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Monday, January 11, 2016

Forgive Me?

Jesus said,
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)
What does "repent" mean? We can use a dictionary and find out that it means "sincere regret or remorse for one's wrongdoing." Okay, fine, but is that what the Bible means with the term? Not exactly. The Old Testament has a couple of words that can be translated "repent". One (nâcham) means literally "to sigh" and refers to being sorry, but the other (shûb) means more at turning away. The first is a change of mind, so to speak, while the second is a change of direction. (The ESV, for instance, does not translate nâcham as "repent", but as "change of mind".) The New Testament uses exclusively some form of the word μετανοέω -- metanoeō -- which means "to think differently". Biblical repentance requires turning. There is a turn from and a turn to, a turn from evil and a turn to good. Ezekiel records God's words saying, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?" (That "turn back" is shûb.) Isaiah quotes God as saying, "Cease to do evil, learn to do good." (Isa 1:16-17) That's "turn from evil" and "turn to good". John the Baptist warned the Pharisees that they needed to "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance." (Matt 3:8) He didn't specify what that was, but clearly repentance produces results, changes, an alteration in how the repentant one acts and thinks.

So in the text from Jesus on forgiving a brother (physical or spiritual), He specifies "if he repents". Now, I'm not debating the whole "Do we have to forgive if they don't repent?" question. In fact, Jesus indicates here that you need to forgive if he says "I repent", so I'm not suggesting that we need to withhold forgiveness until there is fruit of repentance or any such thing. Not the point. I'm simply pointing out that "repent" is not merely "I feel badly." It is a genuine change.

All this to get to the problem of asking for forgiveness. I'm speaking here of interpersonal relationships, the ones that Jesus was addressing. I don't know if we really have a handle on how that is done. How many times have you heard something like, "I'm sorry that you felt bad about what I said"? That is not an apology. That's an accusation. "There was no reason to feel bad about what I said; I'm sorry (for you) that you did." The biblical version is confession (James 5:16). Oh, now there's an interesting word. In English the word comes from "con" -- with -- and "fess" -- to speak. That word means to agree with someone else about your error. Indeed, the Greek word means just that -- to agree fully. You see, that version of "ask forgiveness" means that I see it from their eyes and see from their perspective that I was wrong. I agree with them on that point. Asking for forgiveness, then, is not excusing or explaining my behavior, pointing out how it wasn't as bad as they thought, or indicating that they just misunderstood. It uses "I" to indicate the fault and "you" to indicate the wronged person. We so often use "I" to indicate how we weren't nearly as bad, if at all, as they thought and "you" to pass the blame off to them. This version recognizes their perspective and operates from it. "If I did something to upset you" is not the way to start it out. Confess. Agree with them that you caused them discomfort, pain, loss, or whatever. Now, of course, repentance -- a change in mind and action -- may require further steps. You may need to make it right. Remember, biblical repentance is a change of mind that produces a change in behavior. Asking for forgiveness -- confession -- is the start, not the end. Nor does repentance and confession guarantee forgiveness. But that's not the aim.

- Asking forgiveness is based on repentance, a change of mind and the actions that follow such a change.

- Asking forgiveness begins understanding their perspective. Whether or not you think what you said or did would or should hurt them doesn't matter. If you "sinned against" someone, it is based on their perspective. It is confession, agreeing with the other person.

- Asking forgiveness starts as an admission of guilt. "I take full responsibility." No excuses, passing the blame, explaining why it was their fault, too, or any such dodges. ("I was only kidding" isn't going to solve the problem.)

If you're the one to whom the apology is given, Jesus said to forgive. Indeed, Jesus said, "If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matt 6:15) Forgiving others may be hard, but actually repenting and confessing is equally difficult. I suppose it requires, first, the mind of Christ (Phil 2:3-5). But, remember, for the Christian, humility is a virtue (James 4:10; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 Peter 5:6).

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