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ON THE FORGIVENESS OF INJURIES.
SAMUEL S. SMITH, D. D.
Col, N. C. V. P. et S.T. P.
Matt. vi. 14. If ye forgive men their trespases, your beavenly Father
will also forgive you.
THE forgivenets of injuries, which is among the moft
1 important duties of morals, and to which mankind have always submitted with so much reluctance, is here enforced by our Saviour with the highest sanction of reli. gion. In inculcating this great law, he proposes the mercy of God to our imitation, he recalls to memory our offences against him, that this humiliating reflection may render us mild and indulgent to those who have offended us.—And he touches the deepest springs of interest, by making our own pardon from God depend on the spirit with which we treat others.
Philosophy Philosophy has often recommended the contempt, but rarely the forgiveness of injuries. It is a doctrine not indeed above the reach of reason; but reason is too weak to establish it as a general principle of action. It required the authority of a Divine Legislator to enforce the duty in this extent, on the pride, or the meanness of mankind.
To illustrate this duty is the object of the following discourse.—With this view, I propose to explain its nature and extent, and to thew that it is founded in the justest reason.
I. I beg your attention, therefore, in the first place, while I endeavour to illustrate the nature and extent of this duty.
The first impulse usually which men feel on receiving an injury, is to revenge. This dark and furious passion is always violent and extreme in its purposes, and is prone to justify its exceffes, by representing its object in a criminal and odious light. It outrages the Divine Spirit of charity, and tends to rend afunder those amiable and happy ties, by which God would unite society together, and connect man with man. To prevent or to correct these disorders, Christianity hath promulged the law of forgiveness. This law comprehends the following great .principles of duty, to love our enemies,--and to return good for evil.
1. To love our enemies.—No injury can cancel that original obligation that lies on all mankind to love one another. Derived from one origin, partaking of one nature, united in the same interests, and heirs of the same hopes, they are connected by so many and such powerful ties, that no cause can be sufficient entirely to dissolve them, or to justify an unforgiving temper. If
every man should conceive himself entitled to repay injustice with hatred, would not that amiable spirit be de. stroyed which was intended to unite the world together, and the family of God be rent with irreconcilable dissentions? Hence he requires us to love even our enemies,
-to regard them as brethren,- to sympathise with their distress,-to find apologies for their rash and mistaken resentments, -and to pity those whose injuries are more pernicious to themselves than to us..
This fpirit, when it is fincere, will not be restrained to those emotions and wishes of a good and benevolent heart, that are confined within itself. It will seek every prudent and practicable mean of reconciliation. It is the law of Christ, If thou bring tby gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother bath aught against thee, leave there tby gift before the altar, and go, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.-A. good and delicate mind will feel exquisite pain in having given even involuntary offence. If innocent, it will be solicitous to make those explanations that may be necessary to remove improper prejudices from a brother's breast. Or, if through prepossession, or the transports of passion, it hath given him real cause of umbrage, it will not be too haughty to make the just and reasonable concessions, Nay, where the heart of a brother is to be regained, a good man will not too rigorously examine or contend for his own rights ;-he will display a certain generofity in his advances, which is the dictate of a benevolent and noble mind, conscious of the purest intentions.
2. To forgive injuries, is not only to love our enemies, but, to return good for evil.-Bless those wbo curse you, faith Christ, do good to those who bate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and perfecute you. If thine
enemy bunger feed bim, if he thirst give him drink; for, in so doing, thou wilt heap coals of fire on bis head, that is, thou wilt either reclaim him by the painful conviction of his rashness and guilt ; or thou wilt diffolve his heart, if he hath yet a heart to be diffolved, by the warm persuasion of your goodness. If there be a way in which you can render him essential 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,mor by advancing his fortunes, you will not only fulfil an elevated duty of religion, but probably attach him for ever as an useful friend.
It may be demanded, perhaps, whether this doctrine of love to our enemies, requires such reliance on their virtue, and such confidence in the appearances of reconciliation, as might put us too much in their power if they were designing and insincere. By no means.—Piety is not inconsistent with prudeuce, nor the most warm and generous charity with those precautions that are necessary for our safety. You may pity, you may affift, you may forgive, you may love an enemy before you confide in him. Experience is necessary to lay a just and solid foundation for truft. Your own duty is certain and clear ;his character may still be dubious. It requires time and variety of proof to assure us sufficiently of the integrity and goodness of others. A heart prompted by warm benevolence, and at the same time under the direction of a found understanding, will be, on this subject, the best interpreter of the divine law.
It may serve, however, farther to illustrate the nature and extent of this duty, to point out the false principles on which the reconciliations of men often turn, after they have been once embroiled, and the false substitutions that are often made in the room of the forgiveness of injuries.
Falle False principles of reconciliation are numerous and various. We see it sometimes accomplished with diffi. culty by the assiduity and management of common friends, who are offended at the excesses to which it is carried, or afflicted at the derangement it occasions in the circle of their society. The parties, perhaps fatigued with their importunity, or ashamed of their own obstinacy, pield at length to their remonstrances.—But observe with what reluctance they come together! what mutual coldness and distrust they discover ! how many punctilios must be adjusted ! how many explanations must be made! how many compromises must be attempted, evidently calculated to save a false idea of honour, and to evade the genuine spirit of evangelical reconciliation ! Sometimes it is sought merely as a cover from the perpetual shafts of obloquy, or to avoid the anxiety and disgrace of eternal self-vindication and recrimination. Sometimes to fave ourselves the irksomeness of funning, or the awk. wardness of meeting in the saine companies. How often, in the numerous and capricious changes of party of every kind, does an unexpected coincidence of interest reunite men whom an accidental opposition had divided ? How often hath the dishonour of becoming the subjects of pu. blic satire or mirth, induced them to overcome or restrain their paflions? And a few, perhaps, affecting the glory of moderation, or of magnanimity, have endeavoured not so much to forgive as to thew a luperiority to injuries.
These principles contribute to preserve a certain degree of order and union in human society; but they do not rise to that elevation and purity which is required by the gospel. They are imitations of Religion, not its genuine spirit,--and although they may be employed as useful auxiliaries of piety, yet, if they are the sole principles of action, their value is destroyed by the selfishness