The Forgiveness of Injuries
Samuel Stanhope Smith
Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1750, a son of the manse. He studied at the College of New Jersey, at Princeton, under John Witherspoon, whose eldest daughter he marred. While pastoring Presbyterian congregations in southern Virginia, he helped to found Hampden-Sydney College. In 1779 he returned to Princeton to teach moral philosophy, and became professor of divinity in 1783. He was president of the college from 1795 to 1812. In 1797, George Washington spoke of him as the most capable college president in the nation. Smith died at Princeton in 1819. This discourse is taken from his Sermons, published at Newark, New Jersey, in 1799.
First Sermon: “The Nature and Extent of the Duty”
“Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.” Luke 6:37.
“If you love them that love you,” saith the Savior, “what reward have you?” (Matthew 5:46). There is a natural propensity in the human heart to requite with kindness the favors we have received, and to sympathize with the pleasures and the pains of those with whom we are connected by friendship and esteem. “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:28). This is the sublime of charity. Pride, resentment, and all the most violent emotions of the breast are ready to rise against those who have treated us with injustice, cruelty, or scorn. When a good man is enabled to forgive the malignity of his enemies, much more will he be disposed to discharge all other offices of benevolence and humanity towards the rest of mankind.
This virtue has justly been said to be peculiar to the Christian system. For, although there are illustrious examples of moderation, and forbearance among the great men of pagan antiquity, which approach to the meekness and self-denial of apostles and martyrs, yet are they rare; and the philosophers in general, who studied to cultivate this virtue, aimed rather at the contempt than the forgiveness of injuries — at a superiority of soul that soared above their enemies, than at that meekness and charity that stoops to embrace them with fraternal affection. But whatever approaches a few of the disciples of reason have made towards a doctrine and a practice so sublime and holy, she had, plainly, not authority sufficient to impose it on the pride, and the passions of mankind as an universal law of duty. This was the office of a divine legislator — of the teacher sent from God. And, among the many precepts that raise his gospel far above all other systems of morals or religion that have appeared in the world, that of the forgiveness of injuries holds a distinguished place. He has enforced it, likewise, by the highest sanction — “For, if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
The revengeful and the proud are apt to regard this virtue in two opposite lights, either as a perfection above human nature, or as a meanness below it — as implying an elevation of mind and self-command almost divine, or manifesting a pusillanimity [or cowardliness] unworthy of man. These ideas, I trust, will appear in the progress of this subject to be equally groundless, in which I shall
I. Point out the extent of the duty — and
II. Illustrate its excellence and reasonableness as a principle of conduct.
I. This duty consists in loving our enemies — in refraining from every purpose of revenge towards them — in readiness to return them kindness for injustice — and, finally, in a disposition to seek every prudent and practicable mean of reconciliation with them.
1. No offence can cancel the original obligation that lies upon all men to love one another. Sprung from the same source — children of one Father who is in heaven — partakers of a common nature — fellow travelers through a dangerous and painful pilgrimage — and heirs of the same immortal hopes, man is connected with man by the strongest and dearest ties. Although your enemy has broken through those ties, it forms no warrant for you to assist his folly or his madness in tearing them asunder. Charity requires us to distinguish between a man and his actions: and, even when these are most censurable and offensive, to remember that the offender is still a brother. This principle is the vital spirit of the Christian religion as it respects our intercourse with mankind, and is the great cement of the universal family of God.
2. As religion requires us to embrace our enemy with benevolence as he is a man, much more does it prohibit towards him every purpose of revenge. Hardly need I speak here of those cruel passions that disturb society by the most atrocious acts. — Hardly need I call to mind those enormities that sometimes flow from pride, from envy, from hatred and rage — those furious wranglings, those bloody contests — those shameful means of private vengeance in which, men, giving themselves up to the violent impulse of their feelings, instead of calmly seeking justice from the authorized tribunals of their country, constitute themselves at once judges and executioners in their own cause. Against atrocities of this kind I may appeal, not only to the mild and benevolent spirit of the gospel, but to the common sentiments of mankind.
There are other ways less flagrant, and that outrage less the divine spirit of charity, by which a revengeful temper may manifest itself. Although there are cases in which even the meekness of Christianity will permit a good man to demand his rights in the seats of public justice; yet, if you harass your brother by vexatious suits — Nay, if you prosecute your most just and equitable claims against him with bitterness and animosity — if it is not sufficient for you to obtain redress, unless you can also make him the victim of the laws, you violate the law of Christ. This holy and benevolent law requires meekness and moderation in all our conduct towards men, and that we should rather suffer wrong in matters of inferior moment than seem contentious, or too rigidly exact even our undoubted rights. “If thine adversary sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. If he smite thee on one cheek turn to him the other. If he compel thee to go with him a mile, go with him twain.” (Matthew 5:39-41. These are not absolute precepts. They were proverbial sayings among the Jews, which are never to be interpreted with rigor. They were intended to recommend forbearance to men, and rather to suffer small injuries, and yield their rights in matters of inferior concern, than to contend with the obstinate and selfish.)
