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’re willing to do it.
Forgiving others is an art. It’s not something we do naturally. Like any other art, it is something we can learn to do. Although some people seem to be born with a disposition that makes them more inclined to forgive, nobody naturally forgives everyone in every circumstance.
We are each born with a unique temperament, which is the basic blueprint of much of our behavior and personality. Other factors, such as family, birth order, and environment, blend with our temperament, and help make us the people we are today. Inherent in our temperament is our tendency to forgive or to hold a grudge.
We can go into any hospital nursery or daycare facility, watch babies for a few moments, and quickly 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 next to her will scream when he’s touched, or 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 block of our personality and strongly influences our ability to forgive.
Ideally, we learn to forgive others in a family where parents wisely guide and teach us. Unfortunately, most parents struggle with their own issues and grudges, failing to teach this vital principle to their children.
The Bible has many things 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 and are always looking for the bad rather than the good in others. They offend easily and quickly get angry for the smallest slight, where real or perceived. Unforgiveness saps energy and destroys our creativity. It makes us horrible company to others.
We can all 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 hanging 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 looking at what they were doing to Him. He recognized that these mortals would stand before God one day and account for their actions. He knew that He was here for one purpose, and the cross was an essential part of that purpose. He learned to trust God with the 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 had no idea that there was so much 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, a couple of men got very ugly and treated our entire family rather harshly. We loved those people and never spoke out against them, even taking extreme abuse during the transition.
One day when 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.
God used that experience to teach me that He knew what we were going through He was recording everything. We understood that those men would stand before Him one day and account for the actions that day. That difficult period in my life was a turning point. From then on, I knew that God was in control even when I couldn’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 hold onto bitterness and let it destroy us.
If we take our eyes off the one who has hurt us and focus on the eternal consequences of their actions, we can even love them, and in time the hurt and anger will turn into compassion. 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. 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.
Dr. Sharon Schuetz has been a Christian since she and her husband, Pastor Michael Schuetz gave their hearts to God on November 15, 1978. They have ministered together since 1989 and together they have pastored seven different churches. Sharon was the senior pastor of their first church while Michael served as co-pastor. In the other churches, Michael served as senior pastor and Sharon his co-pastor. She has been licensed to counsel through the National Christian Counselors Association in Sarasota, FL since 1993.