Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11
Are you harbouring a grudge? Is there somebody whose behaviour towards you rankles deep down?
“Forgive and forget” is easy to say, but can be hard to do. Once an offence is given it’s a great temptation to dwell on it, brood over it, even (let’s be honest) enjoy it in a twisted kind of way. But that is not, according to the writer of Proverbs, the way of “good sense”. Indeed, he describes a willingness to “overlook an offence” as something “glorious” – and that’s a strong word.
As I look back over my life I can only say how deeply grateful I am for people who have turned a blind eye to things I did or said which fill me now with a sense of embarrassment and shame. They acted as if it had never happened; they let life just carry on as usual.
One thing I have learned is that there is a difference between an offence being “overlooked” in that kind of way and an offence being forgiven in a conspicuous way.
What I mean is this: somebody might forgive you, yes, but do it in such an obvious and lordly manner that it leaves you feeling about an inch tall. They might as well say outright “Well, I do forgive you, of course (I am after all a very good Christian) – but please don’t imagine that I never noticed what you did. Oh no! And you can take it for sure that I won’t forget it…” And so your relationship with them is tainted for the rest of your life: like having a debt which you can never repay.
There are at least three important things to notice about all this.
First, overlooking a fault may be extremely difficult. Let’s not pretend – what was done may not have been trivial. It may have lasting ill-effects on your life and happiness. So coming to the point of forgiving that other person may have to be a clear act of will, a hard-headed (though not hard-hearted!) decision: “All right, I am entitled to go on feeling angry, but I make the choice not to do so. I refuse to allow bitterness to dominate my mind.” In other words, it is not something offered on a purely emotional level.
If the offence was particularly bad this may only be possible with a large helping of God’s grace. It may take time. The old negative feelings may keep rearing their heads again. But in time peace will come.
This leads to the second point: in refusing to overlook a fault we end up harming ourselves more than the other person. Nursing a grudge can poison your whole personality. It can turn you into a different – a worse – kind of person. A minister friend of mine once memorably described somebody as “full of frozen anger”: all well on the outside, yes, but all the signs of a deep inner unhappiness. To choose unforgiveness is to choose misery.
Third, overlooking a fault doesn’t necessarily mean not wanting proper, impartial justice. This is where it gets a little tricky. On a personal level I may genuinely forgive the person who has hurt me and sincerely wish them well. But I may also feel that what they did should be – dare I use the word? – punished by some legitimate authority.
Take an extreme example. Sometimes when an atrocity occurs – a murder perhaps – we hear the victim’s loved ones say “We have forgiven the person who did this.” This is truly wonderful (and often, though not always, said out of Christian faith).
But it will still be right for the murderer to be subject to the force of the law. Forgiveness isn’t easy – and it mustn’t be allowed to appear cheap. Actions have consequences, and it is important that both the perpetrator of the offence and society as a whole are reminded of this.
But – and this is the great thing – it doesn’t cancel out the genuineness of the forgiveness.
Jesus, dying on the cross, prayed that his Father would forgive those who crucified him, because “they don’t know what they’re doing”. On this whole painful topic, that surely has to be the last word.
Father in heaven, thank you for the people in my life who have graciously turned a blind eye to my many sins and faults. Help me in turn never to harbour grudges. Help me to be more like Jesus. Amen.