By J.R. Miller
A writer says of another, "his heart was as great as the world--but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong." This is the true ideal for every Christian heart. We have it in the prayer which we are taught to offer for forgiveness. While we ask God to forgive us--we declare to him that we have forgiven those who are indebted to us; those who have trespassed against us. We say to God--that there is no bitterness, no spirit of unforgiveness, in our heart.
The language is very strong. In Matthew, according to the revised Version, the petition read, "And forgive us our debts--as we also have forgiven our debtors." In Luke it is "Forgive us our sins--for we also forgive everyone who sins against us." We cannot use the first part of the petition--asking our Father to forgive us; and not follow with the other in which we declare that we will show to others--the same forgiveness which we ask for ourselves.
The great importance of this duty of forgiving appears when we remember how repeatedly it is brought before us. When our Lord had gone through the form of prayer, he called the particular attention of his disciples to this petition, in the words, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
On another occasion, when speaking of prayer and the power we may exercise through prayer, "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him--so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." Whenever we appear before God, and before we begin to speak to him, we should look into our own heart, and if we find there any bitterness, any feeling of unforgiveness, we should seek instantly to put it away. Indeed we must put it away before we can proceed with our prayer.
In one of our Lord's parables we have the same lesson taught again in most emphatic way. Our debt to God is represented by ten thousand talents, a vast sum; while our neighbor's debt to us is only a hundred pence--less than one millionth part of the ten thousand talents, a proportion so small as to be almost inappreciable. We fret and chafe over the wrongs and injuries done to us by others--as if they were really enormous. This view of the greatness of our sins against God--in comparison with the smallness of the evil our neighbor has done to us, should make us ashamed of our bitterness to others! God forgives our vast debt, our ten thousand talents, freely and fully.
The behavior of the servant who had been forgiven by his Lord, toward his fellow servant whose debt to him was so small in comparison, is too often repeated by those who claim to have received God's forgiveness and then go out to exact the last farthing from others. The closing words of the parable we should never forget. The old debt to God once remitted, comes back with all its crushing weight: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you--unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
A lesson which is taught so plainly by our Lord and emphasized by so many repetitions, must be a most important one. The duty of forgiving others is not merely one of the refinements of Christian culture, something which adds to the beauty of a Christian character, though not essential to it; rather it is a vital element in every true Christian life. Unless we have forgiven those who have wronged us--we cannot ask God to forgive us. Luther uses strong language: "When you say, 'I will not forgive,' and stand before God with your prayer, and mumble with your mouth, 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,' what is that but saying: 'I do not forgive him--and so do not forgive me. You have told me to forgive, and rather than obey--I will renounce you, and your heaven, and all, and be the devil's for evermore!'"
We look to our Lord's life for the exemplification of all his teachings. It is easy to find many illustrations of this lesson of forgiveness in the gospel story. The patience of Jesus under wrong and injustice, was astonishing. Indeed the more his heart was hurt--the more of gentleness and love did it give out. There are certain fragrant trees which bathe in perfume the axe that cuts into their wood. So was it with the life of Jesus. Wrong or injury done to him--only drew out more tenderness, and sweeter love. We have a remarkable example of this in the very moment of crucifixion. It was when the nails were being driven through his hands and feet--that he prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do!"
We pray to be made like Christ, that his image may be impressed upon us; but we cannot be like Christ--unless we have the spirit of forgiveness. Too many people who call themselves Christians, seem to give little thought to this phase of the Christian life. They may seek to be honest, truthful, just, and upright--but they pass over the duties of love. There is a great lack of tenderness in many lives. Yet we cannot read the New Testament, without finding the lesson of gentleness on every page. In the culture of our Christian life, we are exhorted to put away every trace of bitterness, and to gather into our character everything that is kindly and loving. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love ."
These quotations show the tone of the whole New Testament. But how close to these teachings is the church of Christ living? Are we not all disposed to be too keenly alive to anything in others which appears to touch us unkindly? We praise love--but do we live it? We want other people to practice forgiveness--but when one has wronged us--we are slow to practice it ourselves!
The lesson is not an easy one to learn. It is against nature. Only the grace of God in us--will enable us to freely forgive others. The spirit of forgiveness, is really the shedding abroad in us of the love of God by the Holy Spirit. When we know that we are forgiven, we are born anew, born from above; heaven has come down into our heart. We receive God's forgiveness, when we receive it truly, not as something to keep only for ourselves--but as a blessing which we are to spread abroad, whose grace we are to manifest and extend to others.
It is thus, that all God's gifts are to be received. He gives us comfort in our sorrow, not for ourselves alone--but that we may dispense it, comforting others with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted of God. He delivers us in temptation, that we may strengthen our brothers in their temptation. He gives us his own joy, not to hoard for ourselves--but that we may become the bearer of joy to others. He puts his love into us, that our heart may become a fountain of love in this world. So when God forgives us, he would have us represent him among men, showing in our own disposition and conduct--what the divine forgiveness is. If we are revengeful, resentful, unforgiving, how can the world learn from us the sweetness, the freeness, and the fullness, of the divine forgiveness?
God is slow to see our sins--or the write them down against us. He delights in mercy. The father ran to meet the returning prodigal. We should have the same spirit toward those who do any wrong to us. We should be slow to record the evil that they do--and swift to set down every kindness we receive from them. Is it not too often just the reverse of this with us? Are we not quick to take offence, to feel hurt, to charge wrong motives or intentions against our neighbor? And are we not slow to find love in what he does, to apologize for what seems to be unkindness, to spread the veil of charity over his failures in courtesy, and his neglects of the duties of affection?
It will help us in learning this lesson of forgiveness, to remember that it is not our prerogative to sit in judgment on the conduct of others. Judgment belongs to God alone. Our duty is, when wronged, to bear it patiently, praying for those who despitefully use us, committing our case to God. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:18-21
Thus the lesson comes to us, written out in plainest words. We should seek to learn it, for it concerns our most sacred interests. To refuse to forgive others--is to shut the door of mercy on our own hope of forgiveness.