Myths About Biblical Forgiveness
Based upon notes from an article by Maria Mayo, M.Div., Ph.D. , Contributor to the Huffington Post 10/16/2011
It may well be true that “Forgiveness sets you free.” However, the idea of forgiveness as a psychological or emotional condition traces to 18th-century moral philosophy, not first-century Christian writings.
The Bible has plenty to say about forgiveness. Where the Old Testament focuses mainly on God’s forgiveness of individuals or groups, the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels also address how human beings can and should forgive each other.
Those teachings, however, are a precarious guide for 21st-century human relations. While Jesus mentions forgiveness several times, he never defines the term, leaving contemporary listeners to fill in the blanks. Is forgiveness something a person does, i.e., does it indicate an action, such as reconciliation or amnesty? Does forgiveness require action on the part of the offender? Is forgiveness something a person feels?
While modern conceptions of forgiveness focus mainly on its emotional dimensions, in Jesus’ first-century context, forgiveness had more concrete implications. The Greek word translated as “forgive” in the New Testament, aphiēmi, carried a wide range of meanings, including to remit (a debt), to leave (something or someone) alone, to allow (an action), to leave, to send away, to desert or abandon, and even to divorce.
In fact, the Greek word appears 146 times in the New Testament, but it is translated in most English versions as “forgive” only 38 of those times. Considering the entire range of meanings of this word gives us some indication of what “forgiveness” might have meant to listeners in Jesus’ first-century context. Most of all, forgiveness was an action rather than a feeling, and so our contemporary ideas about forgiveness as an emotional state must come from sources other than the biblical text.
Here I submit five prevailing “myths” about forgiveness that have come into Christian belief and practice. I call them myths not because they are not worthwhile guides for moral behavior, but because they do not actually have their roots in the New Testament. Separating what Jesus taught about forgiveness from what we have assumed and inferred puts a fine point on how Christians can define and practice forgiveness today.
- Jesus teaches unconditional forgiveness.
Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus teach that forgiveness should be offered unconditionally. In Matthew, Jesus says that church members should forgive each other “seventy times seven times” (18:22), a number that symbolizes boundlessness. However, even though he preaches boundless forgiveness, he does not indicate whether that forgiveness has conditions. “The author of the Gospel of Luke repeats the same story, but adds a condition to forgiveness, stating that church members must forgive boundlessly “if there is repentance” (17:3).
Ahh, Therefore….If there is no repentance then forgiveness endlessly makes no sense! Some people simply do not deserve endless forgiveness! They are unrepentant. That means, they are unwilling to admit they are wrong and change their behavior.
Further, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus warns his disciples that there is a sin that will not be forgiven: “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Blasphemy (Greek: blasphemēo) means to speak against or slander. The meaning of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is open to interpretation, but it is clear that there is a sin that God will not forgive under any circumstances. If Jesus teaches unconditional forgiveness, then God must be exempt from that teaching.
I have often said, to “For Give” means to Forgo any attempt at revenge and to Give the issue to God. Let God deal with it. I will not “play God.”
- Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
Perhaps one of the best-known stories about Jesus comes from the Gospel of John, when Jesus confronts a crowd about to stone a woman who was caught in the crime of adultery. Jesus interrupts the melee, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). When no one moves to attack the woman, Jesus says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (8:11).
This is a favorite of mine. Go your way and SIN NO MORE. Sin no more….but too often people sin again and again and tell themselves, “God will just have to forgive me.” God doesn’t need you and he said he is not a respecter of men. He is soverign. He does what He knows is right and we must learn from Him what is right and wrong. Too many go to a Catholic confession, and say Forgive me Father for I have sinned. And the priest says, “God will forgive you my son. Now go your way and sin no more.” But, the implication is, you should leave an offering of money to pay penance for your sins, and if you sin again, once again the priest will say the same words and again you can pay penance and be “forgiven.” We wish the slate would be erased and washed clean. We are often told to pay for forgiveness and everything is made white as snow. But then, we face the real possibility that if we refuse to change our ways and follow God’s Righteous Way we won’t be forgiven. We’ll hear a terrible rebuke, and perhaps worse, go to “outer darkness” and to “the second death.” (I am not a believer in eternal punishment. That is reserved for Satan and his fallen angels.)
This story about Jesus confronting a crowd about to stone a woman, is often cited as an example of Christian forgiveness. However, the Greek term most commonly translated as “forgive,” aphiēmi, does not appear in this story. Jesus’ refusal to condemn the woman is not the same as an offer of forgiveness. Further, Jewish wisdom teaches that only a victim may forgive an offender. Since the woman has not done anything to Jesus, he has nothing to forgive her for. His refusal to condemn her is more a lesson to the crowd about judgment than it is an expression of forgiveness.
