Forgiveness Is Not Enough
To err is human; to forgive and reconcile is divine.
Many years ago, the great literary critic Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” As an aphorism, it is pithy and insightful, yet incomplete. Forgiveness is indeed divine, of course, but God wills something further—something more profound and more beautiful: reconciliation.
There are many definitions of “reconciliation,” but perhaps none better than one from the Merriam-Webster’s Kids Dictionary: “the act of becoming friendly again.”
When we sin, we damage or even destroy our friendship with God. And this, even though one party (God) did absolutely nothing wrong. Yet, the Triune God is eager to forgive sins and restore that friendship of sanctifying grace through sacramental Confession—a fact beautifully expressed in the prayer of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins...”
It is clear that God forgives us and wills reconciliation with us, but what if God willed only forgiveness? What if God said, “I will forgive you, but I will never again be your friend”? It’s a chilling thought.
And that brings us to the matter of reconciliation with one another. What if I said, “I will forgive you, but I will never again be your friend”? Obviously, something would be missing. Akin to “cheap grace,” a form of forgiveness that offhandedly rejects any tangible manifestation is a “cheap forgiveness.”
My outright refusal to reconcile with the one who seeks my forgiveness not only creates a divide between him and me, but also between God and me. The relationship between God, neighbor, and myself is a triangular one—a fact illustrated in Jesus’ teaching: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Certainly, in some instances, good judgment does not allow physical proximity. Prudence may even dictate that, once forgiveness is granted, further communication not take place. Openness to reconciliation does not require that we sacrifice our own well-being, and sometimes the offense is such that distance is necessary for full healing to occur.
But even then, we should pray to experience a perfect reconciliation in Heaven. A friend taught me that lesson. Years ago, she underwent a very difficult relationship with her father, but she tearfully assured me, “We will be friends in Heaven.” The pity of it is that she also wanted to be friends on Earth, but that proved impossible. She reached out her hand, only to have it slapped. That’s a terrible pity—accompanied by the sting of tears.
Ultimately, though the process of reconciliation can begin with one person, it can only be fulfilled with the acceptance of another. In our world, we see parents reaching out to adult children, husbands reaching out to wives, and brother reaching out to brother—to no avail. We see seeds of reconciliation fall on rocky souls and blow away in a hurricane of intransigence.
But, as a witness to their heroic blessedness, these peacemakers patiently keep at it—trying to find the right gesture to express sorrow, trying to find the right word to express love, trying to heal. Even if their efforts fall short, their actions nevertheless resemble and reflect the will of God. Going beyond mere forgiveness, they are attempting to befriend and re-friend others. That is an imitation of God’s love and desire for friendship.
And so, we might deepen and rephrase Pope’s observation: To err is human; to forgive and reconcile is divine.