Revenge may be seen in the social and easy hours of conversation, in acts in which it is hardly suspected. The asperity of your expressions betrays it — it appears in those eternal complaints of wrongs intended to excite against your enemy the indignation of the world — in those odious or ridiculous pictures which you draw of his vices or his foibles — in your readiness to hear and to circulate every malicious tale against him which calumny has invented. If you do not actually detract from his deserved praise, do you hear it done by others, with a secret pleasure? If you hear his worth approved, are you ready to load it with exceptions, and suspicions? Or do you, by a certain affected reserve and caution express more than you could say? An unholy resentment may be discerned in the most guarded modes of conversation. It may be perceived even in that silence with which a prudent enemy thinks to veil his heart. Would you once have observed, with regard to that person, the same caution? Is it not a sense of injury that has changed in your estimation his good qualities? Or, if you cannot but still discern them, is it not a secret resentment that palsies your tongue, and seals up your lips? Ah! in how many forms of decency, and of virtue even, may this vice lie concealed.
3. True forgiveness implies a disposition to return kindness for injury. “Bless those who curse you,” saith the meek and benevolent Savior of men, “do good to those who hate you.” That sweetness of temper that is ready to pour its secret blessing on the head of an offender, is a principle allied to heaven, and peculiarly fitted to prepare the heart to enter, and enjoy those regions of love. “If thine enemy hunger,” saith the apostle, “feed him, if he thirst, give him drink: for, in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20). Such proofs of your goodness, and your innocence with regard to him, will melt him in ingenuous sorrow for his precipitancy and injustice, or pierce him with deserved compunction at the view of your superior worth. This was probably the meaning of an ancient philosopher (Diogenes) who, when he was asked by what means a man might be revenged on his enemy, answered, “By being better than he.” If there be a way in which you can render him a valuable service by speaking well of the deserving parts of his character, by drawing a discreet veil over his foibles, by generously producing his virtues to light, or by advancing his fortunes, you will not only fulfill an elevated duty of religion, but probably attach him to you hereafter as an useful friend.
This precious law of Christianity is violated, then, whenever you neglect to render him those services which he needs, and which are in your power to bestow. Is there a respectable office which would be useful to him, and which he is better qualified than another to fill? Is there a profitable employment for his industry which it may depend upon your influence to obtain? Yet, do you exert that influence against him only because you have been offended? Although you enter into no intrigues, and form no plans against him, yet, in the decisive moment of accomplishing or defeating his hopes, and when all may rest upon you, do you oppose him? Nay, although you do not oppose him, do you, through coldness and alienation neglect him, and let him see that his interests form none of your concern? I see, the world sees in these acts, the proofs of a resentful and unforgiving spirit. — Do you hear his character, more precious than wealth or honor, defamed, when you possess the means of vindicating it? Do you promote the calumny? Do you, by meaning looks and gestures, give significance to suspicion? Do you even, by a cruel silence, assist the designs of his enemies, and enjoy the slander? Do you rejoice in his unmerited calamities? Or, if he has been culpable, do you triumph in his detection and shame? Alas! are not these the characters of an enemy? If you do not pity his misfortunes, defend, where you can, his good name, aid his lawful hopes, and even forget that he has injured you, you have not sincerely forgiven him, nor fulfilled the sacred law of charity that requires us to render good for evil.
4. In the last place, this duty implies a disposition to seek every prudent mean of reconciliation with those between whom and us have arisen any causes of offence. “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). No worship can be pure that is stained with angry and resentful passions — No prayer can find admission to the throne of grace, while injustice pollutes the conscience, or malice rankles in the breast. A sincere Christian, who possesses the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, will be grieved if, at any time, he has given even involuntary offence; and if, through prejudice, or the surprise of passion, he hath, by word or deed, occasioned an injury to his brother, he will be solicitous to repair the wrong. He will not disdain to make those necessary explanations, or even those concessions which may be requisite to place their harmony upon its first footing, and to cement it, if possible, with new endearments. Nay, where a brother is to be gained, he will not too rigorously examine his own rights, but will display a certain generosity in his advances, the dictate of a benevolent heart, conscious of the purest intentions.
This subject may be farther illustrated by pointing out the false principles upon which reconciliations often proceed, or the mistaken substitutes that are put in the room of the sincere forgiveness of injuries.
