Forgive—We Can—We Must

Photo by  Sam Rios  on  Unsplash

Photo by Sam Rios on Unsplash

I have watched Leaving Neverland. As much as I could stomach anyway. It has shaken me. I heard things that I wish I had never heard. Michael Jackson was a paedophile. He coldly, cunningly, and expertly groomed his victims and their families: in this documentary two boys aged ten and seven. He did the cruelest and foulest things to them. He ravaged their childhood. He was a monster.

Could such a man be forgiven? Could we ever forgive a person who ravaged us in that way? Can we even forgive people of their far lesser crimes against us? The cruel word? The callous betrayal? Repeated offenses? 

Corrie Ten Boom forgave the Nazi guard who murdered her sister. Her heavy load of poisonous bitterness was lifted. Relief! Joy! We picture ourselves doing the same and feel exhilarated in advance. But when we come to it, it is excruciatingly difficult.

Forgiving others is far easier imagined than done.

I may think I am a forgiving person. Then someone actually hurts me, and forgiving is like trying to tear down your own house with your bare hands. You don’t want to, and it’s just too hard and painful. Yet, in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus pointedly demands this agonizing labor from us.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12; all Scripture quotations from NIV version)

This prayer is as sweet as a pomegranate and as stern as steel. Strip out the conjunction (“as”), adverb (“also”), and pronouns (“us,” “our,” “we”), and only two words remain. Forgive. Debt. Thoroughly understanding these words is the key to understanding this prayer.

The Greek verb for “forgive” was associated with an archer shooting an arrow.

The Greek verb aphiēmi was used by Homer and the Greeks to describe an archer shooting an arrow. “Releasing” an arrow then became a vivid metaphor for releasing someone from a legal obligation. You could aphiēmi, “release,” someone from their office, their legal contract, their debt, or their marriage. Aphiēmi became the word for divorce. 

The Greek-speaking Jewish scholars used aphiēmi in their translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint. Note these examples: 

  • Leviticus 16 commanded the scapegoat, symbolically bearing the sins of Israel, to be aphiēmi, released into the desert.

  • Leviticus 25 mandated that every fifty years, debt-slaves were to be freed and property that had been sold to repay debts was to be freed and returned to the original owner. A ram’s horn was blown to announce the year of freedom and release from debt bondage. This was the Jubilee Year, and in fact the Septuagint translates Jubilee with the related noun, aphēsis, the year of “release.” 

  • Deuteronomy 15 commanded all debts to be cancelled every seven years. The cancellation was aphiēmi, release from obligation.  

When Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were terrified: “What if Joseph holds a grudge and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” They concocted a story to save their hides, “Dad said that you have to forgive us.” “So please forgive (aphiēmi) the sins of the servants of the God of your father” (see Gen. 50:15-21).

Joseph didn’t buy it, but neither did he get angry. He wept. The brothers groveled, “We are your slaves!” But Joseph reassured them with kind words, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” “I will provide for you and your children.” 

The Bible emphasizes action above words. Joseph didn’t use the word “forgive,” but he did exactly that. He gave up his right to anger and harm. He was kind and loving and worked for his brothers’ good. 

In the New Testament, the Greek word Jesus used for “forgive” has three basic meanings. 

First, aphiēmi means to dismiss or release someone or something from a person or place. Jesus sent (aphiēmi) the crowd away in Matthew 15:39. Jesus dismissed (aphiēmi) his spirit in Matthew 27:50. 

Second, it means to leave something or someone. James and John left their boat, nets, and father in Matthew 4:22. The fever left (aphiēmi) Peter’s mother-in-law in Matthew 8:14. Jesus promised not to leave (aphiēmi) his disciples as orphans.  

Third, it means to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence. So aphiēmi is a word for divorce in the New Testament. It refers to cancelling a financial debt in Matthew 18:27.  

Put all this together and you have a high-definition image of the word that Jesus chose to use in the fifth petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We pray for God to release us from something—and affirm that we have released others from that same thing.

From what exactly do we ask to be released?

This is the second word, opheilēma. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer translated opheilēma as “trespasses,” and this is the source of the cherished traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer. Opheilēma is however translated “debts” in all our major English translations: KJV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, Holman’s, NIV, etc.

Opheilēma refers to something owed. In Romans 4:4 it is wages owed for work done. In Matthew 18:30 it is a financial debt. In Romans 13:8 it is the love that Christians owe to one another. In 1 Corinthians 7:3 it is the sexual relationship that husbands and wives “owe” to one another.

What debt do we owe?

In the fifth petition we pray that our heavenly Father will release us from what we owe to him: “Forgive us our debts.” What debt do we owe? Because God is a just God, and we have broken his laws, we owe him punishment. Punishment is a debt that we must pay for our rebellion. "The wages of sin is death." We pray, “Forgive us our debt of punishment. Release us from our obligation to be punished. Do not treat us as those who owe you punishment.” 

