Some Christian people who are very zealous in protesting against the possibility of moral perfection in this life are always greatly astonished if a man, who professes loyalty to Christ, treats them unjustly or ungenerously. They believe that as long as we are in this world the most saintly men will at times sin against God; but when a man who attends public worship every Sunday, who is a regular communicant, and subscribes largely to a missionary society, sins against themselves, they conclude at once that he is nothing better than a hypocrite. That seems a very curious and almost unintelligible state of mind; so curious and so unintelligible as to deserve consideration.
That a sincerely Christian man should sometimes have hard and bitter thoughts of God — so these persons think — is inevitable; it is to be expected. God knows the infirmity of human nature, and will forgive the sin. But that a man with any real religious earnestness, with any genuine sympathy with the spirit of Christ, should have hard and bitter thoughts of them, is quite inconceivable. That a man with real Christian faith in him should sometimes be ungrateful to God for His infinite goodness does not surprise them: in every one of lis there will always remain something of what is commonly described as our native sinfulness; and God can see that, with occasional ingratitude, there may be a fervent sense of His love. But that a man should be ungrateful to them is a proof of total depravity and unregeneracy. That a good man’s love for God should sometimes become cold they suppose is a matter of course; that he should sometimes find it hard to speak to God is also a matter of course; but that he should vary in the warmth of his affection for themselves, and should sometimes be almost discourteous to them, is what they cannot understand, and when it happens they are indignant, and begin to doubt whether there is any goodness in him. That a man who has sincere loyalty to Christ should sometimes be so swayed by self-interest, by vanity, by ambition, or by sharp temptation, to sin of other kinds, that his loyalty is for a time shaken and overcome, is among the necessary incidents of mortal weakness and imperfection. The persons of whom I am thinking believe that these occasional moral defects will happen to those who, through many years, have been trying to do the will of God, as well as to those who have only recently begun to live a religious life. When any religious man tells them that to the best of his knowledge the power of God is keeping him from all such offences, they are incredulous; they think that he is deceiving himself, that he is self-righteous. I do not say that they are wrong; but what perplexes me is this — if a religious man who makes no such profession is so swayed by self-interest as to injure them if his ambition or his vanity leads him to commit a wrong against them, if, in a moment of irritation or when he happens to be in a sullen or a cynical mood, he speaks to them harshly, contemptuously, or ungenerously, they wonder that he should have the audacity to pretend to any religious earnestness at all.
It is very curious, and, as I have said, it is not quite intelligible. But I have not been sketching from imagination. The picture might be described as a “portrait”, but it is a portrait under which a great many names might be written. It is no caricature. There is no artistic merit in it, but it has the fidelity of a photograph. Even those of us who have been taught better may see in some of the features more than a faint resemblance to our own. Many Christian men have given a new turn to an old text. In their own private “Revised Version” of the New Testament, they read: “Whosoever speaketh a word or committeth a wrong against God, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh a word or committeth a wrong against me it shall not be forgiven him; — certainly not in this world, even if it is forgiven in the world to come.” Christian perfection in a man’s direct relations to God is supposed to be beyond the reach, in this life, even of those whose hearts have been set upon it for many years. Christian perfection in a man’s relations to his fellow-men is supposed to be so easy that we have a right to expect it of every man, woman, and child that professes Christain faith.
Christ has taught us a different lesson. He has not only insisted on the duty of forgiving the offences of men in general, and warned us that if we forgive not men their trespasses, neither will our Father forgive our trespasses; He has insisted on the specific duty of forgiving the offences of our Christian brethren. He has warned us that our Christian ” brother ” will sometimes show an unbrotherly spirit, say unbrotherly words, commit unbrotherly acts. He has given us very explicit directions as to what we are to do when this happens; and the spirit of these directions should determine our conduct, not only to any Christian brother that has wronged us, but to every man from whom, as we think, we have received an injury.
If a man commits an offence against us — misrepresents us, insults us, injures us in any way — what are we to do?
Brood over it? This is what some Christian people nearly always do. They will tell you months afterwards, years afterwards, that they have never said a word about it, either to the offender himself or to any one else, for fear of making mischief. But they have been brooding over it — I might say they have been sulking over it — all the time.
