Why forgiveness is not divine

Find out how the oft-quoted quip, "To err is human, to forgive divine" is often used to justify not forgiving

Man with folded hands praying to God

While extolling the virtues of forgiveness, many spiritual masters quote Alexander Pope’s famous line “To err is human, to forgive, divine”. The great English poet and satirist probably implied that while ordinary mortals are used to making mistakes, the almighty forgives all their mistakes. So, when humans forgive, they are acting Godlike.

I have immense respect for Alexander Pope’s contribution to literature and spiritual thought and have no doubt that when he wrote this piece of wisdom his intent was to promote love and forgiveness over hatred and resentment. Unfortunately, we tend to use the idea that forgiveness is divine as an excuse not to forgive. “I am not God! I am only human, so I can’t forgive,” say many bitter men and women. To these people I say, there’s nothing divine about forgiveness—it’s an out and out human act.

You see, forgiveness becomes necessary only when there is blame. And blame arises out of judgement, which, in turn comes from a belief in duality—good/bad, right/wrong, love/hate, blessing/curse, noble/wicked and so on.

So, while we humans are always censuring this deed and condemning that behaviour, I cannot imagine the ‘creator’ doing the same. The creator, if there is one, would be free of judgements and hence incapable of blame. And where there is no blame, there is no question of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is within everyone’s reach

When we elevate forgiveness to the level of the divine, we push it away. We make it an epic phenomenon that is within the reach of only the most evolved men and women. Ironically, such enlightened beings have no need to forgive because they have, like God, ceased to blame.

Former US President Bill Clinton was intrigued by Nelson Mandela’s dignified exit from prison in 1990 after spending 27 years there. Many years later, when he met him, he asked him, “Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?” And Mandela replied, “Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,” he continued, “when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realised that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.” And he smiled and said, “I wanted to be free so I let it go.”

“It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me,” Clinton later wrote about this dialogue.

Mandela’s greatness stems from being able to acknowledge that he is human—he felt anger and fear too. His forgiveness is about freeing himself from the prison of hatred, anger, and bitterness—which purified his heart and took him close to the divine.

Bestselling author and spiritual teacher Dr Wayne Dyer calls our need to forgive a “monumental misperception”. In his view, which I subscribe to wholeheartedly, forgiveness helps us transcend the negative effects of blame—an emotional prison that we escape.

Forgiveness is perhaps among the highest of human acts but it is still human. We always forgive for the sake of our own freedom. So to err is human and to forgive is also human. But to go beyond blame and forgiveness—that is divine.

A version of this article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri considers himself a student and teacher of the wisdom of love. He is also a writer-editor and has written on topics ranging from strategic marketing and business management to art, culture and even philosophy. His more than 1200 published stories—articles, interviews, full-length features—have appeared in some of the leading newspapers and magazines of India. A certified cognitive behavioural therapist, he works as a personal counsellor too. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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