When Is Forgiveness Not Forgiveness?
The power of forgiveness was on display in Charleston, SC as the media watched in amazement as the Emmanuel AME church victims’ families chose to express forgiveness to Dylann Roof who had gunned down 9 people in cold blood during a Bible study. Given the tenor of the nation’s current race relations the media had expected an ongoing spew of bitterness and vindication for this horrific act. And in this case, no one would blame them: An injustice of the greatest proportion had been committed. But the profound and powerful act of forgiveness left many speechless. They had no category to put this. It’s not natural. It’s supernatural.
As Anthony Bradley (Assoc. Prof. from King’s College) has said, “When we suffer injustice, the human heart craves revenge, vindication and retaliation.” Therefore, forgiveness in its truest form finds its source outside of the heart, from a higher source.
In Christianity the Scriptures are clear that we will be held accountable for our actions. But forgiveness means that I no longer hold the offense against the perpetrator. Forgiveness does not mean that justice is not served or that consequences are not experienced. Dylann Roof must be held accountable for his sickening acts. But when I forgive, I release myself from being in bondage to the transgression committed. “The families of the victims are now free,” Bradley writes, “from the snare of hate and vengeance and instead are empowered by love.”1
The Meaning of Forgiveness
We see the power of forgiveness as potent for the one forgiving and for the one being forgiven. Two Greek words are used to translate “forgiveness” in the New Testament. The first is charizomai which has its root in the word charis, meaning grace. It appears 27 times in the N.T. and grants favor unconditionally. Followers of Christ are to forgive one another in the same way Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 2:13, 3:13). It is this meaning of forgiveness that strikes at the heart of the forgiveness demonstrated in Charleston.
When one is a recipient of God’s unconditional love and grace, and underserved forgiveness has been experienced, how one responds to others is radically altered. At the funeral, Aja Risher, the granddaughter of shooting victim Ethel Lance, said, “I want my grandmother’s legacy to be what she stood for, and that’s love. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.” Such a response can only come from a heart filled with God’s supernatural unconditional love and grace.
But there is a second word in the N.T. that is translated forgiveness. It is the word aphiemi which means “to send away.” It occurs nearly 150 times, almost exclusively in the Gospels. When it is used of forgiving, it is in regard to forgiveness of (a) debts [Matthew 6:12]; (b) trespasses [Matthew 6:14; (c) blasphemies [Matthew 12:31]; lawless deeds [Romans 4:7]; wickedness [Acts 8:22]; and (f) sins [approximately 10 places where sins are forgiven].2
When someone forgives, they not only demonstrate grace and kindness, they send the offense away. They release its hold on them. When we forgive we are in the state of “for-giving.” When we are unwilling to forgive we are in the state of “un-giving,” or withholding, keeping, storing the hurt of the offense. When we are “un-giving,” we can’t give them a smile, a conversation or kindness. Forgiveness always releases a person from the act of offense whether they are sorry or not!3
It is possible to tell people we forgive them but not demonstrate charizomai or aphiemi. We may say “I forgive you” because we are expected to or have been conditioned to but there is no power to our words. No power because there is no state of “for-giving” (releasing).
When is forgiveness not forgiveness? When there are strings attached. When we say we forgive so that the other person will change. When we forgive just because they asked to be forgiven. When we forgive in words, but not from our heart. When we forgive to make someone feel bad or to make ourselves look good. Forgiveness that has strings attached is not forgiveness.
I find myself in a state of unforgiveness when I want that person that has hurt me to feel the hurt and pain they have caused me. Expressing to the person how I have experienced their words or actions is often helpful and usually needed. But whether they embrace my words or own their actions is completely out of my control. I know I have sinned against God on many occasions and have not fully embraced my own motives or cold heart. Yet, God has forgiven me because of Christ. So who am I not to extend forgiveness?
When I choose not to forgive, I usually want revenge upon the one who has hurt me. But God’s Word is clear, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.’” (Romans 12:19) When I choose to forgive, I’m choosing to trust God. When I choose to “un-give” I’m choosing to play God.
The word “Gospel” means, good news. The good news of the Gospel is found in Luke 5:20 and in 1 John 2:12 when it says, “Your sins have been forgiven you.” The verb tense is in the perfect tense indicating that our sins have been sent away from us permanently. This is indeed good news for those who have acknowledged that all of their best efforts are not good enough. If one has turned from depending upon good works to accept God’s forgiveness found only in Jesus, then forgiveness is theirs to be received. For God has put away (released) our sins at the cross to all who embrace God’s forgiveness found in Christ. God promises He will remember our sins no more (Hebrews 10:17).
Receiving and giving forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel! It’s not natural, it’s supernatural. It doesn’t and never will originate from my heart. But by God’s Holy Spirit power, it’s not impossible. “For the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . .” (Romans 1:16). Thank you to our brothers and sisters in Charleston who chose not to play God, but trust God and so eloquently demonstrated the Gospel in front of all of our eyes.
Dirke Johnson has a doctorate in Church Leadership and is a professor for the Ministry Degree program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also teaches at Cru’s Institute of Biblical Studies and specializes in Leader Development, creating high performing teams. He has years of experience at ministering in urban cross-cultural and international contexts.