It is wonderful what care some good people take to get all the pain and suffering out of an offence they can. A grain of sand blows into their eye, slips under their eyelid, and they keep it there till the whole eye is inflamed; they rub it with their finger till the torture becomes unbearable. They might have brushed it away at once, and have done with it; but no ! The hasty, bitter word, the selfish act, of which a relative, a friend, an acquaintance was guilty, they lay up in their memory; and they will not forget it, whatever else they forget. About the many kindly things he has done, and the many kindly words he has said, they never think; but the one offence is always present to them. The good seed of the kingdom may fall on the path, and be picked up the next moment by a passing bird; or it may fall on rocky ground, spring up at once, and when the sun gets hot be scorched and wither away; or it may fall among thorns, and its growth may be choked; but the unbrotherly word which they are told that their brother has spoken, the unjust deed which they suppose he has done, takes root. It may be a very small matter, ” the least of all seeds; ” but they give it plenty of soil, plenty of moisture, and the warmth of excited feeling. It grows up and becomes a great tree, and birds of evil omen lodge in the branches of it. By-and-by, if it turns out that they had been misinformed, and that the hard word had never been uttered, the wrong deed never been done — or if the offender expresses his sorrow for the offence and makes ample atonement for it — there is a great deal of trouble in rooting up the unwholesome growth, and for a long time afterwards there is an ugly place in the ground from which it has been torn. If a man injures you, do not brood over it.
Nor must you talk about it to everybody you meet. It is bad enough that by a wrong word, a wrong act, ill-feeling has been created between you and the offender; you make the matter worse if you create similar ill-feeling between him and other people. What is your motive for speaking about the injury? Do you want to get your friends to take sides with you against the offender? You ought to want to make the offender himself take sides with you against the offence. The more people know of the wrong, and the stronger the feeling you create against the wrong-doer, the harder you make it for him to acknowledge his fault. The story will grow; the man’s friends will resent the exaggerated account of the offence, which will soon be current; the man himself will begin to complain of injustice; and, instead of repentance on his part, and the restoration of kindly confidence between him and you, there will be alienation between more hearts than you can number. When any one comes to us with a story against another, we ought, as a rule, to ask him whether he has spoken to the man who committed the wrong. If he has not, we are bound to tell him that, in speaking about the matter to any one else before speaking to the offender, he has broken the letter, and has probably violated the spirit of one of Christ’s precepts.
“If thy brother sin … rebuke him; ” this is Christ’s law. Rebuke him, and do it face to face. Do not send him an anonymous letter; this would be intolerably mean and base and cowardly. To write a letter with your name to it would, no doubt, be very much better; but there is often — not always — a touch of cowardice even in that; and a letter is not half so likely to be effective as a frank and direct appeal. We are not, all of us, perfect masters of the English language. It is a very difficult instrument to handle. In a letter, no matter how careful we may be in writing it, we are almost sure to say either less or more than we mean. The letter has to be read as well as written, and however admirably we have written it, it may be read badly. Words take their meaning from the temper of the man to whom they are spoken. It is hardly possible to write to a man who has injured us without conveying impressions which we never intended to convey. We cannot modify our complaint according to the manner in which it is received. We cannot give explanations which may be necessary to correct the misapprehension. Go and speak to the man who has wronged you, and then there will be a chance of getting the difficulty adjusted.
