Forgiveness is not easy. It is probably one of the most challenging requirements of living out the Gospel for most Christians. Part of the problem may be our lack of understanding of what forgiveness really is. Many think one is being forgiving when one chooses to ignore an offense or makes excuses for the offender. In truth, this is not forgiveness, but instead a kind of self-deception that can perpetuate rather than heal the rift between two people. William Blake wrote and illustrated a poem titled “A Poison Tree”—included in Songs of Experience—that tells a powerful story of two ways of dealing with anger and, by implication, with forgiveness. The lesson is powerful.
The first two lines of the poem succinctly describe the speaker’s dealings with a friend who has hurt or angered him: “I was angry with my friend / I told my wrath, my wrath did end.” More complicated is the depiction of how the speaker deals with his enemy. In this case, the wrath is not expressed: “I told it not,” he says, and so “my wrath did grow.” This untold wrath becomes the poisoned fruit on the “poison tree” of the title. False silence and pretended love cause this “poison fruit” to grow: “I sunned it with smiles, / and with soft, deceitful wiles.” Concealing one’s wrath can actually increase it. In the second half of the poem, the unnamed foe sneaks into the garden and eats this apple of wrath, now grown larger and deadly with poison. The speaker expresses satisfaction at finding his enemy lying dead under the tree. Blake is clearly writing about the destructive nature of unforgiveness, particularly when it is disguised, but I believe his poem also tells us something important about forgiveness.
Though there are many small offenses that can and should be overlooked in the exercise of daily charity toward our neighbor, other offenses are too big for this kind of gentle and graceful sweeping away of faults, and in this situation it may not be the most Christian of acts to keep one’s anger hidden. In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus spells out what to do in such cases:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.