This topic should concern all of us, for these passages underscore the seriousness of truly forgiving, and knowing what it is to forgive:
Matthew 6:14//Mark 11:26 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
With that warning in mind, just what is forgiveness and what actions does it involve? Once again, a look through the lens of the first century provides some surprises.
This word is often tied up with an idea of emotional attachment and release of guilt. But that's our modern idea -- the ancients had different ideas entirely.
Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social Science commentary notes that in the ancient world, sin was "a breach of interpersonal relations" that invoked a debt upon the sinner to the "sinnee". Of course we know this from the doctrine of the atonement: Sin incurs a debt upon us to God that Jesus' brokerage forgives. We also speak of forgiveness of debt in financial terms even today. Thus Matthew's version of the Lord's prayer speaks of forgiving "debts" and does so with the meaning that we are to waive the personal obligation invoked by one sinning against us.
Malina and Rohrbaugh further elucidate that sin thus made people "unable to maintain their social position" and that forgiveness "had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one's place in the community. Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. Forgiveness by others meant restoration to the community." This in turn meant that neighbors and friends did not blame you and take sanctions against you for your actions.
"Guilt" therefore referred not to personal feelings, but to liability and responsibility for an offense. (One will find nowhere in the Bible someone who says, "I feel guilty!") "Forgiveness" meant, in turn, "being divinely restored to one's position" and being "freed from fear of loss at the hands of God." Forgiveness was restoration to a previous position -- not an emotion.
With this in mind, what is forgiveness for us today, and what is it NOT?
- Not holding grudges against those who do you wrong. A grudge is a form of imposing personal indebtedness.
- Not holding grudges against someone who repeatedly offends ("seventy times seven").
It is NOT:
- Withholding due punishment to a criminal by society. Forgiveness is an interpersonal matter, not a social one.
- Never getting angry at someone or correcting someone who repeats the offense. Remember that righteous anger and correction exists. Anger by itself does not impose a debt on someone until it forms a "grudge" and imposes obligations on another.
Practically speaking we no longer have the power to impose many of the obligations and social strictures the ancients did. The ancients might have imposed on a neighbor by social ostracization; today, while some of your own friends might follow you in this against another person, the other person will have friends of their own in support. Individualism has not made debt-imposition impossible, but it has made its effects less.
In conclusion: to forgive, there must be a debt or obligation; if you place no obligations or debts on someone (whether physical, social, or emotional) there is nothing to be "forgiven". How that works out in your own life is a matter each will have to decide on their own.