This is the third of four blog posts in our series on forgiveness. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of a book on this topic, and I hope that these things will be helpful to you.
While a missionary in Japan, one of my friends approached me asking what forgiveness is. She had some mistaken ideas, and I was easily able to clear those away. However, after the misconceptions had been dealt with, I found myself struggling to explain what forgiveness actually was! I ended up having to tell her that I would go away and think about it, and get back to her with a clearer explanation.
In our own discussion, let's start with the dictionary. Mine defines the verb 'to forgive' as "to grant pardon for an offense...to give up all claim on account of...to cease to feel resentment against...to cancel an indebtedness or liability".*
That's just the English dictionary. In having lived abroad for a number of years, I've found that different cultures define common human concepts differently. These varied definitions often help to enrich our human understanding of many concepts. At the very least, they offer a valuable opportunity to understand the mentality that other cultures bring to those concepts.
I wonder if there are differences in definition between English, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Are the definitions of the words for 'forgiveness' in the Biblical languages different than our English ones?
In Hebrew, the "verb nasa means 'to lift up, to bear, or carry'....It means to carry, bear away or lift up the faults, sins and failures of others—to consider them guilty but forgiven." **
In the New Testament, some of the most frequent words used for forgiveness are "aphiemi..., the concept of the unmerited 'forgiveness'" **, and "charizomai, meaning 'to extend grace'" **.
It would seem, then, that the definitions of the Biblical terms imply some sort of responsibility for bearing the burden of others' faults away from them, and also a recognition that the offending party can in no way earn the gift of forgiveness that the injured party may choose to extend to them.
Let's try to flesh out our definition a bit more with an example. I've found that describing the effects of forgiveness can often be illuminating.
When we forgive someone, we no longer feel that the person who has hurt us owes us some sort of recompense. Yes, we've been wronged, but there is no longer a debt to be paid us. In fact, we're willing to stop clinging to the idea that we have been wronged. "Wronged person" is no longer stamped on our souls, as part of our identity. After we've forgiven and begun to achieve some emotional healing, the thought of injustice no longer wakes us up in the middle of the night, takes away our appetite, or drives our lust for revenge.
Let's set up a thought scenario. Let's say that we have been recently hurt in some way by Mr. Albert Unforgiven. We are now struggling with the injustice that has occurred.
When we've been wronged, sometimes we tend to wish bad things upon Albert—or, at least, some sort of judgement, by heavenly or earthly courts. We also tend to feel angry when good things happen to him. In a sense, we feel that the injustice is compounded when Albert experiences joy and peace.
Albert Unforgiven doesn't deserve something good, we think. That good thing should be mine. Not only has he wronged me, but now he's taking the good things that belong to me!
Alternatively, we may actually feel threatened when good things happen to Albert. We think that perhaps those good things will enable him to cause further harm.
In any case, our sense of justice is injured every time something good happens to Mr. Unforgiven.
When we forgive, we no longer wish bad things upon Albert. But it goes beyond this. Forgiveness also means that we no longer take the good things that happen to Albert as threats against our own person.
In our minds, Albert Unforgiven goes through a name change. He's now Bertie Forgiven. And sometimes, just like in this scenario, when we forgive someone their identity in our minds is changed. We are more readily able to appreciate their good qualities, to see the other side of who they are.
When we forgive, we no longer wish bad things upon Bertie Forgiven, and we no longer take the good things that happen to him as threats against us. But it doesn't end there. If it did, then the criteria for forgiveness could be synonymous with indifference or disowning someone. But most of us know instinctively that this is not the best form of forgiveness. This is not the form that we ourselves would wish to receive, if we were the ones in the wrong. True forgiveness goes one step further. It hopes for good to those who have hurt us. It is not cold and indifferent. It loves.
Next time, we will examine some strategies that can help us through the forgiveness process.
* “Forgive,” Dictionary.com, accessed January 2016, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/forgive.
** Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort. Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained. (Nashville, Tennessee: The Livingstone Corp., 2000).