1. Parties at variance we sometimes see brought together by the address and management of common friends. To their instances at length they yield. But, observe with what reluctance they meet — what mutual coldness and distrust they betray at every step — how many explanations must be made — how many punctilios must be adjusted — how many compromises must be attempted, in order to save a false sentiment of honor? Do you believe that you have fulfilled the celestial law of charity by a reconciliation that has proceeded upon these grounds? No — even the world is not deceived. It sees that you are not friends. It perceives in your conversation, in your conduct, in your whole manner, the coldness of your hearts.
2. Men sometimes mistake the mere subsiding of the passions, which is the effect of time, for the forgiveness of injuries which is the fruit of charity. The edge of their resentments is blunted, and they sink down by degrees, and almost without design, into the ordinary offices of good neighborhood. — In the various and capricious changes of the world, an accidental concurrence of interests sometimes reunites those whom difference of interest had divided. But these principles have nothing in them in common with the generous warmth and kindness of the Christian temper. The spirit of the blessed Jesus regards a forgiven enemy like a brother reconciled: and an enemy who refuses to be reconciled it regards with those sentiments of meekness and benediction that can flow only from a heart touched and animated with the love of God.
3. Not infrequently, a cold return to the external civilities of society is mistaken for the duty I am recommending, while you still cherish a keen remembrance of injuries you have received. — I forgive him, you say, but I do not forget. He has no reason hereafter to rely on my friendship. Ah! this hint is too significant. We discern in it a rankled and wounded mind. Does the mild temper of the gospel thus swell the breast with a proud resentment? No — it tends to unite the hearts of men by the sweet and attractive sympathies of charity, and not merely to connect their persons by the loose and vulgar ties of ordinary association. The civilities practiced by a good man are the sincere expressions of a benevolent mind, not a hypocritical mask intended to veil from the world passions which he is ashamed to avow. Conscious that God inspects his heart, he studies not to cover dispositions there which he is not willing to expose to the pure and holy light of heaven, and which will not assimilate him to its blessed society.
4. Prudence is frequently substituted for charity. Men smother their resentments merely to prevent the derangement which they would produce in the circle of their society, or to escape the uneasiness that must arise to themselves from a perpetual course of holiness.
5. But last substitute which I shall mention, for the forgiveness is the contempt of injuries. — Well may innocence feel its superiority to the indiscretion of unfriendly tongues, and the malignity of evil intentions. And the calm dignity of virtue is consistent with the gentleness and meekness that become a Christian. But contempt, involving, as it too often does, the offender with the offence, is an unholy temper. It indicates a pride, and haughtiness of mind incompatible, equally with the charity, and the humility of the gospel. Vice, when considered as offering its temptations to us, may, by a noble mind, be regarded with contempt; when seen in the conduct of others, it ought rather, by a good man, to be beheld with pity.
Reserving for another discourse the illustration of the excellence and reasonableness of this disposition as a general principle of conduct, I shall conclude the present with a single and brief reflection.
The forgiveness of injuries is inculcated throughout the discourses of our blessed Lord and his apostles with peculiar frequency and earnestness. For, it is not only the highest exercise of that charity which they lay at the foundation of all our duties to mankind; but it is absolutely necessary to the peace of the world, to extinguish, or prevent the action of those innumerable causes of dissension that are continually springing up in human society. Did every man conceive himself entitled to avenge his own quarrels it would convert the world into a theater of violence and blood. In order to prevent this fatal effect, the wise, the moderate, and the good are called, not only to abstain from doing injury, but daily to cover with the mantle of forgiveness the injuries that are offered to them. Injustice, fraud, envy, malice, wrath, whispering, tattling, slander would keep the world in a perpetual flame, and fix our own peace forever on the rack, were not the influence counteracted by this exalted principle of charity. But, when we consider, on one hand, the force of the passions, and, on the other, the infirmity of the mind, may we not exclaim with the apostle, on a different occasion, “Who is sufficient for these things?” To forgive like a Christian seems to require both a greatness and humility of mind, a meekness and equanimity of temper almost beyond the present frail condition of human nature. But, we may reply, with the same apostle, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.” Let this high and arduous duty, therefore, be the subject of our fervent and continual petitions at the throne of grace. The great Teacher of the church hath incorporated it in that excellent and comprehensive prayer which he hath left to be the perpetual rule of our devotions. Frequently, indeed, it requires all the energy of prayer, to calm and subdue the tempest of our passions — It requires that profound sense of the divine presence which is cultivated in prayer to impose upon their fury an effectual curb — It requires all the humility of penitents prostrate at the footstool of mercy to repress in the heart that obdurate and unhallowed pride which is the chief support of our unforgiving resentments.
