"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."--Ephesians 4:32
Divine forgiveness is here commended as a pattern. High and heavenly is the prescribed walk. Precepts from God admit no lower standard--His children must ever strive, the Spirit helping, to be holy, as He is holy; to seek perfection, as their Father is perfect; to purify themselves, even as Christ is pure. This molding in celestial likeness is mainly formed by study of the Word. The sacred truths, to which thoughts there are led, produce resemblance--this is a general position.
The present subject points to especial instance. The art of forgiving will be best learned by gazing on God, set forth in Scripture as the glorious Model. The students in this school will be conspicuous on the stage of life--forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven them. Let the example first be viewed--the duty will then take a clearer form.
1. THE EXAMPLE. Grace has been seen as the deep SOURCE from which forgiveness springs; the cross has been uplifted as the procuring PRICE; representative atonement has shone forth as the central luminary of the Gospel-system--the surety-death has been exhibited as its axis of rotation. God, acting in the element of Christ crucified, acquits the sinner. His anger subsides; the torch of wrath is quenched; remission is won; pardon waves an olive-branch of peace. Thus God forgives, and stands forth as a Model for instruction.
(1) Is it asked, To WHAT does forgiveness deal such mercy? It is replied--To every form of evil; to sin in its every phase; to every violation of the law; to vile omissions and to worse commissions; to boundless provocations; to repeated insults; to irritating affronts. It forgets the ingratitude which repays kindness with ill-treatment; it remits the debt of ten thousand talents; it wipes out robbery, and sacrilege, and wrong. Hateful is this spectacle; but forgiveness overlooks the total mass.
(2) Is it further asked, On WHOM does forgiveness look with rescuing eye? The answer is--It smiles on creatures who have daringly defied the great Creator, and trampled on His gentle rule; on children requiting their parents' love with enmity, and wounding their breasts with shafts of hate; on subjects warring against their rightful King, and harboring foul plots of treason; on servants withholding obedience from their Master, and wasting goods entrusted to their care; on men striving to seat Satan on the throne of God. Such is a picture of graceless man. From these forgiveness takes the filthy garments, and in their place gives heavenly robes!
(3) The inquiry follows, What moves God thus to forgive? No inducement from the side of man appears; no streaming tears persuade; no penitence, no contrition, no shame, no confession of iniquity, no acknowledgment of guilt, no downcast heads, no stricken hearts, urge melting pleas; no promises of change besiege the mercy-seat; no vain excuses strive to avert just wrath. Why then should criminals be spared? It is a fruitless task to seek a cause from earth--there is no motive but the heart of God. Grace reigns. Grace forms the scheme in which forgiveness works. Through the atoning blood, through the obedience of the Son of God, a heaven-high fortress is erected, in which the sinner may find sheltering mercy--in this fabric every stone is laid by grace. Thus God freely pardons, moved by the impulse of His love. When man deserves all woe, pardons dispense all blessings. Such is heaven's example. It is as bright as the eternal day; it is perfect as its Author; it is glorious as God.
II. THE DUTY. Those who rejoice in forgiveness are exhorted to emulate the grand Exemplar--"Forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven you."
The precept thus to act assumes that opportunities will occur. The story of each day gives melancholy proofs. While Satan is at large, evil will not be dormant--at every turn its hateful image will be seen. The moral picture of this earth is sad. Love exerts not universal sway; kindness breathes not as an encircling element; tenderness flows not as a perennial stream; truth spreads not as pervading atmosphere--on the contrary--a swarm of provocations buzz with irritating sting.
Let direct acts of cruelty, injustice, wrong, not now be named--let the lesser excitements of the day be marked. A fly may tease, an insect may disturb--thus peace is ruffled without flagrant deeds. How often are pure motives mis-represented--the rightful fact distorted--calumnious reproaches circulated--disparaging reports diffused--unjust suspicions entertained--base charges whispered! Hearts are wounded by the poisoned shafts of slander; and fair fame blasted by whispered insinuation, or the untruth of suppressed reality. Thus the causes of vexation are a prolific brood--rare is the day which knows them not. Hence angry feelings will be prone to rise; indignation will chafe against restraints; fretfulness will suggest that to resent such treatment is alike befitting and praiseworthy.
