The great English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) told us, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The art of forgiving is probably one of the most challenging principles to learn and apply. Yet, it is the one principle that will bring the most peace if we do it willingly.
True forgiveness is an art. It’s not something we do naturally. Like any other art, it is something we can learn to do. While some people have a natural inclination to forgive, no one forgives everyone in every situation.
We find the basic blueprint of much of our behavior and personality in our temperament. Other things, such as family, birth order, and the environment, blend with our temperament to make us the people we are today. Inherent in our temperament is our tendency to forgive or to hold a grudge.
We can watch babies in any hospital nursery or daycare for a few moments, and easily see these temperaments in action. A tiny little girl wrapped in a pink blanket in the corner will smile and coo at the nurses. She takes everything in stride. The little bundle of joy beside her will scream when he’s touched, not held, or fed quickly enough.
In the daycare, we can watch three-year-olds interact and see the strong-willed Choleric line all the other children up to play the games her way. A Melancholy will tolerate this as long as she likes the Choleric, but she won’t let anyone tell her what to do for long. The Phlegmatic isn’t impressed with her ideas or the game, but she will play to keep the peace. The Supine will follow her anywhere and obey every command, while the Sanguine is too busy laughing with her friends to concentrate on the game. These five basic temperaments are the building blocks of our personality and strongly influence our ability to forgive.
Ideally, we learn to forgive others in a family where parents wisely guide and teach their children. Unfortunately, most parents struggle with their own issues and grudges, thus failing to pass this vital principle on to their children.
The Bible has a lot to say about forgiveness. One of my favorite Scriptures was written to the Hebrews, “Looking diligently lest any fail of the grace of God, or lest any root of bitterness springing up disturb you, and by it, many are defiled” (Hebrews 12:15 MKJV).
If we don’t learn to forgive others, we can destroy our own lives and the lives of those we love or who love us. We all know people who were wounded early in life and never let go of the pain. Bitterness seeps into everything they do. They can’t trust others and are always looking for the bad rather than the good in people. They offend easily and are quick to anger. Unforgiveness saps energy and destroys creativity. It makes us horrible company to others.
We can learn to forgive. When we do, our relationships are strong, and we find it is easier to accept God’s forgiveness. Jesus suffered more pain and humiliation than any of us ever will, yet while He was still on the cross, His last words were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
Jesus wasn’t focused on what they were doing to Him. He knew that these people would stand before God and account for their actions. He knew that He was here for one purpose, and the cross was the heart of that purpose. He trusted God’s plan for His life, including the cross.
Years ago, we resigned from a church that we had worked hard to build into a thriving, beautiful group of wonderful people. It was hard for us because the congregation didn’t know about the tension between us and some of the board members. Leaving this church was one of the most painful experiences in my life. Before it was over, two board members got out of line and treated our entire family rather shabbily. We loved those people and never spoke against them, even taking abuse during the transition.
One day, when these two men behaved rather viciously in a church meeting, God showed both my husband and our son that two angels were sitting on the platform weeping. Both angels had a pen and scroll in their hands and wrote down everything taking place in that meeting. The angels were as grieved as we were, and both of them had tears rolling down their cheeks.
God used that experience to teach me He knew what we were going through and recorded everything. We knew those men would stand before Him one day and account for their actions. That difficult period in my life was a turning point. I never forgot that God is in control, even when I can’t be.
We all experience bitterness and hurt. We grieve over the unfair things people do to us. We must work our way through it. We can’t allow ourselves to let bitterness destroy us.Shifting our gaze to the eternal consequences enables love for those who have hurt us. God isn’t as concerned with what we go through as much as He is with our response to it. Our response to injustice is the mortar between the bricks of events building our lives.
Forgiveness isn’t an option or part of a multiple-choice answer to life’s problems. We can’t choose whether we will forgive. We must forgive. Period. It’s necessary. Without it, there is nothing but pain and anger ahead. Alexander Pope was right when he said, “To err is human, and to forgive is divine.”