Finally, this duty forms one of the best tests of the heart. Men may more easily deceive themselves with regard to the general duties which they owe either to God, or to mankind. But if you can bear injuries with patience — if you can maintain a mild and amiable serenity under reproach and calumny — if you can forgive offences most deliberately committed against you, and return kindness for injustice, and blessing for railing, it is the highest evidence of the complete subjection of the passions to the government of reason, and of the dominion of that principle of divine love in the heart which is the true foundation, and the animating spirit of every duty. — I do not ask if you are without passions? nor if they are not naturally quick and strong? These may be found in the best and noblest characters — but, if the power of religion has been able to subdue them, and to hold them under its soft and gentle rein? If, like Christ on the agitated and stormy lake, it has been able to calm them, and to say to the winds and the waves, peace! be still! — “For, if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
Teach us, O Lord! to understand, and enable us to fulfill this sublime duty, the ornament of the gospel, the perfection of man!
Second Sermon: “The Excellence and Reasonableness of This Duty”
“Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.” Luke 6:37.
The law of forgiveness is opposed by some of the strongest passions, and the most dangerous prejudices of the human heart. The vindictive passions are prone to precipitate themselves on revenge, and imagine a barbarous pleasure in gratifying this cruel propensity — prejudice is apt to confound patience with pusillanimity, and to suppose that mildness of temper is calculated only to forfeit a certain reputation with the world. Pride fears to lose, by kindness and condescension, that imaginary consequence which it claims for itself. My enemies have offended me. It belongs to the respect which I owe myself to make them feel the effects of their temerity. But pride is an inflated monster, ever blind to its own true interests. More real honor, and more solid happiness will be found from forgiveness than avenging injuries.
Having already considered the requisitions, and the extent of this law, I purpose, in the present discourse, to illustrate its excellence, and reasonableness as a principle of conduct — It implies a disposition generous and noble in itself, and fitted to attract respect from the world — It tends to promote our inward tranquillity and peace — And, finally, it assimilates man to his Creator, whose most glorious and interesting attribute is mercy. — After taking a short review of these several topics, I shall strengthen the general argument to this duty, by pointing out the causes that most commonly create dissensions in society, and showing their insufficiency to justify the lasting and unchristian resentments which too often grow out of them.
I. In the first place, it implies a disposition generous and noble in itself, and fitted to attract respect from the world.
All blind and violent movements of the passions are unworthy of our nature. The true glory of a rational mind is to submit all its actions to the calm and temperate government of reason. There is a dignity in being able to command our feelings, and our conduct in the most critical situations, which is calculated equally to engage the esteem of others, and to gain the approbation of our own hearts. — Where indeed, do we find the most vindictive dispositions? Is it not commonly in those who are most feeble both in body and in mind? But, in proportion as the soul is raised by noble and sublime sentiments, is conscious of a true courage, and can rest upon itself, the less is it prone to this base and degrading vice. — The pusillanimous are revengeful as well as cruel.
Those who admire, without choice, the manners of the world have been pleased to say that the mildness and forbearance of Christian charity is calculated to invite injuries; and, being, in many instances, contrary to the established maxims of honor, must only lead to disgrace. Let us examine these assertions. I do not advocate a weak good-nature, void of sensibility and energy of character — but, if prudence, and propriety of manners be united to a benevolence of temper ever ready to do good — and a gentleness always cautious of giving offence, rarely will we see examples of that innate malignity that is disposed to pursue worth of this kind with injustice, or to vilify it by insult. Even vicious men look with respect on goodness supported with dignity. If, here and there, such an atrocious spirit should be found, his injustice will be returned upon his own head by the general indignation of society. Besides, religion, in cases of pressing and immediate aggression, forbids not the sacred rights of self-defence. And, in every case, it permits and requires a good man to place himself under the guardian power of the laws of his country, both for protection, and for reparation. The law is without passions. And the reparation of wrongs, which is due to the weal of society, has nothing in it in common with the revenging of injuries.
With regard to those false and frivolous maxims of honor, invented in barbarous times, and adopted by frivolous and barbarous men who rarely have any other claim to merit, more real glory and more public esteem will arise from being superior to them, than from complying with them. — We see them daily going into disuse as society progresses in refinement. That affectation of meekness, indeed, that springs from pusillanimity is a character that deserves to be despised. And much of the reproach that has been poured upon those, who, in the style of the world, have not properly resented injuries, has arisen from their own weak and unequal conduct. Rash enough, perhaps, to give offence, it seems to be a pretended principle that restrains them from answering for it. True piety is unoffending, as well as averse from contentions. And then, if, on other occasions permitted and approved by religion, as in defending the innocent, in protecting the helpless, in fulfilling a hazardous duty, a proper ardor and firmness of mind have been displayed, no reproach can be incurred for acting on Christian principles, and being superior to an unreasonable custom. It was an excellent reply made by a brave officer to one who had challenged him to single combat: “You know I am not afraid to die — I am afraid only to sin. If you wish to bring our personal courage to the proof, I invite you to show, in the approaching battle, which of us will lead our troops with the greatest bravery to the charge.” And many weak minds there are who are capable of putting their lives to hazard in a sudden impulse of rage, or urged by the fear of shame, who are not able to encounter great and real dangers with coolness and intrepidity at the call of duty. The principles of a pretended honor are disgraced by their origin; and they are disgraced by the vain, the ignorant, and impetuous men who act upon them. — Where, indeed, are those doughty combats of honor most frequently found? Is it not at the end of bacchanalian debauches in which men have given up, not only the true glory, but almost the character of human nature? Is it not at best in those moments of blind intemperate passion in which man is no longer rational? Real honor lies in the command of our passions.
