Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky woman who was enraged over the damage Federal artillery fire had done to a once beautiful tree in her front yard. She insisted the tree was a casualty of the war and wanted Lee to condemn Northern forces for what she called their senseless attack on her property or at least sympathize with her over what she considered a great loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”
Ruth Graham once said that a good marriage requires two good forgetters. The same might be said of two good business partners or good neighbors. And imagine the benefit to any church congregation made up of people who are quick to forgive and forget.
Through her tears, a woman told me how negatively her life had been affected by her unwillingness to forgive another member of her church. Once she had been one of the most active members of her congregation, working with children and others until she allowed a disagreement with another person to halt her help and end her service. Now, realizing she had wasted two years fuming instead of forgetting, she made an about face and abandoned her anger, choosing reconciliation instead of continued regret.
Breaking down the barriers between these two former friends was a great victory but the time they had lost could never be regained. Readiness to forgive at the moment of the offense could have rescued them from nearly a thousand days of discomfort.
A free flow of forgiveness would revive most churches. Road blocks erected through anger would fall immediately, bringing peace. Efforts now spent in holding warring factions together could be used in reaching out to the community and the world.
Sometimes we find it hard to forget old wrongs because our value system is unrealistic. We conclude that wrongs done to us are more grievous than anything we have done to others; we’re slow to forgive because we think we’ve been wounded too deeply to allow those who’ve offended us to be forgiven.
In the May issue of his daily devotional magazine, Dr. James Scudder reports that twenty convicts in an Australian prison revolted over a pretty trivial request. Usually when prisoners stage an uprising it’s because they want to be set free or receive better treatment. These, however, held a jailor captive for forty two hours until the prison officials gave in to their demand for fifteen pizzas.
Power to forgive comes from being realistic about what we have done and the cost of our own forgiveness. On one occasion, Peter came to Jesus asking how many times he should forgive someone who had wronged him. Seven times seemed sufficient to Peter, but his Lord told him to multiply that number by seventy, calling for Peter to forgive 490 times. Actually Peter was being taught to forgive an unlimited number of times. And that is what God expects of you and me.
Those who are easily wounded and slow to forgive should face up to the hypocrisy of this attitude in light of the forgiveness granted to us because of God’s love. They need to heed Lee’s great advice to the woman filled with anger over her wounded tree.