Unable to Forgive?

We just had a sort-out and threw away a lot of things, and passed on others to the charity shop. Things that once meant a lot but are now unused. A car full of boxes was driven to the local tip, and there the boxes and their contents met their final end, never to be seen again.

Later on, back home, I was wondering what the word “forgive” actually meant, and looked it up online. I discovered that the concept of forgiveness was very similar to our clear-out.

For me, it helped to clarify the concept of forgiveness, and – more importantly – to know how to do it.

Mission Impossible

You know what I mean. Sometimes you have the intention of forgiving, you know you should, but how do you deal with the feelings? In our day, forgiveness seems to mean some kind of mental exercise in which you try to rid yourself of hurt, and don’t feel so bad about what someone did to you.

But that’s near impossible, right?

Jesus didn’t just advise us to forgive, for the sake of our mental health, as if he were a therapist. He commanded us to forgive, and even warned that if we do not then the father CANNOT forgive us!

Matthew 6:12-15 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Forgiveness is active, not passive

The meaning of the word ‘forgive’ changed around the 13th century. In early days, the english word ‘forgive’ actually meant, to GIVE – as in, give your hand in marriage, give your love, give your consent.

In relatively modern times the meaning changed, so that forgiveness was seen as a passive process, an absence of feeling, rather than an active giving.

Wikipedia today says, “Forgiveness is the process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger for a perceived offense, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution”.

But HOW do we CEASE to feel resentment?? We struggle if we adopt this modern thinking and try to get over our own feelings (anger, resentment, bitterness, revenge etc).

That is NOT biblical forgiveness. Nor is it how God forgives us. Can you imagine God the Father saying, “well you made me pretty mad with your behaviour there, but I’ll try to get over how angry I feel so I can hold myself back from punishing you.”

The word has changed from ‘giving’ to “stop yourself feeling resentful”, ie. a passive change of feelings. But to forgive used to mean to GIVE – an active act of giving, at a personal cost to yourself.

Feel The Pain But Do It Anyway

It’s easier to forgive if you know it’s an action, not a passive state of mind.

Imagine if you start the day really tired, but you have a lot to do. It’s unhelpful to nag yourself: don’t be tired, I mustn’t be tired, try not to be tried. Hopeless! (Now you feel guilty as well as tired.) Just accept that you ARE tried and get on and do what you have to do anyway. Feel the tiredness and do it anyway.

The same with forgiveness. You can feel wounded, but still do the action of forgiving, by tossing away your “right” to retaliate. It’s your actions towards others that demonstrate your forgiveness, not how you FEEL about them, or yourself.

The Bible Word for Forgive

So much for the word, forgive, in english. Which Greek word is used for ‘forgive’ in the bible and what can we learn from that?

Even more!

In secular Greek APHIEMI initially meant to THROW, and in one secular writing we read “let the pot drop” (aphiemi). From this early literal use, the word came to mean leave, or let go.

In the bible, the most common use of aphiemi is to “go away, depart, remove oneself, leave behind”. So in an extension of that idea, when the bible speaks of forgiveness as aphiemi it means we put away, remit, lay aside or let go of what somebody owes us.

This is exactly how God forgives us. He lays our sins aside, and lets go of the obligation we “owe” to him. It’s a debt transaction. We owe an enormous sum, but God lets us off the debt and sets us free of it (actually by paying it himself.)

This is why Jesus used a parable about debt to explain forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We can learn two major things from this:

  • One – it’s VERY important to forgive, because our OWN forgiveness depends on it
  • Two – forgiveness, as here, is likened to writing off a debt.

It’s not about your feelings

Clearly the servant here was free to think whatever he liked about the man who owed him such a large sum of money, but whatever his thoughts and feelings, he COULD have written off this debt and let the debtor go. The condemnation came from refusing to ACT, not in harbouring bad feelings.

And so it is with us. It’s possible – even while in the heat of anger – to decide to let it go.

We read stories of neighbours who fall out over the height of a fence, or three feet of driveway, and it consumes their every waking thought. They often end up in court, and then one neighbour suffers a huge financial loss that could actually have been avoided if the matter had been settled earlier, in an amicable way.

I know a couple who were defrauded of a large sum of money. Messages and phone calls bounced back and forth for months, going over the same set of facts, as to how they were robbed. It was foremost in their thinking and behaviour for month after month. They talked of little else.

They could have taken it to court, because they had a valid case, but that would have kept the issue fresh in their minds and hearts for years.

Wouldn’t it be better to lay it down, suffer the loss, let it go? Was it worth years – possibly a lifetime – of hard feelings, anger, regrets, bad memories; was it worth falling out with people, going over the same old arguments and recriminations, thinking of almost nothing else – living in unforgiveness?

As Paul says, why not just suffer the loss? Let it go. That is what the Greek word for forgiveness means.

1 Corinthians 6:7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?

Forgiving means, drop it! Let it go! Throw it away!

Just like me yesterday, sorting through the shed and house to throw away what is cluttering up our lives.