These are not professional declaimings, and the narrow rules of a religious spirit at variance with human nature, and the common sentiments of mankind. If the celestial purity of the gospel of peace — if the divine majesty of truth can receive support from earth, they will find it in the opinions and conduct of the wisest and bravest men of antiquity. That illustrious patriot who was the glory of the Roman Senate, and whose integrity and virtue were proverbial in Rome (the elder Cato) had it for a maxim that, “We ought to pardon the faults of every other man, but never our own.” A philosopher (Seneca), who afterwards laid down his life with dignity, in consequence of a most unjust persecution, has pronounced that, “Revenge is inhuman, however it be authorized by a pernicious custom. On the other hand,” says he, “how respectable is a man who is incapable of being penetrated by any weapon, or being hurt by injury or reproach!” When a king of Sparta (Cleomenes) once said, “It is the office of a good prince to confer favors on his friends and inflict punishments on his enemies” — “How much better would it be,” replied Socrates, “to do good to your friends, and to make friends of your enemies?” One of the greatest, and certainly the most philosophic of the Roman emperors (Marcus Antoninus) has expressed these just and noble sentiments — “Does anyone treat me with contumely or contempt? Be the disgrace his own — my study shall ever be to do nothing that deserves to be despised. Does he cherish against me an unjust hatred? It is his fault. It shall be always my endeavor to be good, gentle, humane, and beneficent, and to show him no other examples but those of moderation and patience.” Thus do the maxims and the conduct of these great men, refute the false notions fabricated by revenge and pride. Although it is beyond the sphere of ordinary Christians to emulate philosophers, and heroes in the fame of their writings, or the glory of their achievements, yet is it in the power of the humblest believer in Christ to rival, and even to surpass them in the admirable spirit of their morals.
As philosophy has recommended, so the universal and unbiased voice of history serves to confirm these high and noble principles, and to add force to the precepts of the gospel itself. It everywhere records the praises of those sublime spirits who, having their enemies in their power, and being able to crush them in a moment, have quenched all their resentments against them, and even loaded them with favors. It covers with infamy, and holds up to the execration of posterity those ferocious and vindictive monsters who would expiate with blood, or pursue with plunder, oppression, and chains the slightest offences against their pride. These are demons sent forth to vex the peace of the world — those are benefactors of mankind. All ages vie in extolling their glory, and pronounce their names with increasing admiration.
Our own hearts on this subject warmly confirm the verdict of history. With what exquisite emotions we behold David in the tent of Saul (I Samuel 26)! When he could, in one moment, have taken ample vengeance on that suspicious tyrant for all the persecutions he endured from him, and, by the same blow have placed himself upon his throne, see him generously spare his life, and restrain the ardor of his indignant followers who pressed to avenge their master! Not less amiable does he appear when, after the death of his cruel enemy, he inquires “if there yet remain any branch of the house of Saul, that he may do him good” (II Samuel 9). On the other hand, had he stained his hands with the blood even of that faithless prince — had he afterwards remembered his crimes to retaliate them on his posterity, David, now the pride of history and of religion, would have become the object of our detestation. — Thus do the native sentiments of the human heart contradict those cruel maxims of revenge so often in the mouths of men. They attest the elevation and grandeur of those principles of forgiveness and charity inculcated in the gospel.