Of course, our Lord did not mean that for every trifling offence we are to go and rebuke the offender. There are innumerable cases in which a wise and generous man will clear his mind at once of the momentary sense of injury — will forgive and forget it. If we only hear that something untrue or unfair has been said about us we shall generally be right in concluding that the report is false. I find that the safe thing is to believe all the kind things that other men are reported to have said about me, and hardly ever to believe the unkind things. This is a pleasant rule as well as a safe one. Why should we be ready to think that people are always speaking against us? If we are conscious of not deserving to have the hard words said about us which reach us on currents of idle gossip, we ought to suppose it very improbable that good men who really know us were guilty of saying them. As for strangers, they often speak, not against us, but against some dismal simulacrum of us — a mere phantasm created by imagination and rumour — which they have mistaken for us; and though the mistake may have its inconveniences, there is no reason for being hot and indignant about it. A quiet, honest man may sometimes see in his newspaper at breakfast-time that some scoundrel having real flesh and blood, of the same name as himself, has been brought up before the magistrates for burglary. He does not fume, and fret, and get angry with the witnesses because they say such hard things against the man that happens to bear his name. He does not denounce the magistrate for committing him. He knows that the witnesses said nothing against himself and that the magistrates have done him no wrong. It was another man that was concerned in the affair, not he. And some reports that reach us of what has been said about us ought to be received with the same equanimity. What was said did not refer to its but to that simulacrum of us which I spoke about just now, and which happens to bear our name.
As for the injuries which people who know us have committed against us, half of them may be excused at once. Unfair words are spoken in haste; unkind acts are done through mere awkwardness when there is no real unkindness in the heart. One man is shy; another man is absent; a third is slow of speech; a fourth is a little stupid; a fifth has a quick, sharp way with him that means nothing; a sixth has a very bad memory; a seventh has very loose notions about the meaning of words. Men of these various descriptions say things which they ought not to say, or omit to say things which they ought to say, or they say things in a way in which they ought not to say them; but a very slight measure of intelligence and of Christian charity will enable us to see that they had no intention to wrong us. Nine out of ten of the offences of which we might be disposed to complain should be dismissed from our minds at once, and should not cast even a passing shadow upon the confidence and affection with which we ought to regard the innocent offenders. They intended no harm; we should feel no resentment.
But when there is a wrong that we cannot dismiss in this way, we are to go to the wrong-doer and we are to tell him his fault. In a well-known passage our Lord says that, at least in the first instance, we are to go to him alone, “If he hear thee thou hast gained thy brother.” It is with this gracious hope that we are to go to the offender. To lose a brother is an immeasurable loss; to avert the calamity “go, show him his fault between thee and him alone.”
Just at this point we may discover, perhaps to our astonishment and vexation, that we have very little to say to him — that we have only to complain that he has offended our vanity, our pride, our sense of self-importance, our ambition; or we may find that all the trouble has arisen because his selfishness has come into collision with ours; or we may see that our anger is out of all proportion to the magnitude of the offence, and that while we might charge our friend with doing a slight wrong, he might charge us with feeling most extravagant and unjust resentment. We shall then have no choice but to fight it out alone with our ill-temper, our selfishness, our vanity, our pride; and we shall endeavour to turn the indignation which we had felt against our brother against our own folly and sin.
But if we still feel that we have reason to complain, if we are sure that there is a real offence, and an offence so grave that it must be acknowledged, and acknowledged with regret, before there can be perfect reconciliation to the offender, we shall go to him and “rebuke” him.
If the offender is our Christian “brother” we shall remember it while we remonstrate with him; we shall remember that his offence against us cannot be half so grave as the offences which both he and we have committed against God, and for which, as we trust, God has forgiven both of us for Christ’s sake. We shall take it for granted that he wants to do right — that if he does not see his fault at once it may be partly through our inability to make it plain to him — that if he does not acknowledge it at once it may be partly through some defect in our own spirit and temper that makes it hard for him to humble himself. We shall think less about our personal injury than about the sin of which he has been guilty; and yet, remembering our own sins, we shall not think — or allow him to suppose that we think — that his solitary offence has destroyed the proofs which he had given of his loyalty to Christ. We shall speak frankly and firmly, but gently, with a deep reverence for the dignity that belongs to him as a son of God and an heir of immortal righteousness and glory. We shall not speak wildly at the impulse of personal resentment, but with an earnest longing to preserve or to restore the mutual trustfulness which ought to unite those who belong to the household of faith.
But we shall not be indifferent to reconciliation, though we may have reason to fear that the offender is wholly insensible to the authority and love of God. The Church has an exceptional sacredness, for it is the visible revelation of an invisible and eternal kingdom; but the secular order of society is also Divine. We belong to both, and Christ is supreme in both. In our ethical relations to those who do not share our august faith and our infinite hopes, the law of Christ and the spirit of Christ are, therefore, to be the rule of our conduct.