Stop and take this in. The holy Lord whose fury breaks out against lawbreakers, the sovereign Judge of the world whose very being thirsts for perfect justice, can forgive us our debts. He can treat us as though we no longer needed to be punished. A real-life example may help where words fail.

David owed a tremendous debt of punishment to the holy and just Lord. 

God gave David everything. Yet he lusted for Bathsheba, the wife of one of his mighty men, one of his close and trusted companions in war, a man with whom he had stood side-by-side through the blood and fire of the battlefield, armor to armor, shield to shield, life to life. David took Bathsheba and defiled her and murdered her chastity. He did this while his friend, her husband, fought on the frontline defending his nation.

Discovering that he had made her pregnant, David cooked up a cowardly cover-up. He called his “friend” Uriah home and plied him with drink in the hope that he would go home to the bed of his wife, something that soldiers on active duty were loath to do while their companions suffered in the field. Having botched the cover-up, David plotted to murder his friend by having him abandoned in the midst of battle. He made his friend carry the written plan for his own murder. Uriah the Hittite was slaughtered to plan.

David stood before the Lord guilty of adultery, deceit, betrayal, cowardice, and murder. David owed a tremendous debt of punishment to the holy and just Lord. But David confessed his sin and pleaded for forgiveness, and the Lord forgave him. David later sang about this in Psalm 32,

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Ps. 32:1-2) 

God longs to forgive us our sins.

This is what the Lord wills to do! Jesus commands us to pray for this. God longs to forgive us our sins: 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Yet Jesus welds something to this prayer for forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” This is the only one of the six petitions attached to a qualifying clause. This prayer is like the baby brought to Solomon. You can’t take a sword and cut one half from the other without destroying it.

And notice that this is the only one of the six petitions, after the Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus refers back to with an explanation:

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:14-15)

This is very direct and clear, and it is stated twice over. First positively, “If you forgive then God will forgive you.” Then negatively, “If you don’t forgive, then God won’t forgive you.” 

There is no loophole, exception clause, or fine print. There is no soft spot that a clever lawyer could exploit to find a situation where we will not have to forgive. Jesus is absolute. Forgive, or else.

There is no situation where we don’t have to forgive.

Jesus spells out the reason for this in a powerful parable in Matthew 18:23-25. Imagine a king who demands that his underlings repay their loans. One of them owes ten thousand talents of gold. Back in the day a talent of gold was worth about twenty-five years of work, say $1.5 million in today’s terms. So this man owed the equivalent of 250,000 years of work, about $15 billion, more than all the money in the world of Jesus’ listeners. Jesus made them laugh to think of such a gargantuan sum.

The servant begs for time to repay, an impossible task. Yet, “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt (aphiēmi) and let him go” (Matt. 18:27). Fresh from the relief of forgiveness, the servant now hunts down someone who owed him 100 denarii, about $25,000. A fair bit of money, but only a fraction of a fraction of what he’d just been forgiven. So what does the servant do? He seizes his debtor and starts strangling him! 

The strangled debtor does exactly what the servant did. He fell on his knees with exactly the same plea and promise: “Be patient!  I’ll repay!” However, his promise was doable. He could have repaid his creditor in installments over a few years. The wretched servant refuses and has the man thrown into prison.

The master is livid: “You wicked servant, I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to do so. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (see Matt. 18:32-33).

The servant had no appreciation for what had been done for him.

The servant’s refusal to forgive showed that he had zero grasp of and appreciation for what had been done for him. His heart had not been affected, and so his behavior did not change. “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Which would have been never.

The punch-line? “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Want the best for those who have hurt you.

Who has hurt you? Your reputation? Your business? Your feelings? Your future? Whether out of cruelty, thoughtlessness, spite, or pride? Forgive them. Let the crime go. Want the best for them. Want them to have a good future. Want them to find peace and happiness. Treat them, as far as you are able, with kindness. Want them to be saved.

This does not mean that hard conversations must not be had, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and show them their fault.” This does not necessarily mean that you bring the thief back into your business, or the abuser back into the home, or the unrepentant back into fellowship:

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor. 5:11)

Forgiveness yearns for and takes steps towards reconciliation, knowing that it may not be possible. But an inability to reconcile does not in the slightest preclude our forgiving others, loving them, praying for their best, wanting them to find salvation and heaven. 

Could we forgive a monster like Michael Jackson? Can we forgive like Corrie Ten Boom? Can we forgive those around us for their cruel and thoughtless offenses?

We can. We must.

The Lord’s Prayer draws us together around the hearth of forgiveness. We pray for our Father’s forgiveness. He forgives us, and knowing the abysmal depth and extent of all that he is forgiven in us—things done in secret or in the secret places of our mind that would appall others if only they knew—then we cannot help but forgive others. And so the Christian home and church become beautiful places of patience, forgiveness, and love. 

Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.

All of Grace by Charles H. Spurgeon

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