred must be immortal; an offence once given, or a quarrel once begun, must breed a train of perpetual ill turns, of constant spite and malice in the persons concerned. And this disposition is as painful to a man himself as it is mischievous to his adversary; for there is no enjoying any solid quiet, or comfort of heart, while a man hateth his brother; whilst he bears a grudge against, or is seeking to be revenged of any one. It likewise makes this a duty of greater real value, that it is very difficult. When we have received an injury or affront, we are naturally set on fire by it; we consider constantly how to be revenged upon our enemy, and make him, as we say, repent it. This is either natural, as I said, or become so by our education, fashion, habit. Now this propensity, which is one of the strongest belonging to us, must by degrees, and with great pains and reflection, be got the better of And we have not only this to struggle with, but also the opinion of the world, which is apt to have a mighty influence upon us. Other virtues are a credit and an honor to a man, but this is not. On the contrary, the world are more likely to reproagh him as mean spirited and cowardly for sitting down under an insult or affront, and tamely forgiving the author of it. As I said before, therefore, it is no wonder our Saviour should lay so much stress, and set so high a value, upon a duty which is so necessary to the peace and quietness of the world, which yet is so very diffiuclt to be performed ; and one which there is so little inducement to perform besides the considera– tions of religion. To explain this duty farther, it may be necessary to mention some particulars which we may be apt to confound with it, but which are not any real parts of it. First, then, the forgiveness of offences should not imply that offences should not be punished when the public good requires it, that is, when the lawful punishment of the offence is necessary, either to correct and amend the delinquent himself, or others by his example. This duty only requires, that such offences should be punished and prosecuted out of a pure regard to the public safety, and to answer the ends of punishment, and not to gratify revenge. There is no moral similitude between what we make a man suffer out of a cool consideration and a sense of what is necessary, and what is done out of spite or anger. There is this solid difference betwixt the two states; the one will be as painful to us as the other is pleasant. The two things arise from quite different motives; are of a separate nature; and Christ's command, which respects the one, has nothing to do with the other; so that the magistrate may do his duty in punishing offenders, and private persons may do their duty in bringing public offenders to justice, without interfering with this command of our Saviour’s. At the same time, however, it should be remarked and understood, that where no substantial good end is to be answered by it; that is, where the offence is trivial or inadvertent, or where lenity will not be likely to invite the repetition of it, or encourage others in it; in such circumstances to pursue an offence with the utmost rigor and severity of the law savours more of private spite than public justice. Now if there be a mixture of private grudge in such severity, it is a breach of our Saviour's command, though there be law, perhaps, to color and cover it.
Secondly; nor does this precept hinder us from applying, upon proper occasions, to the laws of our country to recover some right that is denied us, or satisfaction for some wrong that is done us; for there would be no living in the world, if the good must sit down under every wrong that the bad do them. This in the event would be putting the good in absolute slavery and subjection to the bad. But then to justify our conduct in this case, that is, to make it consistent with our Saviour's precepts, the right in question must be some serious right, of value worth the contest, and not merely to show that we are in the right and our adversary in the wrong, rather than for any thing that depends upon either. And likewise, when we are necessarily engaged in a contest of this kind, we ought to proceed with calmness, civility, and good temper, which hurts no cause, and not with anger or passion; and also to accept the cheapest and most easy method that will answer the ends of justice; for what is beyond this must be merely to berate and distress our adversary, and springs, we may depend upon it, from malice and revenge at the bottom. In short, it is easy enough to distinguish in ourselves when we act in those contests, which are almost unavoidable, with a christian spirit, and when otherwise. If we, instead of trying every fair expedient to avoid and terminate the dispute amicably, are hastily engaged in it; if we go more for victory and triumph, to depress and expose our adversary, than for any thing else; if we take delight in putting him to trouble, vexation, and expense, we are far, very far, let his conduct have been what it will, from acting in that mild relenting temper which our religion inculcates and insists upon. Neither,
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