March 15, 2009

Forgiveness: An Expanded View

There are several primary words in scripture that are often used interchangeably in doctrines of Christian organizations when the underlying idea is that ‘someone has done you wrong.’ These words in common English are Debt, Offense, Trespass and Sin.  In some sect doctrines we are admonished that our response should forgo discrimination as to the nature of the offense and that we simply forgive. Forgiveness is defined as ‘cancellation of an indebtedness or sin’ from the Greek word aphiemi, meaning to ‘let go, or drop.’ It is correctly taught that revenge, or the holding of a grudge, are sinful responses to wrongs. There is also the widespread but incorrect teaching that negative emotions out of a wounded heart are indications that forgiveness is not genuine or complete by the one wronged. Additionally, it is assumed by many that to receive an emotional wound is proof that there is resentment and a desire for revenge in the injured party. Injuries are considered to exist in a one dimensional world where all wrongs are lumped into a single degree of unrighteousness and the one who is wronged is stripped of all rights of redress that are clearly given to all members of the family of God. 

We teach in the body of Christ that Christians do not have a right to justice when they are sinned against. Of course, this teaching is in error and the failing is with us, the elders who provide no means of reconciliation nor do we administer God’s justice as is clearly given in scripture. Rather a control doctrine is applied where the person wronged carries the whole burden of the injury and of changing attitudes so as to accept the sinner on the sinner’s terms.  Christians are told that they have no right to justice, redress or restitution, by the one who has wronged them.  Here we define a control doctrine as a standard raised by natural men without complete understanding of God’s righteousness.  Controls are meant to quickly dispatch the situation rather than to bring reconciliation or justice. Additionally, sinners are not, for the most part, taught repentance and restitution, nor are those things made the proper course of action by leaders for congregants.

Few American churches, that I know of, teach that an offender should make things right or restore equity to persons they have wronged, or where the church leaders teach, encourage or enforce those concepts among members.  Let’s say that another way. It is taught: “Whatever the nature of a wrong done to a Christian, their only acceptable response is to forget or let go of the wrong and deal with their own pain filled emotions, which emotions are reflective of an unforgiving heart. Anything less will result in that Christian not being forgiven by God for their sins.”  I have heard it said by several preachers, “You have to forgive or you will not be forgiven by God.  It does not matter what was done to you.”  I think this level of teaching stems from ignorance as to the distinctions made in scripture concerning the types or the nature of wrongs, but also ignorance of the dual responsibilities of both a transgressor and the person injured.

God holds all of us preachers and teachers to a stricter standard and we will answer to Him if we dismiss the administration of equitable righteousness. I believe all leaders in the Body of Christ are now being given greater understanding into the importance of their roles in establishing and maintaining right relationships for their followers.

Perhaps, if we give a closer look to the Bible and what the distinctions are made concerning wrongs suffered in church by Christians, then several positive results will come out of it. The first thing that might happen is that relationships can be restored rather than remain broken. The second thing is that an undue burden of false responsibility can be removed from truly injured persons.  (Forgiving someone does not necessarily bring healing to the injured person.  Being wounded does not signal unforgiveness.)  Another outcome is that the Christian Church will begin, at last, to represent God’s justice and righteousness for each person.

First, we have to put sin and offenses into a vertical scale with the most unintended violations of covenant conduct at the bottom.  At the bottom of the scale is the Greek word ‘paraptoma’ which is a combination of two words that individually mean ‘side-slip’ or ’fall-down’. In contemporary culture, we would say, a mess up, to stumble, a mistake, or a slip up.  Paraptoma represents a low level of offense and ignorant cultural mistakes are the most common.  For example, an American visiting in a Chinese culture will make many unintentional paraptoma of manors, and the converse is also true. It is a courteous thing to overlook such in any cultural mixture and especially in the Body of Christ. 

The Bible has an appropriate word translated ‘forgive’ for situations like these.  That word is ‘charizomai,’ meaning to grant a favor or to pardon.  The root of ‘charis’, grace, is obvious.  So, an unintentional mistake or slip up deserves to be responded to with a gracious, overlooking attitude.   

Paraptoma is the word used in Matthew 18:35  where the famous verse reads, “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive(aphiemi) not every one his brother their trespasses.G3900-paraptoma)  God makes a distinction between messing up and sin and so should we.  This level of forgiving will present minimal difficulty for most Christians. “God will not forgive your sins unless you forgive the slipups of your neighbors.”  Hamartia, intentional sin, is a much different scenario than paraptoma, an unintentional mistake. I will discuss hamartia later on, but first we need to look at the next level.

We move up our vertical scale of offenses to a higher level of seriousness.  The offense could be of an unpaid debt or a continuing, accrued obligation, an ‘opheilema’ in Greek. There is a distinctive word, danion, which refers to a debt or a loan. Opheilema means objectively, an accrued debt or one that has been developed over some time.  Subjectively, opheilema is a moral obligation which makes one subject to another.  For example: a person saves the life of another and the second person is obligated to the first for gratitude, service, submission, or social status. Opheilema can also refer to a long term character fault.  Either way, we see a more complex set of circumstances and the need for arbiters or mediators to be involved to best determine equitable solutions in most cases. 

Four simple examples will serve to give light to opheilema.

