“To err is human; to forgive…”
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Kudos to English poet, Alexander Pope, for one of the most memorable lines of the English language.
He is right, of course. There is no human being without error doing. We err left, right, and centre through volitional acts of commission and cowardly acts of omission. To live is to err. We do other things too; wonderful things, but we never bat 1.000.
As a teenager, I played for a baseball coach who was determined to turn us all into all-stars. Unfortunately, our team had the uncanny knack of turning opponents’ bunts into home runs with our wild and careless throws. The coach, grasping at what few straws remained, decided that negative reinforcement was the way to go. Any player committing an error would be pulled from the game and replaced by someone on the bench.
Thus began our transformation from a last-place baseball team into a first-class carnival carousel as player after player rotated from bench to field and back again. We were a sad, dark, sporting comedy of errors. Trying to shame us out of making mistakes only caused more nervousness; even resulted in some not wanting the ball – after all, if you don’t touch it, you can’t drop it!
To forgive is divine. That, too, is correct. God forgives. Unlike us, he is not prone to error. And, unlike us, he is unceasingly prone to forgive. Seems rather peculiar doesn’t it? The One who knows no sin is the forgiver. His innocence does not get in the way of forgiveness. In fact, it seems to cause him to value forgiveness all the more.
We, conversely, who err each day, are reluctant forgivers. We hold grudges and demand fielding perfection. We say, “There will be blood.” (The movie of that title paints a disturbing view of life without forgiveness.) Isn’t it odd that we who err are slow to release others from the weight of their missteps? We are not innocent, and, mysteriously, that gets in the way of forgiveness.
God alone seems capable of forgiveness. But then, along comes God the Son to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, telling the story of an unforgiving, pain-in-the-derrière servant who is granted lavish mercy for a great debt, but then will not excuse a small obligation owed him by a co-worker. The servant’s unmerciful dastardliness catches up to him when the boss finds out and he is water-boarded – tortured – until he could pay what was once obliterated. Having been closed-fisted with forgiveness free-and-clear, he is now left in a world of payback where he is the chief debtor and the Great Forgiver is a hard master. God expects grace freely received to be freely given and will not be anyone’s fool. Jesus concludes the parable: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Economy of the heart
Forgiveness, though divine, is not reserved for God alone. To err may be human, but forgiveness is the new commodity for those whose error-filled lives are stamped “not guilty” because of the blood of Jesus and God’s amazing grace. “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart,” wrote Hannah More, that great friend of John Newton; “forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.” Forgiveness is the system of the divine that shapes the expenditures and manufacturing of the follower of Jesus.
My coach’s economy was fear and shame. For those who err but have been transformed by the divine, our new economy is forgiveness and it ought to be the guiding system for all we are and do.
Now, that’s all well and good, but not particularly easy. Some of us severely mismanage this divine economy and bring our poor stewardship of mercy into our churches, where we become local conglomerates of grouchy servants who hear about mercy, sing about grace, preach the forgiveness of sins, and then grab a sibling, spouse, or co-worker by the neck and demand our sixpence. We are none-the-richer for this, and neither is our witness.
To live by the economy of forgiveness when the world around us – the world we are learning to be nonconformist with – trades in error is no small task.
But it is divine.