2. The meek and forgiving spirit of a Christian tends, in the next place, to promote his inward tranquillity and peace.
The heart ruffled and agitated with turbulent and furious passions cannot be happy. Happiness dwells only with a serene mind, and a benevolent temper. Gloomy projects of revenge disquiet, and fill it with bitterness. Corroded by chagrin, inflamed by rage, or devoured by base and secret plans of treachery it is equally a stranger to peace. — Is the object of your enmity raised above you so, that the shafts of your malice cannot reach him? What vexation gnaws, what impotent fury swells the bosom! — Are your best concerted schemes of vengeance frustrated by some unforeseen accident? Or are they, by the wisdom and prudence of your adversary, turned upon your own head? What confusion and shame! — But you have been successful — you have humbled him by disgrace — you have crushed him by your power — you have made him feel the weight of your resentment — are these gratifications that, in a calm hour, you can review with satisfaction? No — when the passions subside, and reason resumes its empire, the work of vengeance always affords food for painful reflection. The maxim that revenge is sweet is a maxim only of the passions — It is false. If, in the dark moment of accomplishing its guilty purpose a diabolical pleasure gleams across the mind, the transient flash leaves the cloud that covers it afterwards only the more black and heavy. Hardly could a man invent for his enemy a punishment more cruel than that with which revenge torments himself. It is a cockatrice that stings the bosom that has given it life. Vexed by anxious suspicions, tossed by impatient desires, the hated image of his enemy is continually before his eyes — it haunts him in the day, and despoils of their rest even the hours allotted to repose. — See the restless movements, the convulsed bosom, the inflamed countenance, the pale and quivering lips, the dark and rancorous visage of revenge, and say if happiness can reside there. Above all, when vengeance thirsts to drink the blood of its enemy, what direful storms, what avenging furies does it excite in the breast, after this horrid appetite is sated! Then the specters of murder shoot before the terrified fancy — then conscience thunders at the bottom of the soul. Heaven above appears in wrath, and hell beneath seems to augment her flames, and expand her jaws to receive to a more fearful doom than that of other sinners, the wretch who descends into it all covered with his brother’s blood.
If your companion or your friend falls by the murderous weapon of honor, that prostituted name for pride and vengeance, does a less degree of misery follow this deed? Will not the rank crime of blood still harrow up the recollection? Will not the broken ties of friendship still drop with gore before the melancholy and troubled mind? After humanity has recovered from the frenzy of passion, can it look on the deep affliction of bereaved parents — perhaps on the anguish of a frantic wife, and the cries and tears of helpless orphans calling for their lost father, and not execrate the impious deed? Will not the profound griefs, and the heavy curse of so many distracted mourners light upon the soul like a pestilential breath, and blast all the remaining years of life? — Ah! revenge, however it may be disguised, or sanctioned by the guilty manners of the world, is the cruel prisoner of human happiness. It is daily filling the earth with crimes, and is the parent of half the miseries that afflict mankind.
On the other hand, the gentle spirit of forgiveness, which is the perfection of charity, preserves a constant serenity in the soul, and saves it from those rude tempests that would necessarily destroy its peace. It imparts to the mind the high consciousness of approaching the summit of virtue by the command which it holds over all the passions. By quenching the first sparks of division and disorder, it becomes one of the most powerful principles of social union and happiness. Where it reigns, a peace and order reigns resembling heaven. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is as the dew of Hermon; as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore.” (Psalm 133) This exalted spirit of charity is connected with the best and happiest affections of the human heart. Nay, ascending far above human nature, it derives its origin from that eternal fountain of love which is the source and the center of union among all intelligent beings. The temper of forgiveness towards our enemies exercised from the delightful constraints of divine love, as well as from the consideration of those dear and tender claims which mankind have upon us, by being partakers of the same nature, and heirs of the same frailties with ourselves, yields the heart a perpetual spring of the most pure and tranquil satisfactions. Its pleasures are an infinite overbalance for all the sacrifices which so arduous a duty requires. And it is perhaps the best culture by which to prepare the soul for that perfect love and those immortal unions that shall take place in the celestial state.
3. The highest recommendation of this evangelical disposition is that it assimilates man to that first and perfect Being whose most glorious attribute is mercy. “Love your enemies,” saith the blessed Savior, “and do good to them that hate you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just, and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The universal goodness of the Creator is the most sublime example for the imitation of man. Every moment he is offended by human follies and crimes; yet, every moment, he showers blessings on the offenders. The rain fertilizes their fields — the sun brings the fruits of the earth to maturity for their use. To guilty man every sun that rises upon him in peace, and even every herb that springs for his benefit or pleasure should be a monitor to remind him of that benignity and forbearance which he ought to exercise towards those who have offended him. Does not every moment of a life prolonged to him by divine mercy demonstrate the injustice of hatred and revenge? Shall a frail and miserable worm thirst for vengeance when that Almighty Being to whom alone it belongs forbears to execute it? (Cyprian) “Be ye, therefore, perfect, as your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) — that is, in the language of another evangelist, “Be merciful as he is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
But the most interesting motive for the cultivation of this temper is to be drawn from the great act of divine mercy in the cross of Christ. “God commendeth his love to us in that while we were yet enemies Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Behold that blessed victim who, having lived with meekness amidst innumerable insults and reproaches, died with a sweetness and patience worthy the image and the organ of the divine love to man! While sinners were pouring upon him their curses, he sheds upon them his blessings. While they were multiplying on his sacred person the most cruel outrages, with infinite benignity he pronounces their forgiveness, and even makes the apology of their crimes — “Father! forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Ah! Christians! what an example to us whose sins were obliterated by that act! It is calculated to touch the deepest springs of the soul. Can we hear his gracious voice and not extinguish every hateful and malignant passion which pride has enkindled in the heart? Can we be the subjects of divine forgiveness, and shall we not be willing also to forgive? “Let therefore, all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking be put away from you, with all malice. — And be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
The reasonableness of this duty will become still more apparent from considering the insufficient grounds of those aversions and resentments that most frequently disturb the harmony of society — they are contradictions to our opinions — offences to our pride — opposition to our pleasures or interests — injustice to our character and reputation.