There are special reasons, no doubt, why we should spare no effort to live in mutual affection and goodwill with those who, like ourselves, are loyal to Christ; but there are special reasons of another kind for being equally earnest in removing every cause of alienation between ourselves and any relative, friend, or neighbour who has no Christian faith. If such a man has treated us unjustly, and we are able to bring the injustice home to him, this may awaken his conscience and lead to the great discovery of his sins against God. His acknowledgment of the offence he has committed against ourselves, and his sorrow for it, may be the beginning of a graver confession and a deeper penitence. When he sees that our brotherly affection has made us anxious for reconciliation, and that our moral resentment against the wrong he has done us has no bitterness in it, and is something very different from revenge, he may find in our imperfect exemplification of the spirit of Christ something to make more clear to him that blending of infinite righteousness with infinite love which is revealed in the Christian Gospel.
But suppose that we ourselves have been guilty of the offence, and our brother has come to “rebuke” us, what is our duty?
It is not a pleasant thing to be told that we have committed an act of injustice; but when we have committed it, and the man we have wronged comes to remonstrate with us, we ought to receive him courteously. To treat him roughly is to add to the original offence. We ought to have saved him the pain of coming at all; we ought to have made voluntarily all the reparation in our power.
When a man comes to “rebuke” us for our fault, we should consider the effort which he has made to come; we should take his coming as an expression of his kindly feeling, of his anxiety that there should be nothing to impair the cordiality of our relations to each other, and of his confidence in our willingness to acknowledge our fault if we have been guilty of one. If he is a Christian brother, we should also remember that he has come to us in obedience to the law of Christ. All this will determine the spirit in which we meet him.
Perhaps we may be able to remove at once the sense of injury. We may be able to make it clear that he is altogether mistaken; that we never said what he has heard we said, or that he has put a wrong meaning on it; that we never did the act of which he complains, or that our reasons for doing it were very different from those which he has attributed to us. If there has been a real fault on our part we may think that he has magnified the gravity of it; but if we have given him real cause of offence we shall not attack him for his exaggerated feeling, or for expressions of censure which, as we may think, are far in excess of the wrong. We shall remember, too, that we are hardly fair judges in our own case; and when there has been a real offence we shall acknowledge it without qualification, and offer to make all possible reparation.
The confession of our fault should be made seriously, and with genuine sorrow. There are some men who are always ready to confess their shortcomings at the first words of remonstrance. Indeed there are men who confess their faults in the most amiable manner when no one is bringing a charge against them; but, as Hazlitt says, they give the impression that they believe that their own weaknesses are as good as other men’s virtues. Confessions of that kind, when made in answer to a grave “rebuke,” are insulting and irritating. If there has been wrong, whether the wrong was serious or trifling, the acknowledgment should have some depth of feeling in it, and should be the expression of genuine repentance.
It may sometimes happen that the person against whom we have committed an offence is inferior to us in culture or in social position. Perhaps he may be a person who is in the habit of committing faults of a worse kind than that with which he charges us. I put aside the discussion of the extent to which differences in social position, in education, and in what may be called moral standing, are to affect the mutual relations of those who call each other Christian brethren — simply saying that, to whatever extent such differences are real, a man’s superiority should seldom be remembered by himself, and should never be forgotten by others. But if you have wronged your inferior you have forfeited your superiority until the wrong is acknowledged and, if possible, atoned for. It v/ill not do to say that the man against whom the offence has been committed is so far beneath you that he has no right to humiliate you by insisting on the confession that you have treated him unjustly or ungenerously; the offence which you have committed has, to some extent, changed your relative positions, and the offence must be confessed before you can regain the superiority which you have forfeited. If your superior intellectual culture and superior moral standing do not make your conscience more delicate than his, and your sensibility to sin more keen, your superiority is of a very doubtful kind. If your superiority is real and gives you substantial power you are only doing the greater mischief by refusing to do the will of Christ. The man you have wronged has obeyed Christ’s law by coming to tell you of your offence; you are bound to obey Christ’s law by acknowledging that you have wronged him.
