In 1942, a man named John Playter was among the 10,000 American soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese in the Philippines. He survived the infamous “death march,” watching his fellow prisoners beaten and bayonetted and beheaded when they fell behind. He survived two years in POW camps when others died from disease and dysentery at the rate of 30 to 50 per day. And he survived the sinking of the Shinyo Maru, torpedoed while transporting prisoners from the Philippines to Japan (see “To hell and back,” May 23, 2009, for more on the Shinyo Maru). Of the 750 Americans crammed aboard that ship, only 82 were saved.
After the war John came home, started a career and family, and kept those memories to himself. But all that time he simmered with hatred, and could not see a Japanese face or hear a Japanese voice without physical revulsion.
A sermon on forgiveness from his pastor turned him around. “I could not continue to hate the Japanese and love our Lord. Fifty years later, I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to me.” It’s a beautiful story that raises the question (for me, at least): Can forgiveness be a one-way transaction?
The response to my Dec. 1 column, “Bound by blood,” surprised me by its volume but not by its general drift: Most readers disagreed. In the column I wondered whether it was possible to forgive an offender who never acknowledged wrong. The problem readers saw with my notion of forgiveness as “a response, not an initiative” is that it appears to condemn the offended party to a life of bitterness if the offender never repents. What about an abusive parent who’s now dead, or a backstabbing colleague who moved away? If we can’t forgive unilaterally, we can’t be free.
I dug a little deeper. The Greek word most often translated as “forgive” in the New Testament is aphiemi, which can mean to cancel or pardon, give up, leave alone, tolerate, even (in one case) divorce. The overall sense is of letting go. Charizomai, used far less frequently, has more muscle: to repair brokenness, particularly by incurring the cost. The difference, according to my pastor, is negative vs. positive: “Aphiemi effects damage control; charizomai effects reconciliation; aphiemi is a cessation of war; charizomai is the rebuilding of peace; aphiemi prevents bitterness; charizomai promotes fellowship.”
A Christian lives under charizomai. If I am wronged, I must first relocate myself as a debtor before God. God’s pardon of my own, greater offenses makes it possible to love my enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44); to be at peace with them, so far as it depends on me (Romans 12:18); to entrust myself—including all bitter and vengeful feelings—to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). This is aphiemi—letting go. It is laying down my weapons, calling a cease-fire, and doing all I can to reconcile.
But what if the offense remains? Recently I saw a message on a church marquee: “Of course God will forgive your sins. It’s His job.” That suggests a careless, even cavalier, attitude toward sin and forgiveness that infects both the church and secular culture (and prompted me to write the original column). Forgiving sins is not God’s “job”—if so, He would be obligated to us. God does not offer unconditional forgiveness; He offers unconditional grace. Jesus came when we didn’t ask to provide what we didn’t want—payment for sins, without which there can be no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). He did not say “I forgive you” to the men hammering nails in His body; He asked His Father to, meaning, Father, let them go (aphiemi) until such time as they are convicted and will repent.
To be honest, forgiveness still seems like a two-way transaction to me, but it’s more complicated than I thought. And tougher—John Playter probably needed all of those 50 years it took to forgive the Japanese. As always, Jesus occupies the center. Like Him, we must take sin seriously and pray for offenders to repent. But in the meantime, pray for grace to let go of the offense.