Whoever covers over an offence promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends. Proverbs 17:9
Those with good sense are slow to anger; it is their glory to overlook an offence. Proverbs 19:11
Do you take offence easily? Do you tend to harbour grudges? Are you, perhaps, harbouring a grudge right now?
It’s easy to do, isn’t it? You learn that somebody has said something behind your back. You feel (perhaps with good reason) that somebody has cheated you… somebody has done something cruel, unkind, perhaps dishonest or even violent… The possibilities are endless.
Suppose that you are actually entitled to feel angry, offended or hurt. The question then arises: what should I do with these feelings? Bottle them up? Drive them down into my subconscious mind? Pretend that the offence never really happened?
There is no simple answer – though I am sure that none of those options are right. But at the heart of Christian faith is the great theme of forgiveness. We are, says Jesus, to “love our enemies, to do good to those who hurt us” (Matthew 5:44). We are to pray that God will forgive us “as we forgive those who hurt us” (Matthew 6:12). We are, says Paul, to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
It’s certainly easier said than done! I’m writing, as it happens, in the immediate aftermath of the verdict on the Hillsborough football tragedy, and I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be in the shoes of those who suffered so appallingly.
It’s not necessarily wrong to “have it out with” the other person, as long as we do this with the aim of clearing the air and restoring the relationship – see Matthew 18:15-18. Nor is it necessarily wrong to seek legal redress in really serious cases. But even there the ultimate aim should be to bring about a just resolution and hopefully to achieve reconciliation.
No, when it comes to “offences”, there isn’t necessarily an easy answer.
But t the principle is clear, and it’s spelled out very simply in these twin verses from Proverbs, the Bible’s great book of wisdom.
To “cover over an offence”, says the writer, is to “promote love”. And how is this done? Well, 17:9 suggests that, among other things, it’s the opposite of “repeating the matter”. Not, as I suggested before, bottling it up or brushing it under the carpet. No; more a matter of not nursing that very tempting grievance, of refusing to let what happened darken our lives. And, whatever you do, not going off and gossiping about it to a third party.
I think of people I have offended or hurt in my life. And I am so grateful for the way they have quietly, lovingly set it aside: no rancour, no desire for vengeance. That’s what the Bible calls “grace” – and where would any of us be without it?
And speaking of people who are “slow to anger”, the writer says “it is their glory to overlook an offence” (19:11). “Glory” – that’s a strong word! It suggests a truly heavenly beauty of character, for ultimately who is glorious but God alone?
If we find all this very difficult, here is a great truth which, I think, we often fail to grasp: in order to forgive you don’t necessarily have to feel forgiving.
No, forgiveness may very well be an act of conscious, deliberate, determined will: “I refuse to let this anger dog me any more! Here and now I lay it to one side! Here and now I make a conscious decision to leave it in the hands of God! Here and now I claim his word: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’!” (Romans 12:19).
With God’s help this is something we can do. And it will save us a lot of inner turmoil, a lot of wasted time brooding over the past, and a lot of wear and tear on our nerves. After all, to harbour a grudge doesn’t do the other person any harm – they may not even be aware that we’re doing it. Ultimately we only harm ourselves.
To cover over an offence is to “promote love”. And isn’t that exactly what every follower of Jesus should be doing day by day and hour by hour?
Lord God, help me to promote love in every situation, so that I may bring about harmony and reconciliation. And so may I – even I!- be clothed in your heavenly glory. Amen.