A series on what the Bible says about loving one another wouldn’t be complete without touching on the topic of forgiveness. The Bible, and particularly the New Testament, has a lot to say about forgiving those who have wronged you. But there are actually several different ideas packed into our word, “forgive.” It’s important to unpack those various ideas, so we know why and how Christians should be people of forgiveness.
Two of the Greek words translated “forgive” are “aphiēmi” and “apolyō.” Both of these words have to do with releasing someone who owes us or who has wronged us. In this sense, to forgive someone is to let them go free. Instead of holding them in bondage for the wrong they have done, release them.
In Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, both of these Greek words are used to describe how the master forgives his servant who owes him a large debt, “Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released (apolyō) him and forgave (aphiēmi) him the debt.” In the parable, when the forgiven servant refused to forgive his fellow servant, he was punished by his master. Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive (aphiēmi) your brother from your heart.”
When someone owes us a debt they legitimately cannot pay and they ask us to forgive them, love demands a willingness to release them completely from their debt. We do this because this is what God in Christ has done for us. God has released us from our sin debt, so we release others. Certainly, this idea includes releasing people emotionally, but it primarily seems to be about releasing people from their obligation to make restitution.
Think about the people who have taken something from you for which restitution can never be made. Maybe someone embarrassed you or insulted you in public and you know there is no way for them to repair the damage they have done to your reputation. They have apologized to you, but you still feel like they owe it to you to make things right. Love demands you release them from that debt. There’s no way for them to repay you and they deeply regret their action. So, let it go.
There is another Greek word that is sometimes translated “forgive” and it is “charizomai.” This word carries the idea of giving a gift to someone; in this case, giving a gift to those who have wronged you. If forgiveness is primarily about releasing someone from a debt, “charizomai” takes it a step further and focuses on the generosity behind that release.
Paul used this word in his letter to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). God’s generosity towards us should make us incredibly generous towards those who have caused us harm and done us wrong.
True forgiveness is not just a matter of saying, “You don’t owe me anymore,” but also of saying, “In spite of what you’ve done, I gift you with freedom, favor, and friendship.” It’s about sharing with others the gift that God has shared with us. It’s about grace.
Harbor No Bitterness
The first two ideas are very practical and concrete concepts. Someone owes you, they cannot repay you, they apologize, and you give them the gift of releasing them from the debt they owed you.” That’s forgiveness. But that’s often not what we mean when we talk about forgiveness.
When we talk about forgiveness, we often mean the abstract and emotional aspect of letting go of our anger and bitterness. While the word for this is not technically “forgiveness,” it is an incredibly important part of love. Paul wrote, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
While true forgiveness typically requires the other person to acknowledge and repent of their sin, letting go of our anger and bitterness towards them does not. Even if someone continues to mistreat us and do wrong to us, we must still put away all of our bitterness, wrath, and anger towards them. Staying angry at someone, wishing harm would come to them or refusing to be kind to them, is no way for a follower of Jesus to live.
Love refuses to hold on to bitterness or to stay angry. Love refuses to seek vengeance or to try to get even. Love refuses to treat people poorly because of how they have treated us. Love does good to people, even people who have done harm to us.
Finally, there is another action that is deeply related to forgiveness. It is probably the most proactive thing we can do when someone wrongs us. If forgiveness is wiping the slate clean, there is also the option of not writing anything down on the slate in the first place.
A good word for this action is “overlook.” Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
This isn’t exactly the same as forgiveness. It is more proactive than forgiveness. “Overlooking” never even allows debt to accumulate so that it needs to be forgiven.
We live in a culture that teaches us to be hyper-aware of how offended we should be by other people’s words and actions. But this is another area in which followers of Jesus should be counter-cultural. We should be so quick to forgive, we don’t even take notice in the first place.
There are a million opportunities to practice overlooking wrong each day. When someone…
- takes your parking spot
- says something kind of rude
- eats the last piece of cake
- invites someone else and not you
- fails to compliment your hard work or success
We could give a thousand other examples, but loving people means putting up with them. It means putting up with their weaknesses, failures, and shortcomings. It means choosing not to make a big deal out of every negative interaction we have.
After all, this is the only way we can live peaceful lives. We ourselves are weak, broken, and flawed people. We make a million mistakes a day. If people don’t choose to overlook our shortcomings, we will constantly be in everyone’s debt. So, we have to do the same for others. We have to overlook many of the little irritating and hurtful things that happen every day. That’s love.
Knowing when to hold people accountable for their actions, when to forgive them, and when to overlook their wrong is a matter of wisdom and discernment. But no matter what, let’s choose to put away all of the bitterness and choose to not stay angry with one another.
I love you and God loves you,