This is another example I wish to point to, by which to express again that you will never understand Christian Thought and Philosophy until you understand the culture from which it came! At very least look up the meanings of words, or check several translations to get a better understanding. I don’t call what we study “Christianity” because the disciples never called it that. That word came from Simon The Sorcerer, who is the real Simon Pater, the one who launched the Catholic Church, the Babylonian Mystery Religion dressed in a new costume. It was there that this word “Christianity” came to be. But back in Judea and Qumran where Jesus came from his philosophy and theology was called, “The Way.” (The disciple Peter never went to Rome. He stayed and worked in and around Jerusalem.)
- Jesus forgives his attackers from the cross.
Luke’s depiction of Jesus on the cross is often cited as the quintessential example of unconditional forgiveness. As he is being crucified, Jesus cries out, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Readers often take this to mean that Jesus forgives those who are attacking him. However, a closer look at the syntax reveals that Jesus is not, in fact, forgiving his attackers; rather, he is praying that God might do so.
It is possible that the lack of repentance from his attackers prevents Jesus from forgiving the men directly, since he has taught his followers that repentance is a requirement for forgiveness. Also, earlier in the Gospel of Luke Jesus instructs his disciples to “pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:38). While his prayer from the cross is a perfect model of this teaching, it is not an explicit act of forgiveness.
- “Turn the other cheek” refers to forgiveness.
Just after he gives the instruction to pray for one’s enemies, Jesus tells his followers, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29; the identical teaching appears in Matthew 5:39). Some interpret this instruction — given by Jesus as antithetical to “an eye for an eye” — to mean that the proper response to violence or aggression is to ignore it. However, in the time of Jesus the act of turning one’s cheek when slapped was not a sign of acquiescence. Turning the cheek would force the aggressor to strike with the left hand, which was seen as unclean, or the open right hand, which would signal equality. Thus, turning the other cheek would have been seen as an act of rebellion.
Further, just as the “eye for an eye” teaching served as a check for vengeance, Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek applies to a person who is slapped and does not apply to more severe acts of violence. Nowhere does Jesus suggest that turning the other cheek is an act of forgiveness.
- Forgiveness sets you free.
Theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Much of Christian self-help literature touts the emotional and physical benefits of forgiveness. And while contemporary understandings of forgiveness may very well have positive psychological outcomes for those suffering in the aftermath of mistreatment and abuse, the idea that forgiveness is good for the forgiver, that it “sets you free,” does not come from the Bible.
The closest parallel comes after the parable in which Jesus describes an unforgiving servant being condemned to prison and torture. Then he warns, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). In this case, forgiving is in the best interest of the one forgiving in order to avoid an afterlife of torture and abuse. However, the concern here is not a psychological one, but rather a concern for salvation.
I have not yet found a good definition for “heart” other than to assume it means the “emotional mind.” Does this mean I should forgive emotionally? I don’t know.
Again, it may well be true that “Forgiveness sets you free.” However, the idea of forgiveness as a psychological or emotional condition traces to 18th-century moral philosophy, not first-century Christian writings. Forgiveness in the time of Jesus was an action verb, and Jesus’ instructions served as checks for the health of the community, both on earth and in the world to come. There is nothing in the Bible that says that forgiveness is good for the physical or mental health of the forgiver. It is anachronistic to suggest otherwise.
What conclusion shall we draw then? How can we make this practical? I will ramble a bit in the hope it will help you and me. If you don’t type well this is a new idea for you. I can type almost as fast as I can form words in my mind, so I think through my fingertips. I’m thinking about this and you’re welcome to stop reading here or read on to think along with me.
For those who should be forgiven, pray for them, forego your decision to exact revenge but rather, pass it to God for judgment. Let God be the final arbiter and punisher, because you and I do not know what the perpetrator’s psychological condition might be, or what motivated him to do or say what he did.
If someone harms you, you may protest, you may rebel, you may say, “Let’s talk through this and work out a decent peaceful solution.” You may give in and walk away. You may also defend what you are certain is yours and what is right.
Jesus said he could call upon 10,000 Angels for his defense but He instead did what His Father told him to do. He let the Romans beat him so severely you couldn’t recognize him. He suffered their torture and died as the FINAL sacrifice for our breaking of God’s Ways and laws.
But a man who was not both a man and God, as King David for example, prayed for help in battle and defense. Even so, David was never certain of the outcome. He once cried out that he was surrounded and constantly hounded by his enemies. We mere mortals must do our best to make peace of these problems in our emotional and logical thinking and have done with it, or we must find a way to bring the problem to its end, it’s “closure.” (A new word that suddenly came to us around 1980… “closure” A fancy way to say “it’s ended. It’s done. I’m done with it. I’ll let it go and put my mind on the future instead of the past.”)
The one whom you’ll forgive must agree to change his/her ways and behavior. If this person commits a high crime (for example a sexual abuse, which really is NOT about sex, it’s about power and control of another) and will not cease doing such crimes, he does not deserve forgiveness. He deserves police and court action on earth and God’s decision from Heaven. And…I’m sorry to say this… if the police and courts and city mayor or other high representatives and officials will do nothing, it may be — the only way to get a redress for the crime is to handle it yourself.
But be aware God said, essentially, I know everything you do and think. Your sins will reveal your crimes and your punishment will begin here on earth. Your anger, your crimes show up on your life problems and your physical ill health.
