(Continuing the “Love Is…” series–previous links are below.)
This phrase in 1 Cor. 13:5 reads “[love] thinketh no evil” in the KJV, but other translations read things like “keeps no record of wrongs”, “does not take into account a wrong suffered”, and a few other variations.
Looking at the Strong’s definition for “thinketh” or “take into account”, it reads, “to take an inventory”. So I think probably the closest translation to the original meaning of the Greek phrase comes from the Young’s literal translation: “[love] doth not impute evil.” This reminds me of other passages of Scripture that tell us that God does not “impute” our sins against us. In other words, He does not store them up as some sort of grudge.
I have to admit that this is a difficult post for me to write, because I still grapple with the issue of forgiveness myself, and so I cannot consider my own opinion to be authoritative on this topic (and neither should you). Not that I don’t absolutely believe in forgiveness, or that the Scriptures command it of us, because I do. And to the best of my understanding, I practice forgiveness. Rather, my questions are more about what forgiveness is, and what it looks like–because I tend to believe that religious Christianity has given us a rather warped view of it.
Here’s what I mean. I have a hard time believing that when Jesus said things like “turn the other cheek” or “walk the extra mile”, He was asking people to become doormats to be walked upon by those who would prey upon the weakness of others. And in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture, I don’t believe that “love doth not impute evil” means we never hold people to account for their actions. I think theologically, most Christians would agree with these statements; but when it comes to practice, it seems these waters get muddied a bit. For example, when the church pressures wives to quietly endure emotional and even physical abuse from their husbands rather than hold their husbands to account; when people are urged to reconcile with toxic, unhealthy relationships when more is at stake than mere disagreement on a few issues; that sort of thing doesn’t look like love to me. It looks more like codependency. And quite often it happens because the bystanders are uncomfortable with conflict, and want to make themselves feel better by making it go away.
So if this is not the Biblical view of forgiveness, then what is? What does this phrase, “love does not impute evil” really mean? Does it have anything to do with forgiveness?
I think perhaps at least part of the answer is in going back to the basic meaning of this phrase: love “does not take an inventory of evil”. In the light of the rest of Scripture, I surmise that this is talking more about why someone keeps a record of wrongs–that perhaps this is talking more about building up a grudge, forming a case against someone for personal retribution. Revenge, in other words.
Here’s where I’m going with this. To forgive means to cancel a debt. When someone hurts us, crosses our boundary, does us harm…it creates an in-equity, an injustice, a debt. The books no longer balance. We then can choose to reconcile the books by requiring it of that person (i.e., revenge), or we can willfully choose to cancel the debt, absorb the loss, and adjust the books so that they balance again. When we cancel the debt so that we no longer require anything of the other person–that is forgiveness, and that is a powerful expression of love.
On the other hand, when we quietly file the transgression away along with the other times that person wounded us–in other words, when we keep an inventory of these offenses–we are still holding a soul-debt against that person in the hope that one day the debt will be repaid. That is unforgiveness, and that is not what love does.
All that said…when Paul says, “Love does not take inventory of evil”, I don’t think he’s talking about letting all bad behavior go unanswered. I do think he is talking about letting go of personal offenses, of showing grace in the face of injustice, and not seeking our own retribution. And when this happens, it is life-changing–both for the person wronged, and often for the person who did the wronging.
Again, if God is love…let us look to Him for our example. There are definitely times when He will discipline us, holding us to account and confronting us to effect change in us. And there will come a time when the Bible says He will judge the world and make all the books balance. The Bible does say, after all, that vengeance belongs to Him. But while we live this life, while God may sometimes discipline us, there is never a time when forgiveness is not offered to us. Thank God that He does not make us pay for what we have done in order to settle the score. Thank God that He does not impute our sins against us. The Bible says that it is His kindness that leads us to repentance. And I happen believe that this kindness expressed in forgiveness also goes a long way toward bringing one another to repentance as well.
One last thing about this “not imputing” of evil. Jesus made a similar statement toward the end of John’s gospel: “What sins you forgive, they are forgiven; and what sins you retain, they are retained.” I think both Scripture and experience make it clear that when we retain sins by imputing evil, we are actually doing ourselves more harm than we are to those who have hurt us. Not only is this forgiveness an expression of love; the Scripture tells us that our own forgiveness is contingent on our willingness to forgive. Again, I don’t think forgiveness automatically means we walk willfully back into toxic situations; but I do understand the importance of releasing the debt. And this is a necessary, healthy way to love.
Because love does not impute evil.