“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12)This past week, while speaking at Lake Junaluska Camp Meeting, I had the privilege of meeting a certain young person who brought the above text to my attention with a question about its meaning that was causing him great distress. Before I share with you his question, let me also add to his text one other statement from Jesus that seems to say the same thing.
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Here was my young friend’s question: “Does God really withhold forgiveness from us until we forgive other people who have hurt us? And if so, how do I forgive those who have hurt me so deeply, so that I don’t run the risk of not being forgiven by God?”
This reminded me of an encounter I had years ago with a young mother. You see, her heart had been broken by a recent tragic event. Her six month old son had died. She had always wanted to be a mother, but death, like a gypsy, had stolen away her newfound joy and realization of this dream. She was devastated. Now, there are many details to her story that I addressed with her that I won’t share here. Well-meaning church folk had tried to comfort her by reminding her of the hope of resurrection, but this just came off as insensitive to her, and a belittling of her pain in the here and now. But worse than this, she had been sexually abused as a teenager and she genuinely struggled to find forgiveness for her abuser.
She had been told by a well-meaning preacher (but very misguided) that if she didn’t forgive this person, God wouldn’t forgive her (Sick! I know.). She had just lost her six month old child and the only hope she had was a resurrection she felt she would never have a part in. How could God forgive her for her sins if she could not forgive those who had sinned against her? The whole story is simply gut-wrenching, but based on the very same misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching that spawned the question I was asked last week by my young friend. How are we to make sense of Jesus’ statements? At the very least, his words should make us begin to ask questions. Is this really what God is like?
Insight (eSight) is found when we look beyond our limited English-based translations to the original statements in their original language. There are five words used in the Hebrew and Greek languages to express separate but related aspects of what we call “forgiveness” in English. (For more on this, please see the presentation on our Web site titled “Charizomai,” or see chapter 13 by the same title in my book, Finding The Father, published by Review & Herald Publishing in 2009.)
The two words I want to draw your attention to in this week’s eSight are the Greek words apheimi and charizomai. These words each have certain nuances. One refers to actual forgiveness in the heart of the party that has been wronged, and the other contains the nuance of what we would call “forgiven-ness” in the heart of the one who has committed the wrong. In order to really catch the subtleties of these two words, consider that in every violation there is a perpetrator and a victim. But both have very real intrinsic psychological and emotional responses to what has happened. For example, the perpetrator could feel shame, guilt, and condemnation in their heart over what they have done. The victim, on the other hand, could feel anger, disbelief, or the desire for revenge.
Charizomai is normally what we think of as forgiveness. It describes what happens in the heart of the victim if they should choose to let go of their anger, disbelief, and the desire for restitution or revenge.
Apheimi, on the other hand, refers to the perpetrator being set free from their sense of shame, guilt, and condemnation. (The Greek actually implies sending the shame and guilt away from the transgressor, a kind of setting the transgressor free from the intrinsic realities of what they set in motion in their own conscience.)
Now, let’s break down what Jesus is actually saying, but we’ll do so by adding Luke’s version to this mix:
“And forgive [apheimi] us [for] our sins, for we ourselves also forgive [apheimi] everyone who is indebted [obligated] to us” (Luke 11:4).
We aren’t praying for a change in God’s heart toward us as a result of our having a change of heart toward those who have wronged us. Rather, we are praying for a deeper experience in what we might call “forgiven-ness” as we extend “forgiven-ness” to those who have wronged us! Jesus illustrated this again in the following parable.
“Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:32-35).
You see, the lord of this story originally forgave the slave. But when the slave refused to offer the same forgiven to others, he was handed over to the “torturers.” For the sake of space and time, consider this: If a person who lives life with feelings of revenge, or a spirit of demanding restitution from everyone who has wronged them, embracing a spirit of un-forgiveness toward others, do you think that in the age to come, it will be difficult or easy for those people to believe God has forgiven them for what they have done against Him? It is as if we are burning the very bridge for others that we each will one day have to cross ourselves. Jesus was warning us here. Not that God is a quid pro quo, tit-for-tat, kind of God, but, rather, that a person can live in such a spirit of stubborn unforgiveness toward everyone around them that they actually become incapable of believing in even a remote possibility that God could be so forgiving of themselves. It is not that God doesn’t forgive them in His heart, but that these folks prevent God from being able to usher them into the experience of forgiven-ness.
So, do we forgive in order to be forgiven? Or, do we forgive because we have been forgiven?
Do you have folks in your life you need to forgive? Withholding forgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to die from it. It’s madness. But let me be quick to add what this doesn’t mean, too. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you trust the people who have hurt you. It doesn’t’ mean you give them permission to hurt you again. You simply relinquish your right of restitution or revenge. You’re letting them off the hook for that which they have done to you in the past.
But how do we do this? This might sound odd, but you forgive others by forgetting about forgiving others, and instead, focus all of your heart on seeing and believing how deeply you, in the heart of God, have been forgiven. This will create, in you, a sense of forgiven-ness. This in turn awakens forgiveness toward those who have wronged you, which, being genuine, will motivate and inspire you to help usher those who have wronged you also into a sense of forgiven-ness. And this compounds your OWN sense of forgiven-ness for your own mistakes! This ushers you into a deeper experience of apheimi (forgiven-ness) concerning all the times you have missed the mark! It becomes a reciprocating cycle that is ever deepening our own understanding of the forgiveness that is in God’s heart toward us all. But where does it all begin? In believing, remember, how deeply we have first been forgiven.
Let me leave you with this. God’s forgiveness is not simply something we receive for our personal sins. To receive God’s forgiveness also means embracing a way of doing life with those around us. His forgiveness is not just a reality that gives us assurance or eternal security. It’s a principle we receive and submit to live by in all our relationships. But what is it that causes you to embrace this principle of forgiveness toward others as a way of life? We must see and believe how deeply God has already forgiven us! And as we submit to the power of that forgiveness, it will, in and of itself, awaken in our hearts forgiveness toward all who are in our lives.
I wish each of you much love and a deeper sense of Divine forgiveness AND forgiven-ness this week.
Live in love, live in God’s prevenient forgiveness, and in the light of His extravagant forgiveness for you, be imitators of God and go build the kingdom.
Love you guys,