The quality of Mercy

“Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure : fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.” Psalm 37:8

According to Owen Chadwick, William Howley the early nineteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury used to repeat this verse daily in his last years. It is one of the many pools of refreshment we meet in reading the Psalter, an exercise which it must be admitted sometimes brings us into contact with anger, vindictiveness and a certain disquieting self-righteousness. Here the message is all humility and forgiving, setting aside not only immediate anger but also the ‘fretting’ that can last when the first storm is over.

All Christians must fulfil the duty to forgive, enjoined by our Lord in his words and supremely exemplified by his prayer on Calvary for those who were killing him. Christian forgiving is not a benevolent humanist ideal but an attribute of God himself which we try, with his aid, to emulate. Yet forgiving can be incomplete, offered in words of personal reconciliation or in prayer, but not fully accepted into our inmost self. The sense of grievance continues to rankle and prevents the full restoration of a loving relationship. Such a false honouring of the letter and neglect of the spirit, is shown in extreme form by the egregious Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Writing to Mr Bennett about the elopement of one of his daughters, he explains, “You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in our hearing”.

How different from our Lord’s warning that we must forgive ‘from the heart’ those who trespass against us, if we are to be spared from condign judgement on our own sins against the Father (Matthew 18:35). The old adage to ‘forgive and forget’ is not quite the same. Forgetting is not at the command of our conscious wills. God does not forget – to do so would be, in human terms, a diminution of his perfection. But in his mercy he does not call to mind our sins; he chooses not to remember them (Jeremiah 31:34). The Christian’s duty is to do the same; to refrain from dwelling on the past wrongs, to refuse to entertain the resentful thoughts which begin to thrust themselves into the mind without our desire. Like all temptations, the temptation to resentment needs to be dealt with immediately it presents itself.

It is a hard counsel, one of many in our faith which carries no promise of an easy ride through this world. Our insufficiency will be made sufficient if we offer it in prayer. Resentment is a thorn in the flesh as severe as any; it can be borne and overcome in the assurance given to St Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). The direct command of our Lord for perfect forgiveness is a way to mental as well as spiritual healing, resentment has a terrible power; it eats away at our peace of mind and can have grievous consequences for physical health. So many injunctions in the Bible do not threaten an immediate thunderbolt, but warn us of the personal consequences of sin that goes against our God created nature and the ordered world of his pleasure. To drive out resentment, to leave off wrath and not to fret, is a kind of deliverance from the power of evil.

Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English, London School of Economics.