When "I Made a Mistake" Isn't Enough

I lost a kid at daycare. It was a hot day, multiple kids were whining at me, one kid had a potty accident and had no shoes. Distracted and bedraggled, I walked my group back outside after a bathroom trip, failing to do a headcount to make sure I had all of them.

When a kid’s mom arrived a few minutes later, I realized my mistake with immediate horror. I walked her back inside and found her kid splashing away at the bathroom sink. No harm had come to her and she walked away with nothing worse than a soaked t-shirt.

But I still felt terrible. I worried about my job; I worried about what the mom must think. But most of all, I worried about what would have happened if the mom hadn’t come when she did – if I’d not realized my error and immediately rectified it. Would that kid have just wandered around the daycare, getting into things she wasn’t supposed to?

She was unlikely to suffer bodily injury and she was still surrounded by staff. She was safe. But none of these rationalizations do any good, either to her mother or to me. I genuinely screwed up; I made a huge mistake. I destroyed the trust that mother has with the daycare and with me in particular. There is nothing left for me to do but to own my error and hope I can rebuild.

I was glad to keep my job, even though I would have understood losing it. It is the kind of grace for which I am grateful – the kind of grace I ultimately did not deserve but received regardless. And it was only, I’m sure, because I have a solid rapport with my boss and a good track record otherwise.

But the entire incident has made me contemplate how our mistakes never happen in a vacuum, how “she’s just learning” or “it was a mistake” isn’t a sufficient excuse when we put others in danger. The fact that no one gets harmed when we make mistakes is a measure of grace and luck for which we should be grateful. Something being mistaken should not function as an excuse for actual harm done.

And yet, within a lot of iterations of Christianity, across all measures of the political spectrum, “making a mistake” is the expected narrative, the leaned upon explanation for when someone screws up. And we’re expected to forgive, to rationalize it away when someone makes a mistake, even if this mistake does result in hurt. There’s a lack of understanding that mistakes which genuinely hurt people take time to remedy and that grace exists within that space and time it takes to remedy. Grace cannot and should not be demanded by those in error – it can only be given or extended by those subject to the results.

This is ultimately the focus we’ve missed in modern Christianity. We’re so bent on forgiveness and grace and love and the centering of these virtues that we’ve forgotten that all of these are things that must be given freely and cannot be demanded or placed as burdens. The moment forgiveness becomes a burden placed upon the abused, it ceases to be any real form of grace. Grace does not come from well-meaning friends defending and explaining the abuser’s actions, by demands that we show grace for a mistake. Grace comes from knowing the hurt and the pain caused and making a conscious choice not to forget the pain, but to make sure that pain does not define your relationship to that person any more. It takes a lot of work to get to that point.

I have to work extra hard to earn back the trust of the parent from the daycare. I have to wait, uncomfortably, knowing that I might never get that forgiveness. I have to actively work to change how I function and how careful I am in my job. I have to, in some ways, earn that forgiveness.

The beauty and grace of the Gospel is that we do not have to earn forgiveness from God. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness between humans functions as easily. We are under a burden to see and understand others as humans, to place their mistakes in context. We may even argue that we’re under an obligation to forgive them – but that forgiveness extends from the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives and we cannot speed it up by imposing human obligations and trust upon it.

If we truly believe that we are works in progress, then we will understand that our relationship to forgiveness is likewise a work in progress and that such forgiveness is not immediate nor easily given.

We do not have to earn God’s forgiveness because Christ has done that work for us. But as humans continuing the work of the Holy Spirit, forgiving other humans is part of a process of becoming Christ-like. We are not Christ and we cannot magically forgive errors in judgment or mistakes or outright cruelty. We are not yet in the new creation, and ease of love for our fellow man is one of those birthing pains of the new world.