  1. Person A borrows a sum of money, interest free, from Brother B with the understanding that he will repay that loan at the first of the next month.  When the day arrives, Person A refuses to pay back the loan, even though he could pay it, and expresses the attitude that Brother B has to forgive the debt to satisfy God’s forgiveness condition.  Does A’s attitude reflect righteousness? Should he be compelled to repay the loan?  Or, should Brother B be told that he must forgive the debt? Our view is that it is righteous to repay what is borrowed in order to restore equity in the relationship.

  2. Use the same circumstance and assume that Person A suffers an accident that prevents him from ever repaying the debt.  Should Brother B forgive the debt entirely or at least be patient until the loan can be repaid?

  3. A senior member of a congregation disciples a new convert and over time a debt of servitude and subjection is established where the less mature person is expected to remain under the influence and domination of the older.   This is an accrued obligation and it should be ‘aphiemi’ or let go of by the mature person.

  4. A person with a history of notorious and heinous sin comes into a congregation and brings with them an accumulated ungodly reputation. With proper repentance and discipleship, this sinner needs the aphiemi of the congregation for their previous life of opheilema. Individuals and congregations often find it difficult to let the new person have a new reputation and thus find equality in the congregation.

One can see that the just responses to indebtedness will vary greatly with the circumstances.  The standard for Christians is that they will be treated by God with the same attitude as they treat others. This is fairness at its best.  As we sow, so shall we reap.  The way that we treat others is the same way that we will be treated.  To make forgiveness the only option for an injured person is to remove equitable fairness from the table and is unjust. Let an objective third party make a fair judgment on matters like this so as to not overburden anyone.  The Greek word, aphiemi, is used most often where an opheilema is occurs. 

The primary example is used by Jesus in Matthew 18:22-35 in the story of the unforgiving servant.  Opheileo or opheiletes, translated owed and debtor, is used six times in this passage.  The first servant could have accepted the offer of the second servant to repay him when possible, but that was not good enough. The first servant chose to take an inequitable course of action against his servant and that was his major sin rather than the unforgiven debt itself.

Finally, let us move up to the highest level of offense according to scripture.  Sin is at the top of the scale in severity and has a distinctly different procedure for remedy than either paraptoma or opheilema, according to scripture.  The Greek word ‘hamartia’ used for sin, is pictorially described as ‘missing the mark so as not to share in the prize,’ but understand that the ‘marks’ as set by God are clearly described in the Bible and have much more severe consequences for an offender than paraptoma or opheilema.  To forgive of sin, there must be demonstrated repentance, restitution and a seeking to repair the relationship by the offender toward the person they have wronged whether that person is a fellow Christian or God himself.

To summarize what we have presented so far, there are different levels of offenses that can occur in relationships.  Some are simple and unintentional. Others are more complex and can best be handled with the services of an unbiased negotiator with authority to make binding decisions. Other offenses called sin in the Bible can be forgiven, aphiemi, but that forgiveness is never only the unilateral action and attitude of the person sinned against.  The initiative to repair damage and restore relationships need to be clearly expressed by the sinner as he becomes aware of his offense.  Then forgiveness can be granted by the person sinned against. Forgiveness is the merciful response to a repentant sinner and his attempts to correct the sinful behavior and the effects on the other person.  Putting the burden on the injured person is clearly not biblical and can be shown by how certain levels of offense are treated.  

A few prominent scriptures will show the distinctions between paraptoma (a slip up), opheilema (an indebtedness), and hamartia (sin).

Paraptoma is used in these two abbreviated passages. (Study in a lexicon will bring a more complete understanding.) Clearly, God’s forgiveness for our sins is contingent upon our willingness to forgive others their slip ups which is a very easy thing for most people to do. Again, the message is that if we are unwilling to overlook the small things then God will not overlook the big things in our lives.

Mat 6:14  For if ye forgive (aphiemi) men their trespasses,(paraptoma) your heavenly Father will also forgive(aphiemi) you:
Mat 18:35  So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts  forgive(aphiemi) not everyone his brother their trespasses.(paraptoma)

We move up the scale now to a more serious and complex set of wrongs. Opheilema is the term for an accrued obligation or a debt owed.  These are more complex situations as described in Matthew 18 where differing debts and personal attitudes come into play.  Our view is that every financial debt should be honored and paid where possible. Furthermore, a debtor’s willingness to negotiate a possible solution should be met by an equal willingness to work out a solution by the lender.

Mat 6:12  And forgive(aphiemi) us our debts,(opheilema) as we forgive(aphiemi) our debtors.(opheiletes)
Luk 11:4  And forgive(aphiemi) us our sins;(hamartia) for we also forgive(aphiemi) every one that is indebted (opheileo) to us. 

 Lastly, hamartia, translated sin, a violation of righteousness.  We see in these two passages that there is an emphasis on the repentant action of the sinner if he wants his sin to be forgiven by God or man.  Confession or acknowledgement of responsibility rather than deflecting excuses is God’s expectation.

Luk 17:3  Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass(hamartia) against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive(aphiemi) him.
1Jn 1:9
  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive (aphiemi) us our sins,(hamartia)  and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 Perhaps the most import word in this study, charizomai, is not linked to any particular kind of offense, but is set as a standard of having a kindly, gracious attitude to others in the Body of Christ.  .  If Jesus Christ lives in us, then we should be willing to be graceful and kind to one another. This of course, does not give us license to disregard definable offenses and the remedies commanded

Eph 4:32  And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving(charizomai) one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven(charizomai) you.