Forgiving the Debt that Can’t Be Paid

Our truck was stolen a few weeks ago. Funny how we react to things. I got up one morning, looked out at the driveway and saw a big empty space where I expected to see a pickup. I would have expected to feel angry and violated. Instead, I just thought, “Huh,” and went and woke up my husband.

Long story short, the RCMP found the truck abandoned about 120 kilometers away and we have it back again, relatively unscathed. The whole experience has sparked some interesting conversations about forgiveness – what it is, and what God expects of us as Jesus’ followers. Because when the stolen rubber hits the road, we discover that we can have very different understandings of what forgiveness means.

In case you’re thinking, “Wow, Carla’s really cool and calm in a crisis,” I’m normally not. But without my knowing it, God had prepared me for this one. Just the day before, I’d listened to a broadcast of a talk Corrie ten Boom gave about forgiveness, probably in the 1970s. When she talked about forgiveness, it wasn’t just theology and theory. During the Second World War, she and her family were betrayed to the Nazis for hiding Jews. Of all her family who were arrested, Corrie was the only one to survive the prisons and concentration camps. Yet after the war, she wrote a letter to the man who had turned them in and told him she forgave him. On another occasion, on a trip to Germany shortly after the war, she was approached by a man whom she remembered as one of the cruelest guards in Ravensbrueck, the camp where she and her sister were held and where Betsy died. He’d come to ask for her forgiveness, and she was able to take the hand he extended and assure him that she did forgive him. What was special about Corrie ten Boom that enabled her to do that? If she were here, she’d say, “Nothing.” Listen to her recordings, or read her life story, and she’ll tell you it’s all Jesus, and only Jesus, who makes that possible.

After hearing Corrie ten Boom talk about forgiveness, a stolen truck seemed like small potatoes. Still, when people take things from us – material things, our physical well-being, our sense of safety or self, people we love – those violations are real and painful. Overwhelming sometimes. When we face crises of forgiveness, theory and theology can feel dwarfed by our loss and our pain.

One of the questions the whole truck experience has raised is, are we supposed to forgive those who haven’t asked for our forgiveness? Some say no. In theory, I believe God calls us to forgive, and not just as a means of “self help”. But I get that that violates our sense of justice, and it raises questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for. Some people see forgiveness as standing in opposition to justice. They believe that forgiving somebody who isn’t sorry – or who hasn’t even admitted they’ve done anything wrong – is letting them off the hook and just sets us all up to be victimized further.

I get that. I, too, want a legal system that works. It grates that the police here won’t even go after the person who steals a vehicle unless they catch them in the act because they can’t make the charges stick. That’s just messed up. But, even if we got perfect justice from the legal system – if every infraction led to conviction and proportionate punishment – forgiveness wouldn’t automatically follow. Justice and forgiveness are both good, but they’re not the same thing, and the former doesn’t necessarily lead to the latter.

With all that rattling around in my head over the past weeks, it was jarring to read Luke 11 the other day. Normally when I do my devotions, I’ll read a longer passage, but this time, my reading for the day came to a screeching halt only four verses in.

I grew up in the era where we said the Lord’s Prayer every day at school, so I’ve literally said it thousands of times. Normally, we said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That sounds like we’re supposed to forgive so that God will forgive us. And if you compare it with the parallel passage in Matthew 6, especially verses 14 & 15, Jesus pretty much says that. Elsewhere in the New Testament, like the parable of unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35) we’re taught to extend forgiveness to others as a response to the forgiveness we’ve received from God.

But what I read in Luke 11:4 was, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” It’s not like I’d never read that before, but I’ve usually ignored the cognitive dissonance and kept going. This time, I couldn’t.

There’s something in the wording here that’s jarring and counter-intuitive. The same idea shows up in the NIV translation of Matt. 6:12: “Forgive us our debt, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” When I looked up the Greek word translated “for” in Luke and “as” in Matthew, it doesn’t prescribe forgiveness as a response to the forgiveness we’ve received from God or as a condition for God to be able to forgive us. Instead, it seems to presuppose that the person doing the praying has already forgiven others. It seems to imply that forgiving has become a matter of habitual practice. As if, if we’re following Jesus, forgiveness isn’t just a decision we make or a thing we do on a case-by-case basis but also an ongoing mindset.

Let me say that again, because it’s a radical concept for me: maybe forgiveness isn’t just something we do as a discreet action or choice when somebody hurts us or takes something from us. Maybe it’s also a mindset that the Holy Spirit helps us develop. That dredges up the specter of so many misconceptions we have about forgiveness, so let me address them straight up. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s not justifying or excusing what somebody else has done. It’s not being a doormat or having no boundaries, or saying we have to let people violate those boundaries. Forgiveness isn’t letting people off the hook by dropping legal charges. (It could lead us to do that sometimes, but that’s not where forgiveness starts, and we should never demand that from someone else who’s been hurt or violated.)

What is forgiveness, then? I’ve heard and read in various places that it means canceling the other person’s debt. And if you look at the Greek word translated “forgive” in Luke 11:4 and Matt. 6:12 – aphiemi – that’s the image used. Matt. 6:12 says it even more clearly: “For give us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” What does that mean in actual practice? Here’s my thought, and I’ll say up front that it’s very much a work or idea in progress. What if forgiveness – in actual practice – starts with canceling the part of the debt that the other person can’t pay?

Think about it. There’s an important and God-ordained role for the justice system to play in society, and lots of room for reform of that system. But even if the justice system worked perfectly and every offender paid the fair legal penalty for their crimes, there is almost always a part of the debt the offender can never pay. Things that can never be replaced. People whose bodies or lives can never be restored. Time and resources lost while we heal or regain our sense of safety and trust. Trauma that remains.

What do we do with that? We have to choose whether to hang on to our impossible demands for full restoration – in this life, anyway – or to forgive. And if we choose to forgive we still have to go through the hard process of grieving and healing. Of living with loss. Of needing to rebuild a sense of trust and safety. Those things will cost us. Even if the other person fully repays their “debt to society”, we’ll have to trust that Gold will one day fill the gaping holes we long to have filled. To trust that he’ll do it in his perfect time, wisdom and justice – maybe some of that in this lifetime, but mostly in eternity.

Do we wait until the person who hurts us asks for forgiveness before we cancel their debt? If forgiveness is a mindset, then I believe the answer is no. Does that sound unrealistic? You bet it does, until you flip the question: If you wait to forgive until the person asks for it, what do you do with their debt in the meantime? Can you just put it in neutral, file it away, and move on with your life until the person shows up at your door one day? Humans don’t operate that way. We don’t put our hurt on hold. Unless we actively do something to resolve the debt, most of us ruminate. We vent. We fantasize about how we’d get even. We lick our wounds and nurse our anger. Or we stuff our feelings down out of sight and out of mind, but from time to time something triggers that anger and it breaks free of our control. Either way, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can put forgiveness on hold and then be ready to forgive the person when they come to ask for it.

That’s why I believe forgiveness isn’t just a choice but a mindset. When it comes to what hurts us, there is no neutral. Either we choose to keep tabs on the debt people owe us and keep the hurt alive, or we choose to start forgiving the debt that the other person can’t pay. Through God’s truth and the help of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness has to be a mindset that we nurture long before the other person asks for it. And even if they never do.