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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

A Good Definition of Forgiveness

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

I have blogged about forgiveness in some detail before, notably here and here. Today I came across a particular detail that is good enough to share.

I have been enjoying the University of Notre Dame’s Gary Anderson on the subject of Sin: A History. (Just a little bedtime reading, you understand.) As he traces the language of sin and forgiveness back into Syriac, Aramaic, and Hebrew, he talks about the version of The Lord’s Prayer found in The Peshitta, the Syriac Bible.

In it, Anderson contends, “is probably a close approximation of what Jesus might have said,” since Syriac is closely related to Aramaic and Hebrew, the two languages most scholars think Jesus spoke at least most of the time.

The phrase “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (for “debts” and “sins” are closely related in the Jewish tradition in which Jesus spoke and Matthew’s Gospel was written, albeit in Greek) includes this meaning of the key word, “forgive”: “to waive one’s right [to collect]” on the debt that is owed.

To forgive does not mean to forget. It does not mean to pretend that there is no debt, or that the debt is less than it actually is, or that the debt is somehow other than what it is.

To forgive is to refuse to claim one’s just deserts. It is to surrender one’s rights, to move on without vengeance, retribution, or even simple justice. It is to generously draw a line under the debt and say, “That’s over. Let’s move on.”

I can’t hear this sort of thing often enough, since I never forgive often enough. I hope it might be helpful to some of you, too.


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