Forgiving literally means to REMIT (to release from the guilt or penalty of) as one would a financial debt. The Rosetta stone refers to the “total remission” of certain taxes.

Jesus shed His blood for our forgiveness and described it as remission: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” [Matthew 26:28]

The Meaning of Forgiveness in Greek

In secular Greek literature, aphiemi was a fundamental word for releasing of a person or thing over which one has legal or actual control. Later it covered the release of someone from the obligation of marriage, or debt, or even a religious vow. In its final form it came to embrace the principle of release from punishment for some wrongdoing.

That is how God forgives. He removes [casts away, throws] our sins as far away as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:12]

Micah 7:18-19
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

Aphiemi means permit, let pass, give up, even to lose one’s life. (Jesus gave up his spirit: Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up (aphiemi) His spirit. (Mt 27:50, Jn 19:30)

The legal usage is important –

  • release from a legal bond (an office, an offense, a marriage)
  • acquit (cancellation of criminal proceedings)
  • exempt (from guilt, obligation, punishment)

The legal aspect of forgiveness comes across in John 20:23 in the King James Bible:

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

We know that retaining something is keeping it, and remitting something is giving it. In finance a remittance is a sum of money sent in payment, as in “complete your booking form and send it together with your remittance”.

So we do understand that to remit is to give (or in the case of a debt, to overlook, to give relief from). If cancer is in remission, it’s ceased, removed, the danger is over.

Thus in this verse above, in John 20, the idea of DEBT once again intrudes into forgiveness, as the apostles are either paying off or retaining sins as a legal transaction.

We also do the same thing. No matter how we FEEL about a wrong, we are commanded to lay the matter down, let it go, pass over it, give it up, refuse to hold the debt over another person, write it off, just as God did for us.

Some problems discussed:

ONE – People often say (as I myself have done) but what about if I can’t forget it? I can understand not to take revenge, but I can’t control my feelings to the extent of not thinking about it.

We are not commanded to forget, only to forgive!

Forgetting is something we have to deal with on a personal level, but it’s not a sin. Letting go of something can ease the pain, however, and God is always willing to heal our troubled souls. Ask God to take the anger, to take the memories. If you have done your bit in forgiving, God will respond in his part, to heal you.

TWO – Also, people complain that forgiving people is just absolving them from their bad behaviour and encouraging them to continue. No, the onus is not upon you, but upon them to change.

By forgiveness you have removed yourself from the prospect of sin in your own life, because you have chosen to lay down your anger, hatred, resentfulness and so on. Having done that, the problem has shifted to the one who sinned against you. It’s now become an issue between that person and God.

If you have an opportunity, you can still reason with that person, try to make them see the consequences of their actions, you can (as we say) hate the sin but love the sinner. But if not, just walk away.

Forgiveness is not the same as overlooking their faults, or their need for repentance. Pray for them! In forgiving, you have handed the problem back to them, and what they do with it is between them and God. Pray that they will repent.

THREE – There is a train of thought that to forgive unconditionally is unbiblical. Is the Church called upon to pronounce forgiveness over serial killers and terrorists or anybody in the news who has committed a heinous crime? I don’t believe so. The bible teaches us that God’s justice applies in the case of crimes, where repentance and remorse is not shown. God loves completely and perfectly but he also judges, and we cannot say that God forgives all regardless of their mentality and behaviour. Nor should we. But this is a long discussion and not the subject of this particular article.

In Conclusion

When they came to the place called The Skull, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right and the other on His left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

Are we greater or more important than the Saviour?

Further Reading

2 thoughts on “Unable to Forgive?

  1. That is how God forgives. He removes [casts away, throws] our sins as far away as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:12]

    I love this – and the fact that He doesn’t remove our sins as far away as the north is from the south.
    The distance from north to south is finite. If we travel north we can reach a northernmost point, and if we turn around an travel the other way, we will eventually reach a southernmost point.

    But if we travel east we can never arrive at an easternmost point – and if we turn around no matter how far we travel towards the west we’ll never reach a westernmost point.

    There is no finite distance between east and west.
    THAT infinite distance is how far He removes our sins.


  2. Hi Tricia,

    I have just been thinking about this matter today as it happens, so it was a timely blessing to discover your well written article waiting at the top of my WP reader. I find that when I obey God in the act of forgiving someone that He oftentimes changes my heart attitude towards the person as a result. I realise that I do the act of forgiving and leave God to deal with person. Jesus was nailed/hooked up on a cross so that my sins could be forgiven and now my job is to unhook those who sin against me, to let them go free from my own hooks of justice/unforgiveness. I can trust the Lord to deal with them in His perfect justice.

    Years ago I learnt also that forgiveness is completely different to reconciliation. Some people mix those two concepts, which can be very confusing if not downright foolish or even dangerous in certain circumstances.

    This subject is so foundational to our faith and one we need to practice continually. I recently shredded a pile of paperwork that I had kept for years, that documented others wrongdoing towards me, and it felt so good to finally do so. I have forgiven and can trust the Lord to deal with the wrongdoers in His way and time, so I no longer need to hang onto the rubbish.

    Thank you for spending your time to write this.
    God bless,


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