There are many lines in the Bible that are packed with meaning. One example comes from Ephesians 4:32:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God has forgiven you.”
In this sentence, Paul has summarized the biblical message: that we are to be kind, compassionate and forgiving. In other places, the gospel is summarized in other ways.
In Deuteronomy 6:5, we are taught, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” and in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is repeated throughout the gospels and the epistles. In the gospels, Jesus says these two commands sum up the whole law (Matthew 22:40). Jesus also said, according to John’s (15:13) gospel, “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.”
Or Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy, and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
But it is not love or sacrifice explicitly that is presented here in this verse in Ephesians, but grace. The translators have chosen “forgiving and forgiven.” Yet, the primary word for forgiveness is absent in this command to forgive. Instead, the term ordinarily associated with grace appears.
The word, “grace,” is one of the Bible’s more remarkable words. It is multifaceted, a little like the Hebrew word, “hesed,” often translated “steadfast love,” but can be defined only by a litany of expressions, no one word or phrase is able to carry the freight.
It is the same with grace, which means goodwill, favor; the expression of favor that is associated with giving a gift. It is one of the words used to convey the state of being blessed, or happy, very close to “joy,” and it is the same root imbedded in the concept of gratitude. Once it is even used when Jesus healed the blind (see Luke 7:21). And it does imply mercy, is one of the Bible’s words for forgiveness.
Conversely, the underlying principle that governs the way people often behave is something like the so-called survival instinct: look out for yourself, no one else will; don’t trust anyone; if you want something done right, do it yourself; do whatever it takes to survive.
There is a stark contrast between “anything to survive self-concern and a divine love that sacrifices, and it is with that contrast that we are confronted. It is to a life of service and sacrifice that we are called. “Grace” is one of the catch-all words for this calling.
In the English language, the noun “grace” is not accompanied with an associated verb. But in the original language and in this verse, that is exactly what is found, the verbal form with the same root. It is an action, and a rich and varied one at that, one that can only be defined by a litany of expressions; giving generously, having gratitude and mercy, healing, serving, sacrificing and forgiving.
The translators had to choose one word from among several possibilities, and they chose “forgiving,” but it means more than that. I have taken the liberty to create a verb in English, even if only for the purpose of this day’s reflection. The term is “gracing.”
Let me restate this sentence using this new verb, keeping in mind the rich variety of meanings imbedded in it. Even if it goes against present habits, let it be something to which we aspire, at least something to consider. Hear it this way:
“Become to one another kind, and tender-hearted, gracing each other as God in Christ has graced you.”
Also, it is not a bad reminder of who we are.
Dr. Mark Allison is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Delaware.