The Fearsome Nature of Forgiveness

by Matthew Raley

The word forgive has fallen into disuse, and we’ve substituted the phrase move on. But the two actions we describe are different.

The object of my “moving on” or “forgiving” is a wrong someone has committed against me.

To move on is to leave that wrong behind on life’s road. I strive to put my relationship with the wrong-doer on a new course. I also strive to prevent my emotions returning to the wrong, so that I stop feeling angry, resentful, or grieved. And I strive to think of myself as no longer defined by the wrong: I am not a victim.

The wrong is still there. I am choosing to ignore it.

"Prisoner," Christian Rohlfs, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

To forgive is more radical. The New Testament word aphiemi does have the idea of “letting go,” but with a greater specificity. It came to be used as a legal term for debt cancellation and divorce. A creditor’s claim no longer adhered to the debtor; a husband’s claim no longer adhered to the wife. In forgiveness, what is owed is zero.

This is the word Jesus uses when a paralytic is brought to him (Mark 2.1-12). He says to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” He is not saying, “God has moved on from all of the wrongs you have committed.” He is saying, “The claims against you are canceled.”

The enormity of Jesus’ statement is obvious to the religious leaders listening. “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” To zero-out the moral debts we owe is an action only God can take. Jesus heals the paralytic to verify that he does indeed have the authority to forgive. And in doing so he is claiming to be God.

The basis of Jesus’ authority is that he “gives his life as a ransom for many,” a payment to redeem sinners from their debts (Mark 10.45).

Our “move on” method of repairing personal harm doesn’t work.

For starters, it doesn’t deal with the nature of wrong-doing. Harm leaves a debt. Unpaid debt is loss. Every time I hear someone say he has “moved on,” the very next words out of his mouth reassert the loss he bears. At one moment he  pretends the loss is negligible, and at the next he proves how heavy the loss remains.

Deeper, “moving on” never discharges the wrong-doer. His wrong is still back there on the road. Let two people’s road cover ten years, and let the road be covered with harm’s wreckage, and then see how free and honest the two are after all their moving on.

We’ve probably stopped forgiving not because we don’t know what it means, but because we do know. We have no real basis for canceling debts, and we refuse to lie. We move on instead.

What would happen in our relationships if our own debts were canceled, and if we canceled each other’s debts on the basis of Christ’s payment? Christianity would happen.

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