FORGIVE AND FORGET
Of all the demands which our Lord makes upon his followers, none is more difficult, I would say, than the simple requirement that we should forgive other people their trespasses against us. If someone has been rude to us, or done us a bad turn, or hurt our feelings, then, every time we meet him, or even merely think of him, the bitter memory of the wrong recurs and nags at us. Nor is it of any use to say, "I forgive him!" It seems to make no difference. It is like having a splinter in your finger. What is the use of saying, "I'll forgive and forget it," when it is still there, festering in the wound? Obviously we must get it out first. But how?
Well, first of all we must try to find the answers to two questions: "Why did he do this to me?" and, "Why was I so upset about it?"
No one can judge another person's motives, but we can make a few likely guesses. Suppose it was a case of rudeness; you may not have been the intended target. He was probably angry at something else altogether, but you happened to be there when he was lashing around, and so you got hit. That is often the case in a family when husbands and wives hurt one another, or parents and children. We strike out indiscriminately, and those who happen to be nearest get the blows. Or again, the person who attacks us may have a guilty conscience, and may be afraid we will attack him, and so he gets in first. I saw that once in a car accident. The driver who was obviously to blame jumped out and began pouring abuse on the other party. It was a kind of self-defence. Or, quite possibly, the person who attacks you may really believe he is in the right and you are in the wrong. You may have unwittingly given him cause for annoyance, and he may (rightly or wrongly) feel justified in attacking you. Try to put yourself in his place and see whether he has any reason to feel a grudge against you. If so, that might easily explain his conduct. There is a saying, "To understand all is to forgive all," and although this may be an over-statement, yet a full understanding is undoubtedly a help towards forgiveness.
Now for the other question: "Why was I so upset about what the other person said or did?" Almost always it was because he touched my pride on a tender spot. Or, if not my pride, then he robbed me of something I possessed and valued. In nine cases out of ten, we are angry because either our love of self or our love of the world has been assaulted. Yet we know and admit that these loves are too strong in all of us and need toning down and putting into the background. Perhaps if some rude, fellow tells us what he thinks of us, he may be nearer the truth than we realise! We should be grateful to him for drawing our attention to our danger-points, and thus aiding us in our self-knowledge and true humility. "Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you." You should say, "Thanks! How right you are!" If we were not so touchy ("sensitive" is a kinder word) we might never have noticed the affront which is rankling so much in us. At any rate we should have forgotten it long ago. And our touchiness may be just as great an evil in the eyes of the Lord as the rudeness of which we are complaining. Perhaps worse!
Very well, we have now tried to see the situation as it really is, from the other person's point of view, and our own, and the Lord's. What are we going to do about it? Somehow we have got to bring LOVE into the situation, for love is the only healer. That is why Jesus said: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you or persecute you." You should really be sorry for this annoying person. It has been said that "a trouble-maker is usually a troubled person." Do what you can to help him, to build up his self-esteem (which is probably too low) and bring him into the circle of your concern. And certainly pray for him, as Jesus urged. If you are praying for him you will soon stop hating him. Go and talk to him in a friendly way, and say how sorry you are that things have gone wrong between you. Love heals all relationships. You must have something positive to fill the void when you have thrown out your hate, otherwise the devil will soon come back, bringing seven others with him, and your last state will be worse than your first! You must replace hate with love.
Suppose the person rejects your friendly approach and goes on being unpleasant? Well, Jesus said you must go on forgiving him, until seventy times seven. But this will get easier as you go on. If you have fully forgiven him once, nothing else that he does will have the power to hurt you. It is like smallpox: once you have had it and recovered from it, you are immune from further attacks. And here is an amazing thing: your newly-found love for the trouble-maker, and your prayers for him, will very probably bring about a change for the good in him! Perhaps not all at once, but eventually. A new relationship will develop between you and him, and he may quite possibly end up by being one of your best friends.
When we have exercised Christian Forgiveness in a few varied situations, we begin to develop a forgiving attitude towards the whole of life. The truly forgiving person does not merely employ his powers of forgiveness in an emergency, when some specific wrong has been done him. He does not place himself on a pedestal and say, in a condescending manner, "You have wronged me, but I forgive you!" Rather, he ceases to notice whether people have wronged him or not. He realises that life is full of troubles as well as full of joys; we are all in a mixed-up condition; but by and large life is good, and we must take the bad with the good. Influences are reaching us from both heaven and hell; we are in balance between them, in a state of equilibrium. By seeking to lay the blame on others, we tip the scales towards hell; by looking for the best in others, we tip the scales towards heaven.
The importance of this subject of forgiveness cannot be over-stressed. It is basic to our salvation. If we are harbouring a resentment against somebody or some situation, or if the memory of something rankles and festers in our mind, then all further progress on the road to heaven is blocked for us. Everything we do thereafter is just so much waste of time; it will get us nowhere. Our contact with the Lord will be cut right through; for, as he himself said, "If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." And, if our heavenly Father does not forgive us, we are sunk!
We need God's forgiveness every moment of every day. Our debt to him is infinite, for our very life comes from him. Remember the parable of the king who forgave his servant ten thousand talents (say a million pounds) but the man would not forgive his fellow servant a hundred pence! The king sent for the man. "You scoundrel!" he said to him; "I remitted the whole of your enormous debt when you appealed to me; were you not bound to show your fellow servant the same pity as I showed you?" And so angry was the master that he condemned the man to torture until he should pay his own debt in full. And Jesus concluded the story by saying, "That is how the heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive your brother his trespasses." (Matthew 18:32-35.)
That is strong speaking, is it not? Unforgivingness is an unforgivable sin. Jesus was very gentle towards ordinary sinners. Remember how he dealt with the woman taken in adultery: she should have been stoned to death according to the law, but Jesus refused to condemn her, saying instead, "Go in peace and sin no more." But unforgivingness, by its very nature, cannot be forgiven, because the person who refuses to forgive others denies the validity of forgiveness itself, and so cannot be forgiven by God. God forgives him from his side, but the man is unable to accept the forgiveness, since he doesn't in practice approve of it! "With what judgment you judge you shall be judged." If you condemn others, you are automatically condemned. Let us remember this next time we feel inclined to pull someone's character to pieces! Criticize him if you will, but always with the proviso: "Well, he is bad; but then I am probably just as bad in other respects. We must just try to get along together as best we can; and may the Good Lord have mercy on our souls!" If we are to be forgiven, we must make forgiveness important to us by forgiving everybody and everything that owes us a debt, large or small.
Here is an exercise for you to try out. Each night for one week, before going to sleep, think back over the day and see whether anyone or anything has annoyed you. Write it on an imaginary blackboard. Then picture yourself wiping it out with a duster. Wipe it out so thoroughly that you will never remember it again with any other emotion than amused tolerance. Then turn to the Lord, the Great King, and ask him for reconciliation and a renewal of your loving relationship with him. You know the terms and conditions well enough: you have repeated them every day of your life. But now try really to mean what you say: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Or, if you prefer it, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." And make a vow that in future you will never get past that key phrase in the Lord's Prayer until you have, in fact, forgiven the whole world.