I will end with one more practical thought; about marriages that sail onto the rocks. A man cheats on his wife. The wife is known to be in bed with one or several other men. Sometimes one can “forgive,” let it go, say, “Let’s try again.” Other times one might say, “I trusted you and you betrayed my trust. Now I will separate from you. Go your way but I will no longer support you.” Or one might decide, “I don’t own you. I refuse to own anyone. Whatever you do, do it but don’t let me know about it. However, if you bring home a new sexually transmissible disease, or come home pregnant with some other man’s baby, I will separate from you and I don’t care what any judge says, I will not support you. Go live with your other lover.
I know all too well, this is not easy to consider. It’s painful. It’s shameful. It causes feelings of guilt on both sides. In some cases God calls it an abomination, yet in others God forgives.
God speaks to us as He did to The Tribe ancient Israel and says, You were my bride and you betrayed me. Come back and I will forgive you. He is still speaking these words but who in modern times will hear Him? Alas, at most I say 1% of the world will listen.
My experience is, eventually to wrap your mind around letting it go. Giving that former spouse a blessing; “Goodbye and Good Luck” or Go and God Bless You….. Because we know that No marriage or relationship is perfect. Marriage is a spiritual journey. It’s never entirely easy and it cannot be. If it’s “perfect” something is probably suppressed and hidden. There is no spiritual growth happening. Only 1 in a thousand are 100% trustworthy. Sometimes biology wins and some people behave more like cats and dogs than like intelligent, thoughtful, considerate people!
Nowadays the devil and his minions are doing their best to tempt everyone with endless pictures of people rubbing bodies together. But the action is trading momentary thrills for Months, even Years of regret and pain. It’s a bargain with Satan and should never be taken.
People in love relationships are motivated by many things, including a desire for partnership, companionship, help through life, and relief from the struggle to make a living. Where I hide in my retirement most of the year, in The Philippines, a younger woman flirts with me nearly every week. Is this because I still resemble Dustin Hoffman? No. I once did, but no longer.
Is it because I’m so drop-dead gorgeous? Ha! Most Certainly NOT!
I like to joke: “They don’t want what’s in my pants. They want what they imagine is in my wallet.”
They struggle to make a living, 12-hour and longer days in hot often dirty conditions. Old white guy comes along and they hope “he’s my ticket out of this prison” so they flirt. There are many honest women here, but there are 10 times as many gold diggers. 17-year-old girls smile and wave. What do you think? Of course it’s all about the money. It’s a form of trading honor for money, which is a good definition of the word “prostitution.”
I’ve made my promise to ONE good woman and to God. To involve myself with another woman is to insult God and I won’t do that. So, I just smile and make a little joke of it, pay for my vegetables and move on. Other men would be going around breaking hearts and making multiple women pregnant, which really is the worst sort of sin. (There’s no “welfare” here. If she’s with child and no husband her problems are only multiplied and her future grief is assured.)
The world is growing, as predicted, colder, tougher, more brutal, arrogant, nasty. [Thank God for BibleGateway.com Do something to support them. If you want to buy a book or Bible see if you can buy through them. They’ve helped hundreds of thousands of Bible students for years and often without pay. This quote is from them.]
2 Timothy 3 New International Version (NIV)
3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
We are living in those last days. I am convinced the clock began ticking again when The US President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol and moved the US Embassy there. I’m predicting “something huge” begins 3.5 years from that date. If you’re a prophecy student you already know what “huge something” might happen. If you’re not a prophecy student I recommend you read at www.TheTrumpet.com often and look for their channel at YouTube. A lesson daily or at least on weekends will be beneficial for you. (There’s the understatement of the decade.)
We are living through the last days. We see it all around us in geopolitics, and in our own drug abuse and lawlessness in the US and England and Europe. People are just as 2 Tim 3 said they would be. Nowadays we not only have a serious “opioid” crisis and other drugging going on. We have a young generation so ill educated they appear to be unmotivated, morally bankrupt, confused, and worthless. Add to that we have legalized marijuana and a bunch of irresponsible investment advisors telling us to get rich buying investments in the “pot trade.” I think it’s despicable.
Do your best to forgive those who hurt you and get out of their way. The reason I left the US is because I knew what was coming. Thousands of smart people and rich and smart people have done that. And if you can’t do that, maybe move to a ghost town in the mid-west or far west. Find a house with a water well. Probe very carefully with a stick. Be sure you don’t step on old boards and fall into a well and be trapped! Start growing your own food. One day you won’t laugh at my thought. You’ll realize it was brilliant. As crazy as this sounds, I’d prefer to be living out of a my car and trailer for a while until I settle somewhere to be safe and alone. What’s coming between now and year 2022 looks like misery compounded. I’d prefer to be like that dirty hairy actor “Phil Robertson” in the woods. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7_cEX3XuwY Alone with his thoughts, a few local friends, and that’s what he wants. He’s free. There are no ANTIFA riots outside his door and that’s the way he wants it.
I hope this has been helpful. God Bless You.