And now, to return to the duty of the man who has received the injury, Christ’s law is clear and definite: — “If thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day and seven times turn again to thee saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”
That does not mean merely that we are not to retain any ill-feeling against him because of his offence. It means that the offence is to be blotted out, is to become as though it had never been. The old tides of affection and confidence which had ebbed are to rise again and to flow over the offence and cover it out of sight. “Forgive him.” God’s forgiveness is to be the type of ours. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.” “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” There is no genuine forgiveness while any estrangement or coldness remains.
The emphasis and urgency with which our Lord Jesus Christ insisted on the duty of forgiveness are remarkable. He recurred to it again and again. He enforced it by the parable in which the ungracious servant, who, after his lord had forgiven him ten thousand talents, flung into prison his fellow-servant that owed him a hundred pence, is represented as being delivered to the “tormentors,” until he has paid all that was due. In the prayer which He gave to His disciples He taught them to say, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” He added to the prayer the ominous words, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” He knew the misery and the sin which always come from an unforgiving spirit.
He knew that the cherishing of resentment and a sense of wrong would be the occasion of strife and hatred among His followers, would break up the peace of families, destroy the unity of Churches, impair the earnestness and vigour of Christian work, quench the joy of Christian worship. He knew how easily a just anger, if it lasts too long, passes into revenge; and how soon the spirit of revenge sours a temper which is naturally kindly, hardens the heart, perverts the conscience, dries up the fountains of all the most gracious affections of the Christian soul, extinguishes the fires of Christian charity, and paralyses the energies of Christian righteousness. The unforgiving spirit is a root of bitterness from which there springs a tree whose leaves are poisonous, and whose fruit, carrying in it seeds of fresh evil, is death to all who taste it.
He had a right when He was on earth to impose this law of forgiveness on His followers; for He had descended from the glory of God, had endured many great sorrows, and was on his way to greater sorrows still, that our sins against Himself might be forgiven; and His work would be incomplete, it would be to a great extent thwarted and spoiled, if His disciples did not enter into His spirit and forgive those who wronged them. He has a right to repeat the law now that He is in heaven. For our sins against God have been forgiven because Christ died for us; and it is impossible for us to resist His appeal when He tells us to forgive our brethren. He has taken us by the hand again and again and led us into the presence of God and asked God to forgive us. When He stands by the side of our erring but penitent brother and says to us, “Forgive him,” our hearts must be harder than rock, colder than an iceberg, to refuse to do it.
“If he repent, forgive him;” but if he does not repent, what then?
The circumstances of the case may be such as to compel us to insist on repentance before there can be complete reconciliation. The offence may be so grave that, unless the guilt of it is acknowledged, it will be our duty to continue the expression of our moral resentment. Christ has given a law which is to regulate the action of the Church in relation to a man who refuses to confess and forsake a sin; he is to lose the strength and the blessedness of Christian fellowship. But if the offence is a thing of the past, and if it is not of a kind to affect others as well as ourselves, we shall often feel that, when we have done our best and failed, Christ would have us go beyond the letter of His precept, and forgive the offender, though he does not repent. It may be that in a little time his conscience will acquire greater sensitiveness, and he will perceive the guilt which at present is not plain to him. Some fresh manifestation of Divine goodness or of human kindness may soften his heart as it has never been softened before. He may become conscious, as he has never been conscious yet, of the closeness and tenderness of the ties by which men are bound to each other, and of the serious guilt which attaches to a temper or a habit by which these ties are loosened. Then he will discover his fault, and will confess it.
Meantime we may remember how many acts of sin God has passed over and forgiven in us, which we did not know were sins till long after they were committed, and long after they were forgiven. We may consider how many sins we are probably committing now which we are too dull to recognise as sinful, and of which we do not repent, but which God mercifully pardons.
As God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us offences which as yet cause us no humiliation and pain, and which we do not specifically ask Him to forgive, so, for Christ’s sake, we shall frankly and heartily forgive our fellow-men those offences against ourselves in which they are conscious of violating no duty, and for which, therefore, it is impossible that as yet they should feel any sorrow. By our very forgiveness, we may at least lead them to repentance.