spirituality

To Forgive, Divine

In the poem “An Essay on Criticism,” 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope first wrote the phrase “to err is human.” As most colloquial phrases go, part of his line dropped off. The line reads: “to err is human; to forgive, divine.”

But what exactly is forgiveness, and how is it divine?

I’ve heard that forgiveness is allowing someone to hurt you again. How is being hurt once, let alone again, a good thing? That’s for chumps, for people who like to get walked all over, for people who don’t understand how the world works, for fools, for idiots. It’s just utterly ridiculous, downright stupid, and quite senseless, if you really think about it. How can that idiocy called forgiveness possibly be divine? Yet, it is the Lord Himself who constantly calls for forgiveness. When a disciple asks Him how to pray, Jesus answers:

“When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”

Luke 11:2-4

That line about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer has always tripped me up. I’m not the first one who’s struggled with the line.

Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza spent 91 days in hidden a small bathroom in a local pastor’s house cramped with seven other starving women. The genocide killed an estimated 1 million people.  People Immaculée knew from her community personally claimed the lives of her father, mother, and 2 brothers. She also lost countless friends and extended family members. She herself lost 50 pounds during her time in hiding.

For a long time, she too was stuck on forgiveness.

I said the Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times, hoping to forgive the killers who were murdering all around me. It was no use – every time I got to the part asking God to “forgive those who trespass against us,” my mouth went dry. I couldn’t say the words because I didn’t truly embrace the feeling behind them.

– Immaculée Ilibagiza, Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide

Immaculée was hunted, her life shattered, her family killed mercilessly, her humanity completely forgotten. How it is fair to ask her to forgive?

People have deeply wronged me. How is it fair to ask me to forgive? 

Why must anyone forgive?

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

So too, we forgive because He first forgave us.

From the first moments of the Passion, in the upper room, Jesus gave his disciples encouragement, praying for them and for us. In the agony in the garden, Jesus prayed for us. Standing in front of Pilate, scourged at the pillar, carrying the cross to Calvary, He prayed for us every step, every whip, every second of pain. On the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

Like “forgive those who trespass against us,” I’ve never understood this line. People know what they do. They lie, steal, cheat, rape, murder, etc. knowing they’re lying, stealing, cheating, raping, murdering, etc. I mean, they might deny how bad it is, logic the guilt and shame away, justify the deed in whatever manner, avoid thinking about it, etc. etc. to cope, but people know what they’re doing.

Those people that killed Jesus, tortured Jesus, nailed Him through His hands to a piece of wood, stripped Him of His clothes and dignity, beat Him to the brink of death, pushed Him through the streets, mocked Him, denied Him? They all knew what they were doing. They all saw Him. And I bet almost all of them would have done it again.

Yet, on the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

But even when we know what we’re doing, when we know we’re lying, stealing, cheating, etc. do we really know what we’re doing? Do we see the hurt we cause? Do we see the pain we cause? Do we see the division we cause? Do we truly know every facet what we’re doing and what we’re causing? No. There’s is absolutely no way in this life to completely see, understand, and know the breadth and length and height and depth of the damage we cause.

So, why must I forgive?

Because we too are human and we too err.

The thing about forgiveness is it’s not a free pass. It’s not pretending the wrong wasn’t wrong. It’s not forgetting that the wrong ever happened. It’s not dependent the other person. It’s not pretending that the other person is a monster. It doesn’t even always mean we need to reconcile with the person.

Forgiveness is our choice, our attitude, our opportunity for freedom.

Forgiveness is looking at the person who has wronged us, recognizing their broken humanity, and realizing they are deeply loved by Our Heavenly Father. In recognizing their broken humanity, we can recognize our own imperfections, our own mistakes, our own temptations, our our shortcomings. In realizing they are deeply loved by Our Heavenly Father, we realize how much we too are loved by Him.

Unforgiveness is a lonely, bitter prison that only keeps us from true freedom and joy. Unforgiveness traps us in the past, in hurt, in agony, and grows like a tumor, gnawing away our joy and happiness from other aspects of our lives. Most dangerously, without forgiving others, we cannot begin to understand how truly Our Heavenly Father forgives us.

Understanding forgiveness takes times. After weeks spent in deep prayer in that tiny bathroom, Immaculée learned the Father’s love for everyone, including those who killed her family and were trying to kill her. In coming to understand the Father’s love, she learned to forgive. She wrote:

My inability to forgive caused me even greater pain than the anguish I felt in being separated from my family, and it was worse than the physical torment of being constantly hunted.

– Immaculée Ilibagiza, Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide

While still locked away in a cramped bathroom, Immaculée forgave her family’s killers and those attempting to kill her. She survives the genocide while 1 million of her countrymen do not. Too, Immaculée’s mother, father, and 2 of her 3 brothers are killed. She assists the French with registering survivors, volunteers with orphaned children, and continues to see the devastation of the genocide after the ethnic killings are stopped.

When she has the opportunity to met the very man who hunted her, who murdered her mother, who mercilessly butchered her brother, who stole her family’s goods and lands, Immaculée practices what she preaches. She goes to him in prison and forgives him.

The family friend who arranged for the meeting is furious. This friend is like her uncle, a good friend of her now deceased father. He lost 4 of his 6 children in the genocide as well as countless friends and extended family.  He too has been hurt. The family friend demands to know why Immaculée forgives this man, this man who despite knowing Immaculée and her family for years, despite Immaculée and his children playing together as children, despite all his successes greedily steals from her family and murders most of the members. She writes:

I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”

– Immaculée Ilibagiza, Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide

On the cross, His body limply hanging from nails attached to wood, Our Savior also had nothing else to offer. His miracles were not enough for them. His preaching was not enough for them. His truth was not enough for them. His love was not enough for them. He Himself was not enough for them. They still chose to crucify him.

So, on that very cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

Forgiveness is what He offered on the cross and continues to offer us today. When His miracles, His preaching, His truth, even His love is not enough for us, He still offers His forgiveness. In His glory and majesty in heaven, far away from His shameful and atrocious death, He’s still offering us forgiveness.  And He’s offering forgiveness to those who have hurt you, are hurting you, and will hurt you too.

Forgiveness is the greatest gift, the greatest freedom, the greatest healing, Jesus offers. No other miracle compares to the miracle of forgiveness from the cross. As St. Pope John Paul II wrote:

“But his miracles, healings, and even his raising of the dead were signs of another salvation, a salvation which consists in the forgiveness of sins, that is, in setting man free from his greatest sickness and in raising him to the very life of God.”

St. Pope John Paul IIEvangelium Vitae, 50

To err is human, and we all err. But to forgive? Divine. And forgiveness is but a mere taste of the Father’s love for us.

Picture from and more information about the Rwanda genocide here.

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4 thoughts on “To Forgive, Divine”

  1. This was really well written and enjoyable to read. I haven’t read either book written by Immaculée Ilibagiza that you mentioned in your post and have added them both to my goodreads list. Thanks for sharing!!! (visiting from the Blessedisshe.net link up!)

    Liked by 1 person

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