In 1711 Alexander Pope expressed this wisdom, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” in An Essay on Criticism, suggesting that when mankind errs, God forgives. For many of us forgiveness is impossible if God does not intervene with his grace. We just can’t let go of old hurts and injustice, we really want someone to undo what was done to us. We would rather live in the past where the horrible thing happened than let it go and move into the present or prepare for the future.
This is true of nations, groups of people, or individuals. How are we to forget, much less forgive genocides, holocausts or protracted abuse. I became aware of this very human tendency when I was in the Republic of Ireland in 2001. I was traveling alone and listening to talk radio. Over and over the callers said “The Brits did us in!” I got very tired of hearing about the hundreds of years of abuse on the part of England until I remembered how hard it has been for the American Black to shed the abuse of slavery. On that trip I began to think that it is an unusual person who can move on from a history like that and create something totally in the present.
In the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa a Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) was set up through the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church. Victims of apartheid and perpetrators of the violence came together to tell their stories. While the TRC was not perfect in carrying out its charge, many feel that it saved the country from a bloodbath. Certainly in the case of apartheid, holocaust, and degradation, there is much to forgive, but perhaps not to forget.
While many individuals do come to forgive their oppressors if only for their own sakes, many don’t. The guest minister this morning, Dr. Donald Mitchell, made the point that forgiveness is the “radical center of Christianity.” As Christians we are called to forgive our oppressors. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus exhorts us to not judge another(7:3ff); to not return violence for violence(5:38ff) and to love our enemies(5:43ff). So we are strongly urged to forgive our fellow men. But what about forgiving God?
Surely many of us are mad at God for allowing evils or not stepping in to stop an evil or to cure an illness. Is this anger at God the reason why so many are drifting away from the church these days? I don’t know, but I do know we don’t speak of this at all. Are the Jewish people mad at God for allowing the Holocaust? Are the South African Blacks furious at God for the violence perpetrated against them by the white government? Is the young woman or man who has been abused or raped not angry at God for that crime?
So often the question lingers after the fact: how could a loving God allow such a thing to happen? Can we be angry at God for not meeting our expectations? Don’t we expect a pain-free life even when we see the havoc in the lives of people around us? Don’t we call it an act of God when an earthquake or flood happens? Didn’t many people blame the lifestyle of the people of New Orleans for the flood sent by God’s wrath? How do we reconcile a loving God with a seeming passive, permissive one, or with one who would send an earthquake or tsunami to punish some population or cancer to some individual? How do we reconcile this need for a savior with the Christian God?
As I think about all this, I think that God set up a system to benefit everyone, plenty of food, crops and game, plentiful medicines, a self-perpetuating weather system delivering enough warmth and moisture to promote all life, a law of cause and effect where one can read the outcome in the action, and then set himself as a loving presence in anyone’s life who loves him. Those are the givens for us all. Then He created mankind with a free will to do whatever he wanted.
I don’t think that God had anything to do with the Holocaust or subsequent genocides in Cambodia and in Rwanda. Those were clearly caused by very evil men who perpetrated all the evil, but did God just watch on the sidelines and let this happen? Of course I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that God wept to see the horrors that mankind visited on mankind. To see his beautiful creation running with blood could not have been an easy thing to watch, just as the crucifixion of his son must have been a horror.
Is it God’s hand that heals one person and not another? My husband died of cancer, yet I don’t blame God for that. He was one of millions who suffer from that disease, some of whom die. I think we always look for the big miracles like dramatic healings, raising from the dead, stopping huge damage from a natural disaster, yet miss all the little miracles that happen every day, seeing how great it is just to be alive to witness a flower, a tree leaf out, a cardinal call. We miss how our choices as a nation or an individual have unintended consequences, unanticipated, but nonetheless very real horrors. We look to God to rescue us from our mistakes and make us whole even as we ignore him in our daily life. Aren’t we the hands of God on Earth? Are we healing, feeding and caring for others and ourselves?
In the recent carnage at a Carthage, N. C., nursing home, an estranged husband went on a rampage and killed eight people including one nurse and elderly patients. In the newspaper accounts, the relatives of the ones who survived the onslaught thanked God that he spared them. I can only imagine that the kin of those who died were complaining to God that he didn’t save them, too.
The problem comes when we praise God for the good things that happen to us and curse him for the bad. We want pain free lives, but that just isn’t possible. What we need to do is to praise him in everything, welcome everything that comes as if sent by God, then we have the right attitude. How are we to know what is good for us? We know what we want, but we often make choices that in the long run don’t work for us. Let’s let God In his infinitely greater wisdom do the deciding, and we work at accepting those decisions.
We expect a lot of God, and little of ourselves. Is that fair? I believe that it’s when we walk together with Christ or the Holy Spirit or God Himself(however you think of that relationship), we walk through healing waters, but we are still human beings living on this isolated planet. Our relationship with the Lord does not save us from ultimate hurts or death even, but the Lord does want to be with you through anything and everything, hard or joyful, that comes into your life. That all God wants is to show us how much he cares for us and loves us—that is the great gift he offers us in the Sermon of the Mount and the rest of the Bible. That is the good news!