Ancient Greek has two words for forgiveness which differ in important ways. The noun sungnōmē and the verb sungignōskō are constructed from the words for ‘with’ (sun) and ‘understand’ (gignōskō). This suggests that the forgiver comes to realise what the antagonist’s rationale was. You empathise with your opponent and see things from his point of view; once you do then you can ‘understand with him’ why he did what he did. On the basis of this new understanding you forgive him: sungignōskō.
Naturally then if you cannot understand a person’s actions, you ought not to forgive him — so Aristotle censures pushovers for being overly inclined to forgive where there is no reason to do so. And Xenophon has one of his characters say that if thieves choose to steal when they are not under compulsion, they rightly receive no forgiveness (Nicomachean Ethics 4.5, cf. 3.1; Cyropaedia 5.1.13).
The Gospels do not use sungignōskō. They use a different noun, aphesis, and verb, aphiēmi. Aphesis comes from ‘release’ or ‘send’ (hiēmi) and ‘away’ (apo). It is the verb for letting captives go free (e.g. Iliad 20.464; cf. Thucydides 1.91). As a word for forgiveness it suggests ‘dismissing’ or ‘letting go of’ the wrong that has been done. So maybe I do not understand why you did what you did at all. Maybe there is no good reason; maybe it was nakedly perverse. Maybe, like Saint Augustine stealing pears as a boy, you just wanted to do something wrong (Confessions 2.4). But still, I let it go: aphiēmi.
Here is the thing about aphesis: it isn’t fair, and it hurts. For the person forgiven, it means no comforting justification to explain why it really wasn’t all that bad. For the person forgiving, it means accepting just how bad it was and releasing what may be totally justified anger. It’s an abrogation of justice that leaves us sitting with messy wounds and chastened egos. Yet this, and not sungnōmē, is universally the word used in the New Testament. Aphesis isn’t pretty, but I can’t help feeling that, in the Gospels, it’s what’s on offer.
It is also, so help me, the only route to liberation. Given that we do in fact commit heinous wrongs against each other without cause, given that our attempts to explain in such cases are transparently unsatisfactory, we are left with two choices. We can carry around a ledger book on our backs our whole lives, carving into it a painstaking account of our own misdeeds and those of others until the whole thing feels like it weighs a ton. Or we can lay that burden down and walk tall in free admission of our faults. Maybe that means confessing our sins, but since we are sinful it also means living in truth. And from all of our attempts to justify ourselves, from all our reckonings of past grievances, from the endless sting of violated pride, the truth will set us free.
For God this kind of forgiveness is doubly fitting and must be exponentially more painful. God, unlike us, is blameless not only relative to a particular transaction but also in absolute terms: he is completely without sin. So for him to strike our sins from the account is for him to do something deeply unfair to himself, to utterly pardon when he could rightly condemn. There’s no justice in that: only love. And yet God, though he is Love Itself, is also Justice Itself. So for him to ‘let go of’ justice in the name of mercy is for him to rip himself in two, not merely to give up his opportunity for retribution but to release his grip on his own being.
In light of all this it seems significant to me that when Matthew tells us how Jesus ‘gave up his spirit’ on the cross, the verb translated as ‘gave up’ is also aphiēmi (Matthew 27:50). His act of forgiving us and his act of dying are identical: in one fluid motion God submits to our violence, pleads with himself to dismiss our guilt, and tears his own self out of himself in order to grant his own prayer.
God’s forgiveness of us is not an excuse for us. It’s not something we earn if we’re extra special nice and avoid doing anything too terrible, as if that were possible. That is, it’s not sungnōmē. It’s aphesis: an unmerited reconciliation in which God wrenches his own spirit out of his own body so he can give it to us.
I wrote on Wednesday about the people in Jesus’ life who poured themselves out before him, and suggested that he would pour himself out for them in return. Today we contemplate what that looks like, and it is not gentle or easy or nice. It is an innocent man gruesomely murdered in return for his unprecedented love. But because of this strange paradox, that to forego your own self-interest for mercy’s sake is to attain the noblest form of humanity, we find in this inglorious death the glorious pinnacle — again, I should probably say, the fulfillment — of human life.
On the cross God forgives and dies; at its foot we are forgiven and live. The spirit he releases in his mercy is his own spirit, the spacious compassion which makes room for us to breathe and have our being. It is by the outpouring of this spirit that, in moments of supernatural inspiration, we find the strength to forgive others and ourselves as he forgives us. Not with excuses or defenses, not with half-truths and explanations, but with the curious death and self-denial which is acceptance and life.
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It sort of seems to me like the right response to the cross is ultimately not to speak at all, so I won’t post tomorrow while we wait for what’s next. I’ll be back on Sunday with a few final thoughts; for now here’s a short piece of the Matthew passage to chew on in the silence.
Starting at the sixth hour there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. But around the ninth hour Jesus shouted in a loud voice and said, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Some of the people standing there, when they heard, said, ‘this man is calling for Elias.’ And one of them ran straight up, took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, ‘let it be, let’s see if Elias comes to save him.’
Then Jesus, wailing again in a loud voice, released the spirit.