The Might and Majesty of Forgiving Your Enemies

Image: Máté Kiss / Getty Images
Image: Máté Kiss / Getty Images

On July 8, 1838, the seventh president of the United States, General Andrew Jackson, informed his minister, the Reverend Dr. John Edgar, that he wanted to become a member of the Presbyterian Church and receive Communion. According to the account from Jackson’s biographer, Robert Remini, Dr. Edgar asked the president about his conversion and convictions, and gave his approving nod with each satisfactory answer.

But Dr. Edgar was a godly minister, and he felt the need to probe the president’s soul more deeply. “General, there is one more question which it is my duty to ask you,” Edgar announced. “Can you forgive all your enemies?”

The question stunned General Jackson. He stared at his minister for a moment while he gathered his thoughts. He then broke the silence: “My political enemies, I can freely forgive,” Jackson confessed. “But as for those who abused me when I was serving my country in the field, and those who attacked me for serving my country—Doctor, that is a different case.”

This was an honest answer, but Dr. Edgar wasn’t satisfied. Christians must forgive all, Edgar insisted to America’s seventh president. This was absolute.

Lamblike Grace
Unlike Andrew Jackson, few of us have had to suffer in the service of our country. But each of us knows how hard it is to forgive—to bear injury from others, from those who have mistreated us.

And yet Dr. Edgar was correct in his insistence that Christians must forgive all. Followers of Jesus will suffer mistreatment with what Jonathan Edwards called a “lamblike disposition”—the kind we see in Jesus. Slights and slanders, hurts and harms are met with meekness, not hostility.

This, biblically speaking, is not optional. Forgiving others is one of the defining marks of a real Christian.

We find a compelling picture of what it means to be real in this way in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with a series of blessings we have come to call the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and so on (Matt. 5:3–5).

We should pay attention to Jesus’ audience—the ones he declares these blessings to. He is speaking to followers who face the reality of suffering and persecution. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:10–11). Jesus wants to galvanize the souls of his disciples, readying them to meet injury from others with lamblike grace.

Authentic Christians reflect Christ’s character in many different ways—from their love of truth to their pursuit of justice. But there’s something singularly powerful about the quality we sometimes call meekness, this forgiving disposition. According to Jonathan Edwards, meekness possesses and governs their lives—“it is their true and proper character.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Todd Wilson