We all make mistakes. The proverb "To err is human, to forgive divine," has been popular since the 14th century. Yes, we all need erasers on our pencils. We make mistakes aplenty—both large and small. But then what? How we handle this condition can determine how well we do in life. It can also determinehow God will respond to us when we need mercy.
So how do we respond to our own mistakes? And how do we respond to the mistakes of others? Responding in a godly, merciful way is a vital part of Christian character.
An appalling but sadly common spectacle
This important matter was brought home to me recently when my daughter Michelle told me about a horrible scene she witnessed at a store while shopping.
A little girl was pushing a cart she could hardly see over while her mother was down the aisle looking at products. All of a sudden Michelle heard a loud racket and turned around to see a mass of cookies flying everywhere.
The little girl's mother ran down the aisle and began to scream at the child. You could hear her all over the store. The little girl, mortified at what she had caused by running the cart into the cookies, stooped down to help her mom pick up the mess. Once again her mother yelled at her, saying, "Don't help—you've already done enough damage!"
The little girl began to sob while the mother kept right on screaming at her. The girl kept telling her mom, "It was accident!" But her mother was hearing none of it and kept yelling at her.
What my daughter witnessed next deeply upset her. As the mom and girl walked out of the store, the mom still yelling, Michelle saw the little girl crying and running after her mom with outstretched arms, calling, "Hugsie, Mommy, hugsie!" Her mother just kept on screaming and ignoring her devastated daughter.
While we must be cautious in judgment since we don't know all the background to this story, the mother's behavior was wrong and inexcusable in any case—and likely damaging to the child, particularly if this was the norm with them. Tragically, this is the norm in a great many families.
Memory of a kinder reaction
When my daughter told me this story it made me think of a time I made a huge mistake (actually 500 mistakes!) and received quite different treatment.
Several years ago I worked in a curtain factory as a cutter, cutting the material to be sewn into curtains. Stan, my boss at the time, was a patient and kind man who would spend a lot of his time in training and helping his employees to succeed on their jobs. I learned later what a truly great boss he was.
One day was particularly productive for me. Everything seemed to go right. I must have cut 500 shower curtains, setting a record for me. Needless to say, at the end of the day I left for home very pleased.
The curtains that I cut went on to the sewers to be hemmed before going on to the packers. A couple of days later the bomb fell! It was discovered that the curtains were two inches too short. I had forgotten to change the drum that they were cut on to the correct size. Here on racks, waiting to be packaged, were 500 shower curtains, all of which were too short! I was mortified, because in that year, 1993, a shower curtain retailed for at least $10 (about $16 in 2013 dollars).
My boss Stan spent most of the morning in a meeting with management over the situation. While I sat out in the plant crying over my stupid mistake, management was discussing my fate.
I felt so bad that I cost the company a great deal of money because of this huge mistake. I knew I'd probably be fired. Instead, to my surprise and great relief, my boss fought for me. Management only saw the money lost for their company. Stan, my boss, saw me as a valued employee who had made a mistake but was worth keeping instead of being thrown away.
He didn't stop there. Knowing how I felt, he came out after the meeting to encourage me. He told me that this wasn't the worst thing that would happen to me in life and that I'd get through this.
While encouraging me he began to help me rip out the hems so they could be re-hemmed at a longer length. The curtains ended up at Odd Lots, a bargain store, so the company was able to regain some of its losses.
Experience with others impacts outlook on God
I have a great memory of a very merciful boss, but what memory will the little girl in the recent incident be left with after the way her mother treated her? Will it be anything like the great memory I have from my very merciful boss?
And how will she look to God in times when she falls short and needs forgiveness? Will she fear a harsh God with no mercy?
Just imagine how terrible we would feel if we fell short or made a mistake only to be rejected by God. How would we feel if we reached up to our Father for forgiveness only to have Him scream at us and totally ignore us?
Thankfully our Father in heaven is not like that.
Which one of these examples will point your children and others to God in His handling of us? The spiteful and cruel way this mother treated her daughter? Or the patient and merciful approach of my former boss?
Lessons from these examples
Let's consider some of the valuable lessons these stories should teach us about how to deal with others' mistakes:
1. Ask God to give you a merciful heart. All good gifts come from God. So why not go to the source to obtain a merciful, empathic heart? Be humble and don't look down on others when they make a mistake and are truly sorry. That is where being merciful comes in.
2. Don't correct in public. The little girl's mother belittled her and embarrassed her in front of everyone! Treat others in a way you would like to be treated. No one wants to be embarrassed in front of others.
3. Give people another chance and forgive. The little girl wanted forgiveness and encouragement from her mom. Her mother also refused her daughter's offer to help make it right. What does Scripture say? "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32, New International Version). "A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense" (Proverbs 19:11).
4. Only punish for rebellion—not a genuine mistake. Avoid punishing yourself and others when mistakes are made. Stan didn't need to punish me; he knew that I was already doing that to myself. He could've fired me. He could've given my job to someone else. He could've belittled me. Instead, he forgave my mistake and looked for gentle ways to avoid it happening again.
5. Be an encourager. Encourage others when they make a mistake. Sadly, the mother failed miserably in reaching out to her terrified and sorrowful child. This could've been a great teaching moment in love and encouragement to her daughter. On the other hand, Stan's great mercy in fighting for me, encouraging me and pitching in to help me fix the mess greatly encouraged me and made me want to try even harder to be a good employee.
6. Forgive. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).
God is always ready with open arms to accept us and forgive us. Even as He was being mocked and crucified, Jesus Christ prayed regarding His tormenters, "Father, forgive them, for they no not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34, NIV).
So how do we handle another person's mistakes? Do we crush them or build them up? How do we handle our own mistakes? Do you feel like giving up? Or do you forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes? Mike Ditka, a famous American football coach, once said, "You're never a loser until you quit trying."
7. Treat others as God treats us. He knows our frame and how weak we are. He didn't call the mighty of the world, but people He could gently work with. He called people who recognize that they are weak without Him.
God sees what we can become instead of focusing on our mistakes. He lifts us up and encourages us to go on. He doesn't get rid of us, scream at us, reject us or replace us with someone else. God gives us chance after chance as long as we have a repentant heart and keep trying.
That sums up a lot about God's mercy and tenderness toward us. God instructs us on how to deal with each other as He deals with us: "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another" (Colossians 3:12-13).
Remember to be kind and merciful
So the next time you or someone you know makes a mistake, be gentle, kind and encouraging. Look for ways to solve the problem and don't quit! Treat others the way you would want to be treated if you were the one who goofed. Keep learning. Keep forgiving. We can all be in God's Kingdom someday in spite of our mistakes.
Most of all, be merciful to your children and those around you when they make a mistake. Always look at how God treats us when we make mistakes. "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children" (Psalm 103:13-17).
And remember Jesus' words in Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."