“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”Matthew 5:7
Mercy and grace are two sides of the same coin. We have often defined mercy as “not receiving the judgement that we deserve” and grace as “receiving a blessing that we do not deserve.” In both cases, the definition of mercy and grace imply that they are not something that is deserved or can be earned. In fact, with both, we deserve the opposite of what we receive. We tend to sum up these two words with another word that shares a similar meaning: forgiveness.
But what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the English language. We often say that we “forgive” someone but we continue to harbor bitterness towards the offender in our hearts. Is that really forgiveness? Does forgiveness require demonstrative, sincere confession and contrition in order to be granted? Does forgiveness imply meritorious reward for for humble repentance? Or does forgiveness inspire confession, contrition, and repentance?
If you look closely at the word, the center of the word is another word that is the root of the entire meaning of it: give. At its root forgiveness implies an act of giving of oneself to another. In fact, in the New Testament the Greek word “aphesis” that is translated as “forgiveness” is an active word that means to release as a jailer would release a prisoner. Additionally, there is a secondary definition that means “to cause to stand away”. In simpler legal terms, it is the separating of a criminal from their crime, and no longer counting it against them. The offense is no longer on the record.
Let’s be perfectly clear. Forgiveness does not ignore that an offense has occurred. In fact, by definition it must acknowledge that an offense exists that is worthy of punishment or restitution. However, forgiveness is the act of taking that punishment on themselves and considering the debt paid in full. In terms of accounting, it is the act of paying for the debt owed to you out of your own funds.
I’ve often asked this question and it is rare that I get an honest, self-examined answer: “Is it more important to be right or in a right relationship?” The obvious answer would be “to be in a right relationship.” But do we really believe that if we continue to harbor resentment towards someone who wronged us? Have we really mended the relationship? Or are we just easing our own conscience with false humility and buried pride? It’s one thing to throw away your pride and forgive someone; it’s quite another to bury your pride and shake hands while holding on and nursing a grudge waiting for the next offense to rear its head. It’s the proverbial hatchet – buried with the handle sticking out ready to be surfaced to cut the offender back down to size.
Jesus put it quite simply like this: the greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, body, and spirit AND (not “BUT”) the second is like it – love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-40) Jesus literally equated our love for God with our love for each other. If we truly love our neighbor, forgiveness should come quickly. In fact, if you are a Christ follower, knowing the price that God paid to forgive you of your sin, you forfeited all rights to have an unforgiving spirit towards anyone.
When I look upon the landscape of our country today, it breaks my heart to see a spirit of unforgiveness blanketing our land. It has manifested itself in political divisiveness and violence from every corner. What is the most disheartening is when I see self-proclaimed Christ followers DEMANDING restitution for offenses perpetrated against them. I see Christians who speak with bitterness in their words. I’ve seen believers go decades without speaking to one another because of simple or even complex disagreements all because they are more concerned with being right about their side of the argument than being in a right, restored relationship with one another.
Forgiveness is the most precious act of love that anyone can give. It does not require restitution because then it becomes something earned by the offender, rather than something given by the giver. Forgiveness releases the shackles of payment from the offender, but it also releases the forgiver from the chains of bitterness and resentment. Don’t get me wrong – forgiveness doesn’t come easy. It’s not easy to let go of the hurt and the pain, especially when we have become so accustomed to it that it just seems natural and to release that pain means to venture into uncharted territory of emotional vulnerability. In its fullest context, this is the greatest blessing that extends beyond material giving and the fullest meaning of Jesus’ words when He said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”