To err is human, to forgive is divine

To err is human, to forgive is divine

September 7, 2020 | Richard Marsceau

“To err is human, to forgive is divine”. Think about the veracity of this quote from the English poet Alexander Pope who penned these words in 1711 in, An Essay on Criticism. It has become a proverbial phrase used often to reflect the human tendency to sin and the divine character to forgive. In other words, human beings commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives us, and we are acting in a Godlike (divine) way when we forgive. 

The phrase has biblical roots. Ephesians 4:32 is the taproot of the axiom. Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Human beings commit wrongs, make mistakes, and sin against one another. God forgives us, and we are acting like him when we forgive. 

Note in this verse the underlying implication. There is a need for forgiveness. It is truly part of the human experience. We do sin against each other. Sin separates us. Thus the call for kindness, a tender heart (compassion) and forgiveness. 

To err, to sin is singularly human. It has been our experience since the beginning when Adam and Eve elected to sin, literally, “miss the mark” of God’s purpose for them. Ever since we have missed the mark big time. It is reflected in the elevation of self to godlike status. We are right. It is our choice. We will pursue our agenda, our way, our own purpose. And only one look at the morning’s news will tell you the breadth of “to err is human”. 

But how do we forgive? That is, how do we release someone from the hurt they caused us? How do we pardon their offence against us? Just think for a moment the hurt you still carry toward someone. It may be your spouse, a parent, a friend, a colleague at work. The pain is still tender. The hurt continues to fester. The words spoken can never be returned to the sender.

You cannot forget the incident that caused the breach in the relationship. Our humanity will not let us release or pardon an offender and, more troubling, it is impossible to forget. Those wrongs are forever in our memory. 

Now look at the last part of the axiom: “to forgive is divine.” This is the stunning reality of forgiveness. We can only forgive as God through Christ has forgiven us. True forgiveness is not possible any other way. It finds its source in God alone. 

How has he forgiven us? Paul writes of the love of God in Christ this way. “but God shows his love for us that while were still sinners (erring), Christ died for us.(Romans 5:8) That is, he loved us at our worst. In our rebellion against him, in our total inability to forgive others, in our pursuit of the gods of our own making, in our high pursuit of SELF, Christ loved us enough to pay for the penalty of our sin so that we are made right with our Father. Picture humanity with raised fists toward God and God responding in love with his Son. 

In fact, our sin is so taken care of at the cross that the Psalmist says “that he has buried them in the depths of the deepest sea….he has removed them as far as the east is from the west…”

That is the immensity of his forgiveness in Christ. He extends open hands to our clenched fists. Now with Christ is our example in forgiveness how does this look in everyday life, in the challenges and joys of our relationships?

1. See forgiveness as the essence of grace. Here is the definition of forgiveness used in Ephesians 4:32. It is “to give a favor unconditionally”. The root word is the word we use for grace. Stunning, is it not? Therefore, no sin should remain unforgiven. The words spoken in anger should be forgiven. The marriage that was dissolved can be restored. The lost friendship can be regained. Do you see forgiveness as grace? What you received from God can you give it because you received it? That is divine and that is Christ in you. 

2. See forgiveness as forgetfulness. The past is gone. One writer on the truth from the Psalms that our sins are buried in the depths of the deepest seas said this: And God puts up a sign that says “No Fishing Allowed”! I love that. No longer will I resurrect the hurt. No longer will nurture the wrongs done to me. Instead, I will see the resurrected Jesus, who buried the sin at the cross. 

To err is so human. To forgive is so divine. It is Christ in us by faith. Only in Jesus can we forgive. Our flesh resists because the hurt is so bad. Humanly we cannot forgive. Only divinely, can we forgive. Look to Jesus. See his forgiveness of your sin. Then look at the person who sinned against you. Weigh this: how can I withhold forgiveness when Christ has forgiven me? We did not deserve forgiveness. The person who sinned against you does not deserve forgiveness. Yet, Christ has forgiven you and empowered you to forgive. 

The everyday beauty of the cross of Christ is seen in the restoration of our human relationships. Do not let work of forgiveness by the divine be only a great religious idea or an icon we wear around our necks. Live the beauty of the cross that can be seen in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our nation by your life of grace.


Richard Marsceau

Men's Discipleship Leader