The innocent differences of opinion have often given rise to implacable dissensions between various parties; and their minds, soured, irritated and inflamed, break asunder the gentle and holy bands of humanity and charity. It seems as if the self-love of men took their judgment under its protection with peculiar fondness. Each one is disposed to make his own reason the standard for others not only in political and religious tenets, but even in the management of the common affairs, and is offended at those differences that must ever necessarily spring out of the imperfection of human nature. They are imputed to malignity, to corruption of heart, to every unworthy cause that can justify our resentment. Alas! how unbecoming are conclusions of this kind to wise men who understand the narrow limits of human reason, and the infinite prepossessions of the human heart that give a bias to opinion! Genuine wisdom searches for truth with candor, and embraces it with firmness in proportion to its evidence; but, at the same time, has forbearance for the weak, has tolerance for the prejudiced, and knows no other weapons for the defence or propagation of its opinions but those of persuasion and conviction.
Other grounds of resentment are found in those offences to pride and self-esteem that are so often given in the intercourse of society.
Not to mention that the insolence and disdain of the rich, and the envy and jealousy of the poor, which are frequently the causes of mutual hatred and injustice, are equally the fruits of an ignorant pride that has not learned to rest merit on its true foundations, the influence of this unholy and uncharitable principle is daily appearing on the most ordinary and frivolous occasions. The different circles into which accident or choice has arranged society are made the grounds of a thousand little injuries that are suffered to ferment in the breast, and to destroy their mutual candor. The circumstance alone of being connected with different parties, or moving in different spheres is apt to touch the pride of infirm minds. You have not obtained that rank in particular companies, you have not received that attention from certain persons which you thought was your due — you have perceived in them a reserved or haughty air, you have seen a suspicious glance, you have observed a disdainful smile. Hence arise animosities, hatreds, complaints. Society is disturbed with your resentments. Yet, when the cause is examined, perhaps it exists only in your own suspicions. If it has a foundation, the evil is aggravated by the jealousy of pride. But, be the offence as great as your self-love has painted it, is it a ground on which you should violate towards your neighbor all the precious charities of religion? A wise man, acquainted with the world, should remember how often these appearances are mistaken — a good man, pitying the weakness that would offer him an unmerited insult, should be contented, like the Roman Emperor, to do nothing that deserves to be despised.
Repeated and pointed oppositions to our interests or pleasures, as they are hard to be borne by the frailty of human nature, are too often esteemed a justification of the revengeful passions. How can I love the man, you say, who, on all occasions, sets himself against me? How can I forgive the malice that is perpetually thwarting my designs, and defeating my best founded hopes? Remember that you see his actions only through the medium of resentments that discolor all their objects. The malice which you impute to him may be nothing more than a successful rivalship, and the most lawful use of his own rights. His interference with your pursuits may have been wholly accidental, a thing without any unfriendly design. Yet your self-love represents it as a cruel and intentional injury. Ah! how unjust are your suspicions both to yourself and to him! But, were he an enemy, shall you add to the injury he has already done you, one still greater, by wounding your own peace, and putting in hazard your eternal salvation? How much more worthy of a Christian would it be to be superior to evil by the force of divine love, and, in the riches and glory of your celestial inheritance, to be able to forget all the inferior injuries of time.
