The great English poet Alexander Pope [died in 1744], published his “Essay On Criticism” in 1711. That poem is the source of the familiar saying, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” The saying echoes the Bible’s teaching that all accountable human beings sin (even those who are Christians – Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10), and that God forgives sin when people meet the conditions He has laid out in the Gospel (Acts 2:37-38; Colossians 2:10-13). Pope’s saying hints at something Jesus taught clearly and forcefully – those who claim to be His disciples must work at having a forgiving spirit. The Lord said in Matthew 5:14-15, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.” That’s pretty blunt stuff. And the Lord didn’t leave much wiggle room. He didn’t qualify what kind of trespasses. He didn’t say, “You have to forgive other people of the lightweight stuff or the stuff that’s really not all that serious or the stuff that is easy to get over.” He just jars us with one of the heaviest demands He ever laid out for those who would be like Him – if we forgive, God forgives us. If we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us. “That’s hard,” you say? Indeed. But before you decide God will let you off the hook for being unwilling to forgive, recall the cross where God’s bloodied and battered and blasphemed Son, with not a single sustainable charge of sin against His pure and innocent soul, prays from a cross to which His hands and feet are nailed – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). A few weeks later the Father did forgive many of them who complied with Gospel conditions (see Acts 2:36-41). Does what you see at the cross suggest to you there was anything easy as God, through His Son, brought to completion His ages-long plan to be able to righteously and justly forgive your sins and my sins and anyone else’s sins? All of this is why William Arthur Lloyd is right when he says, “We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.”
Elizabeth O’ Connor reminds us, “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon ever made it out to be.” One clear message from the cross is that forgiveness is horribly difficult and costly. To forgive us cost God His Son, and cost the Son excruciating physical torment and agony, let alone the unimaginable spiritual pain and torture He suffered there in His soul. If it proved that costly to God and His Son to forgive our sins, why would we expect it to be easy to forgive others who have trespassed against us? By the way, before I forget to say this, can you imagine how costly it would have turned out for us if God and His Son had been unwilling to pay the price to forgive us? Yes, to forgive is sometimes very, very difficult. As some sage noted,”To err is human, to forgive is unusual.” It may be unusual for those who don’t know Christ to offer forgiveness. But the call for those who claim to follow Jesus could not be more plain or direct – “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Burton Coffman’s commentary on this verse provides a succinct if sobering summary of the New Testament’s teaching on God’s demand that we be forgiving – “The watchword for Christians, and for all people, is, ‘Forgive or forfeit forgiveness.’ ” Think about that when you struggle to forgive.