…to forgive divine. Alexander Pope
I’ve been thinking a bit about this quote lately. Taking it literally, it works out well for me. Especially since most people focus on the first part and use it as justification for something they’ve done. Or not done. Or said, or not said. You get the message.
“Well, I know I shouldn’t have done x, y, z, but you know, to err is human and all that.” Uh-huh, and at this point the other person is supposed to be divine and forgive, just like that. That’s not going to happen, realistically. So it’s a win-win situation – I can err, because I’m human, and that’s what humans do, and I don’t have to forgive because that’s God’s job.
The problem is, I’m not let off the hook that easily. First off, forgiveness is important. I think that’s a fairly unarguable statement, whether you believe in God or not. If you know you’ve done something wrong, you like to know that the person you’ve hurt has forgiven you. If you’ve been the victim, you need to get some closure from the hurt, and draw a line under that chapter of your life. That’s basically forgiveness – letting go of the offence so it can’t hurt you any more.
If you do believe in God, forgiveness is taken to a whole new level. There’s the ultimate forgiveness, for all human sin. Yes, to err is human. Sin is essentially turning away from God, choosing self over God, and humans do that on a spectacular scale. We all have free will, and the best of us uses it at some point to do what we want to do, not what God wants. There has only ever been one perfect man who unfailingly chose to put God’s will over his own free will, and that was Jesus. And let’s be honest, we should pay for that. We are hurting God every time we sin, in the same way that we are hurt when people betray us or let us down. If we need forgiveness from each other, how much more do we need it from God? But God does not have to forgive us – He does not have to do anything. Which makes it even more amazing that He does. There is a whole other discussion here on sin, redemption and salvation, but I’ll save that for another time. The relevant point today is that God forgives us – and, by the way, that means for the bitching x did about y last week, as well as the pack of cigarettes z nicked from the corner shop last week, as well as the countless innocents killed by wars, and the wife killed by her husband for not cooking the dinner properly. God’s forgiveness does not have criteria or a cut off point, it is there for all sins, even if we personally think they are unforgiveable. In His eyes sins are not graded, they are all equally bad, so it’s a good job it is up to Him to forgive them, not us.
But on the other side of that, He is also calling on the part of Him in each of us to forgive each other. This is hard. To forgive is divine, and since we are made in His image it is a standard we are asked to aspire to. Forgiveness may be important, as I said earlier, but not necessarily imperative until you bring God into the equation. He directly commands us to forgive when He gives us the perfect prayer to use:
Our Father in Heaven,
hallowed be Your Name,
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:9-13 NIV). Most people know these two lines as ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. It’s hit-you-over-the-head clear that forgiveness is not optional, and it ties in with the rest of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbours.
Now, confession time. I find forgiveness a real struggle. Even as I am writing this, I am painfully aware of offences against me both long-term and recent, and I am bitter and hurt. It’s the reason I wrote this post – I know what I need to do, I know what God calls me to do, and I do struggle. I take things very personally and very deeply. I invest a lot in relationships and when those relationships let me down I grieve for a long time. It’s not so bad when people apologise – I can move on. But there is no sub-clause saying “as we have also forgiven our debtors [*as long as they’re really, really sorry]”. Jesus says, again unequivocally, that you have to love your enemies. Forgive anyone who has wronged you. And this is one of the many places where I fall down. I’m naturally clumsy, and never more so than on the road to God. But I have to learn, slowly and painfully, that I cannot have the whole-hearted, joyous relationship with God that I want while I am carrying this burden. It is a real, heavy burden, that twists your heart and colours everyday life with bitterness. I suspect there are thousands, maybe millions of people under similar burdens, of varying shapes and sizes. Luckily, Jesus knows we are human, with failings, and He’s got a lifebelt for us.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28)
If we call on Him, He will help us. The only way I will get rid of my burden is to offload it onto Him. I need to pray for the strength to leave old wounds behind and look ahead. And when I’ve done that, I can have hope that my own sins (against God and others) are also forgiven.