Forgiveness: Comparing Biblical Claims and Implications with Research in Modern Psychology
In the Bible, Jesus demonstrates the meaning of forgiveness as canceling a debt in the infamous “Lord’s Prayer” when He says, “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NKJV). In essence, when someone owes you, forgiveness puts their account back to zero debt. Just as when a financial debt is cleared and nothing is owed any longer, if someone has committed an offense they are thought of as owing a debt, however when forgiveness has taken place, they no longer owe the forgiver (or debtor) anything.
Another biblical definition for forgiveness can be taken directly from the Greek in the New Testament, aphiémi, defined “to send away, leave alone, permit” (biblehub). This is divorce language in the Bible, referring to a complete disconnection from the thing (offense, person, debt) with which one was originally intimately connected. When one offends another, there is an intimate, negative connection to the offender, but forgiveness separates the offended person from the offense, and hopefully its immaterial consequences.
When the Bible speaks of the forgiveness of God, terms such as “out of sight,” “cleared of guilt” (Psalm 32:1-2, NLT), “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NKJV), and forgetting is implied as in Hebrews 8:12 when God is quoted as saying. “…their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (NKJV). The forgiveness of God is a separation of the person from their transgression, and their Creator and Judge no longer remembers it or holds it against them.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” Romans 5:8 (NKJV). Jesus forgave people before they asked and before they deserved it. Forgiveness was extended and available. All one is required to do is believe in it and receive said forgiveness, by faith. Forgiveness is a decision, and arguably the greatest demonstration of love.
Proverbs 10:12 tells us that “Hatred stirs old quarrels, but love overlooks insults” (NKJV). Living in a perpetual state of forgiveness and love includes overlooking insults. This is the everyday life of “the believer.” Walking in forgiveness and walking in love is living life according to biblical standards in a way that overlooks the faults, shortcomings and insults of others, as well as forgiving oneself for one’s own shortcomings.
Collectively, in the Bible, forgiveness is defined as a conscious decision to release someone of the debt that is owed (financial or figurative). It is to release an offender from the consequences of their offense, and to separate oneself from an offense committed against them. It is also to clear them of the guilt or consequences of their sin (or perceived sin/offense).
Sometimes this debt is only perceived, such as when one has been offended but the offense was either unintentional, or the offender did not actually perform the offense, in the first place or in the way the offended person felt they did. Whether perceived or real, the feeling of offense—and that a debt is owed—is always real, and therefore, the release of the debt by the debtor (forgiveness) is still necessary. This version of forgiveness is also represented in the following examples.
Definition in Modern Psychology
“Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness” (Berkeley). The dictionary definition agrees with this definition, in addition to referring to the cancelling of a debt. The secular, psychological definition(s) of forgiveness are, for all intents and purposes, the same as the biblical definition. Therefore, the word will be treated as such throughout this paper.
In a study of forgiveness in psychotherapy, Oxford University Press said that “forgiveness counseling…is a long, hard process of decision-making” (Affinito, 2002). “Stages [of forgiveness] generally consist of acknowledging the offense, deciding to forgive, and responding cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally (McCullough & Worthington)” (Brown, 2009). Forgiveness, at its best, and most difficult, is a decision.
As demonstrated above, there are multiple facets to forgiveness, but two main categories are receiving forgiveness and forgiving others. Receiving forgiveness from God is akin to forgiving oneself, because one must perform that act themselves so they must get to an emotional or mental state where forgiveness can take place within themselves, even if they are receiving it as a free gift earned by Jesus and not of themselves. Receiving forgiveness can also be a precursor to forgiving others, as being forgiven facilitates being able to make the difficult decision to forgive. This is partly because forgiveness has first been demonstrated by another, and partly because it was experienced by the individual who received it.
The second category of forgiveness to be treated in this paper is forgiving others. Where receiving forgiveness is essentially forgiveness for the self, forgiving others is a giving act. It is a decision to give that same treatment to another. Interestingly, both can be considered a selfish act, as forgiving others does not necessitate the involvement of nor any communication with the forgiven. It is essentially for the health and well-being of the forgiver. Although the person being forgiven can be informed of such, it is absolutely unnecessary in order for them to be forgiven.
The Correlation Between Being Forgiven and Forgiving Others
Matthew 6:12, from the Lord’s Prayer says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (NKJV). Jesus also says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25, NKJV). Forgiving others allows one to receive forgiveness from God.
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!” So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. (Matthew 18:21-34, NKJV)
God forgives people a great amount. People are commanded to forgive others. When people do not forgive, life can be very difficult. The forgiveness people are supposed to extend to others should be a reflection of the forgiveness they receive, by faith, from God. We know “faith works by love” (Galatians 5:6, NKJV). Forgiveness is an act of love. If one has no love, their faith does not “work,” therefore, they cannot receive God’s forgiveness, by faith, if they are refusing to forgive others.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
(1 Timothy 1:15-16, NKJV)
The ultimate example of forgiveness is found in Luke 23:34 as He hung on the cross, “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them [the ones murdering Him at that moment], for they know not what they do’” (NKJV). Jesus was forgiving the people who were murdering Him, while they were in the midst of the actual murder, humiliating him and yelling awful, degrading things at Him, after having beaten Him. This moment is where forgiveness that can be received by us was being accomplished, while at the same time showing us how we are expected to forgive. In a (Christian) study on the role of forgiveness after childhood sexual abuse, K.R. Morton et al found that “findings suggest forgiveness by God operates primarily through forgiveness of self” (2019).
The Command to Forgive
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34, NKJV). How did Jesus love people? His entire purpose of coming to earth was to forgive people of their sins and restore their righteousness (right standing or connection with God). Therefore, this is how He is commanding His followers to behave. To forgive others completely, releasing them from any debt owed for their trespasses/sin.
Biblical Claims and Implications Concerning Forgiveness Compared to the Claims of Modern Psychology
Throughout the Bible, many claims and implications concerning forgiveness (and conversely, “unforgiveness”) are made. Five claims that will be treated here are...
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