Finally, another cause of those bitter and uncharitable resentments that so often disquiet the peace of the world, is to be found in the tales and whispers that are continually stealing through society, like an infectious air, and poisoning the sources of its happiness. — That person, you suppose, has done some injustice to your reputation, or spoken of you with contempt or slight. This may be a misrepresentation as unjust to him as to you. It may be the work of that ever brooding suspicion only that hatches in the fancy nothing but scorpions to sting and destroy its own peace. It may be merely the tale of inconsiderate and talkative persons who are continually scattering through society firebrands, arrows, and death, and then say, like the madman, Is it not in sport? — Perhaps it has been insinuated to you by designing men, who delight in the mischiefs they create, or by false friends who study only to recommend themselves by a pretended and officious zeal for you. — If he has spoken against you, may it not have been the effect of inconsideration which innocence does not feel, and to which generosity of temper will be superior? May it not have been occasioned by the influence of pernicious slanderers and tale bearers who have prepossessed and soured his mind? A weakness which a good man will pity and excuse. May it not have arisen from dark and suspicious circumstances in your own conduct which you have not condescended to explain? Have you not, with too much pride, observed a certain distance and reserve with regard to these circumstances that leaves suspicion to impress upon them in darkest colors? A great wit once said, “It is necessary for mankind only to converse together freely every day to make them all of one religion.” With much greater truth might it be said that a free and candid intercourse would make them all friends.
But, admit that he has slandered, that he has reproached you, and that you have found in him the certain proofs of an unreasonable enmity, how ought a Christian to retaliate and refute such unworthy charges? Not by falling into the same faults — not by bitterness, and clamor, and wrath. These are unholy weapons, and are usually the evidences of a weak and vulnerable character in those who use them. A mild and amiable disposition, a prudent and virtuous conduct is the best refutation of every calumny to the world. And, with regard to him, the dignity of meekness and silence will humble him infinitely more than any resentments, which tend only to gratify his pride, and to give him a malicious consequence in his own esteem, by seeing his power to disturb your repose.
Upon the whole view of the subject, how amiable as a rule of conduct is the Christian law of forgiveness and charity! It contains in it the sublimest philosophy, as well as the principles of the most interesting civility and politeness of manners. Not only does it prohibit contention and hostility, but all those rude and unfriendly passions that disturb the harmony of society — nay, “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause” violates its mild and benevolent spirit. If all men would submit their passions and their actions to its gentle control, it would speedily render the world, now filled with disorder and with crimes, an image of the peace and felicity of heaven. I am aware there are delicate situations into which a man may be thrown, which will render obedience to this law the last effort of self-command. But no virtue can be perfected without an effort — no victory can be gained without a conflict. Let it be remembered that the greater the obstacles are which you overcome, the richer will be your crown in the regions of immortal peace. The duty is of the highest importance, and it will, from the impartial judge of all, receive a proportionable reward. — If it is difficult, it is not impossible. And it becomes a Christian continually to implore, at the throne of divine grace, those aids of the Holy Spirit that will enable him to cultivate and bring it to perfection.
In order to avoid contention and wrath, cultivate a meek and benevolent temper. — “As much as in you lieth, live peaceably with all men.” Maintain an inoffensive commerce with the world. Let every kind and delicate attention mark your intercourse with your friends and companions. Be ready, without envy or coldness, to render justice to their good qualities — interpret with candor their doubtful actions — treat with indulgence their capricious humors — cast a mantle of love over their infirmities. Aid not the slander, or ridicule thrown on absent characters; but make it your benevolent rule to defend them. Never lend an ear to calumny; nor listen to the officious and faithless tales brought to you by others against yourself, only to disquiet your peace. Seek not to intermeddle in affairs that are not your own. Especially, beware of prying into the secrets of families in order to disclose them. Never give way to sudden impulses of passion; but check them till you have had leisure to consider and reflect. — Imitate the example of the blessed Jesus, “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not” (I Peter 2:22). Governed by the maxims of prudence and benevolence, rarely will you have important injuries to resent — and still more rarely will it not be in your power to curb your resentments, and subdue your passions, which you have already reduced under habitual control.
But, if, notwithstanding the clear and explicit law of Christ, and so many motives to the practice of charity and mercy as the gospel exhibits, the poison of a revengeful temper, the gall of bitterness and wrath should still lodge at the bottom of the heart, remember that he who showeth no mercy shall himself meet with none from a just and righteous God. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19) Haughty and vindictive spirits! who would pluck from the hand of the Almighty the balance and the sword, look up to that tribunal where your own judgment awaits you; and let the awful majesty of divine justice humble your pride, and correct your rage. What right have you to encompass the altars of mercy? With what plea can you approach the throne of grace? How can you dare pronounce that prayer dictated by divine love in the form of man — “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!” Alas! in it you imprecate upon your heads the most tremendous curse. As you forgive those who trespass against you! When revenge still rankles in your heart! When you hate, when you abhor, when you would crush your enemy in the dust! Just God! is not this to demand thy thunders? Is it not to tempt, to solicit from thy hands the flames that are destined to consume hardened and impenitent guilt? Renounce then at the foot of the cross, on which the Savior died for his enemies, all malice and anger — “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” Extinguish in your hearts its unhallowed flames. And let no fires burn there but the holy fires of love to God, and love to mankind. Amen.