Let not such feeling nestle in the mind--let it expire before it can gain birth. Resentment grows not in the Gospel-garden--it is a weed of heathen wilds. Reproach is not the language of the school of Christ. Evil must not meet evil, nor sin compete with sin--such conduct reflects not heaven's rays, nor shows the features of the great Exemplar. Such erring steps stray widely from the heavenly rule.
The unforgiving spirit may sometimes frame excuse. It may be said that provoking conduct has been cruel, undeserved, and often-repeated--that much pain has been inflicted, and much loss in fame and character and property sustained. Doubtless there is aggravating cause, or no vindictiveness would rise. Waters are calm when no wind blows; the viper stings not unless touched; if no fire burns, no smoke ascends; the engine moves not without steam.
When the irritating cause is great, the door is widely open for Christian principle to stalk forth. Circumstances may render rebuke most easy; the offenders may be powerless to escape; the injured hands may hold the rod. These advantages give large opportunity for Godlike spirit to shine brightly--the Model shows all power forgiving utter weakness.
A secret thought will sometimes lurk, that such precept is beyond the power of man; that human shoulders are too weak to lift such loads. Doubtless unaided man is a frail reed. But why is he ever without aid? He who commands is ever near, and ever able to brace the nerves and to supply all strength. A child sinks not beneath a weight when the parent lends supporting arm; a weak man on a giant's back can do grand work; Moses called to face a mighty monarch, shrinks not when assured, "Certainly I will be with you." The hosts of Midian were mighty--how can Gideon repel them? He heard the word, "Go in this your might;" and again, "Surely I will be with you." The promise was sure. "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon" gained the victory.
The timid fleeing on the battlefield are often wounded in the back--the brave march on and tread down foes. Jonah seeks escape from duty, and meets the storm and prison in the sea. He, who obeys the call from heaven, finds to obey is strength. Is it not written, "He gives power to the faint, and to those who have no might He increases strength"? (Isaiah 40:29.) And again, "He that is feeble among them shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as God, and as the angel of the Lord before you." (Zech. 12:8.)
He spoke what he had found, who said, "I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13.) They who strive to "forgive one another, as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven them," will find the mandate to be ability.
He understands machinery best who sees it in its work. Let instances then appear, in which grace helped believers to forgive. Are any smarting under cruel usage, worn down by savage and relentless hate?--Stephen's dying scene gives counsel. Could death be more unmerited and more inhuman? He stood the saintliest of the saints of that day; the Holy Spirit dwelt in him in abundant measure--it was his joy and constant work to preach Christ Jesus and to call sinners to the way of life. But malice thirsted for his blood. Amid the shower of crushing stones, reproach stains not his lips--there is no call for retribution to avenge his cause. "He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this he fell asleep." (Acts 7:60.) Grace triumphed over nature's impulse. God's precepts through God's help, can be obeyed. Sweet is the word, "Do not say, 'I'll pay you back for this wrong!' Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you." (Prov. 20:22.)
Paul brings corroborating proof. He stands accused at the imperial bar--he is denounced as seditious, and causing peril to the state. No friend appears to intercede in his behalf, to testify his innocence, to bear witness to his blameless course. As with his Lord, so it is now with him--all forsook him and fled. But his Lord's own Spirit strengthened him. Christlike, he gently writes, "At my first answer, no man stood with me, but all men forsook me. I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge." Strong was the provocation to complain and to resent; but he was enabled to imitate heaven's Model, and to forgive, as God, for Christ's sake, had forgiven him. Thus in the effort there will be success.
Let it be added that Christian profession implies a forgiving spirit. What is the heaven-taught prayer? What is the constant utterance in public, in the closet, on the knees?--"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us." Is this reality, or mockery? Let not hypocrisy insult the mercy-seat--let not the plea be false on which forgiveness is implored; let not untruth arrest the wings of mercy. Here let it be noted that when the lesson of prayer is ended, forgiveness is the point to which our Lord reverts. Solemn are the concluding words, "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Let not the warning be in vain.
The thought then is untenable, that to forgive is to surmount impossibilities. The apostles when exhorted to this grace, conscious of insufficient power, prayed, "Lord, increase our faith." (Luke 17:5.) Let help be similarly sought. The hand which held the sinking Peter is near to aid. Difficulties will vanish--duty will become delight. Smooth is the path in which feet often tread.