Matthew 6.14-15: “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Forgiveness is one of those words that is often in the eye of the beholder. To one, forgiveness means “forgive and forget.” “Don’t bring up the past and move on.” To another person, forgiveness more minimally taken to mean the cessation of vengeance. However, if we pay close attention to the way Jesus and the Scriptures use forgiveness, neither of these definitions really suffice.
We see a basic script for forgiveness offered in Psalm 31.5:
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity (וַעֲוֺ֘נִ֤י);
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt (עֲוֺ֖ן) of my sin.
To key to understanding forgiveness in this passage is to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word עָוֺן, translated in this passage as iniquity and guilt. We see this word used back in Genesis 4.13 when Cain is cursed because of his murder of his brother Abel: “My punishment (עֲוֺנִ֖י) is greater than I can bear!” The word is used similar in Genesis 19.5. In short, it seems that עָוֺן refers to liability that a person incurs for their sin that dramatically and entirely changes life. The cursing of the ground for Cain and the destruction of Sodom are all life-altering events, to say the least. In this vein, forgiveness of עָוֺן relates to the fact that one does not dramatically and irreparably tears down a person’s life because of their sin.
We see a similar sentiment expressed in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, where the unforgiving servant put a fellow servant into jail for the small debt he owed him. The lack of forgiveness negatively and dramatically controls, harms, and alters a persons life for their sins and debts. This goes beyond avoiding vengeance, as vengeance is an attempt to inflict harm for a harm. The punishment for sin is a matter of dramatically altering a person’s life that would be considered merited for what they did.
What is not included in this vision of forgiveness in the Scriptures: discipline that is done to teach a lesson, accountability that ensures correction, learning, etc., speaking truth about an ignored past to correct harms done, etc., all of which are actions that can both redirect people’s sinful behaviors and repair and reconcile broken relationships. Those who do not deeply value righteousness and justice treat forgiveness as blanket avoidance from these life-sustaining and life-giving practices that may bear a difficulty for a short time but can sustain life in the long-run, because they do not readily seek and understand the way the correction in truth from the Lord and from others is for their benefit in the long run.
Martin Luther King Jr. said: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love.” Of course, for MLK this certainly did not include not speaking up about injustices, seeking accountability, discipline for wrongs done, etc., or there would not have been a Civil Rights movement. Rather, forgiveness was a way of keeping a sense of dignity without destruction and violence for those who caused the harm and injustice. Many people do not understand this vision of forgiveness from MLK, either falling into the excesses of a cancel culture that seeks to irreparably damage people for individual failures and sins or fitting MLK into a vision of avoidance of one’s failures and injustices that MLK did not put into practice.
Forgiveness is where God and we as people do not irreparably damage and harm other people’s lives for their sins, but in fact, give people the opportunity to learn to live life in a better way. This is a difficult way to realize as people are often unwilling to recognize their need for forgiveness, and even if they recognize the need for forgiveness, their reluctance towards receiving the deeper truth and the way of reconciliation, if offered.