“[Charity or, better, agape love] Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;” (1 Cor 13:5, King James Version)
What does the old language in the King James Version “thinketh no evil” mean? Does it mean to never think of evil or to never think an evil thought? Perhaps to never entertain evil thoughts to the point of plotting an evil deed against another? What about the possibility that it means love does not remember a wrong done to it with the intent to punish or get even; love does not hold grudges; essentially, love does not allow the wrong to affect the love of the offended for the offender.
There are many translations that read more like that:
“It does not act unbecomingly, it does not seek the things of its own, is not easily provoked, it keeps no account of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:5, Berean Literal Bible)
“doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil;” (1 Cor 13:5, English Revised Version)
“or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; [of the wrong done]” (1 Cor 13:5, English Standard Version)
“It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:5, GOD’S WORD® Translation)
“does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:5, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
“Does not behave itself rudely, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, keeps no record of evil;” (1 Cor 13:5, King James 2000 Bible)
“Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always ‘me first,’ Doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.” (1 Cor 13:5, Message)
“does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,” (1 Cor 13:5, New American Standard Bible)
“It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:5, New International Version)
“or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.” (1 Cor 13:5, New Living Translation)
Many versions do indeed support this view. “Keeps no record of wrongs” is not referring to a literal forgetting that the deed was ever done (in God’s case, omniscience would preclude forgetting) but to not keeping a record in the account of someone to later require compensation, payment or punishment.
There are commentaries that also support this view:
“thinketh no evil; … the meaning is, either that one possessed of this grace of love does not think of the evil that is done him by another; he forgives, as God has forgiven him, so as to forget the injury done him, and remembers it no more; and so the Arabic version reads it, “and remembers not evil”; having once forgiven it, he thinks of it no more; or he does not meditate revenge, or devise mischief, and contrive evil against man that has done evil to him, as Esau did against his brother Jacob; so the Ethiopic version, by way of explanation, adds, “neither thinks evil, nor consults evil”; or as the word here used will bear to be rendered, “does not impute evil”; reckon or place it to the account of him that has committed it against him, but freely and fully forgives, as God, when he forgives sin, is said not to impute it;” (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible)
Reference is made in that comment to this verse:
“To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19)
“Thinketh no evil; literally, doth not reckon (or, impute) the evil. The phrase seems to be a very comprehensive one, implying that love is neither suspicious, nor implacable, nor retentive in her memory of evil done.” (Pulpit Commentary)
“Thinketh no evil. Literally, ‘does not reckon the evil.’ The Greek here conveys the idea of not taking into account the wrong that has been done; not reckoning, imputing, or charging the wrong to any man’s account. This is another beautiful, Christlike attribute of love.” (SDA Bible Commentary vol. 6, p782)
Notice that the commentary above calls this a Christ-like attribute. Indeed God does freely forgive as the first commentary says. Look at these verses:
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph 4:32)
Christ had forgiven the Ephesians even though, as verse 31 suggests, they had yet to put away the listed sins.
“Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” (Col 3:13)
Again, while he said the Colossians were forgiven, Paul also said they needed to put on some Christ-like qualities – verse 12.
It is significant to note that in both the verses given above the word translated as “forgiven” or “forgave” is the Greek word “charizomai” which designates forgiveness on the part of (or in the heart of) the forgiver; forgiveness granted. This is distinct from verses which use the Greek words “apheimi” or “apoluo” which describe forgiveness as received on the part of the forgivee – the person being forgiven. The fact that forgiveness is a two-party transaction is described in detail in my book Biblical Forgiveness.
Forgetting and Remembering Wrongs
When a person is wronged by another, there can be two very different reactions:
The person who did wrong might admit it saying:
“It was me; I did it.”
The person to whom the wrong was done could respond with either:
1.) “Forget it” or “don’t mention it” or something similar.
2.) “I’ll remember that” (said with a certain tone of voice)
It is quite possible that even, in the first response, the wrong will never be forgotten but the response is not about remembering or forgetting. Rather, it is in regard to whether or not the wronged party is going to hold the offence against the offender; whether he will hold the offender responsible until compensation is paid or maybe forever. The first response implies that there will be no effect on the relationship. This is the response that scripture urges us to have as shown by Eph 4:32 quoted above. The “forgiving” that the Ephesians were urged to do is from that same Greek word “charizomai.” It is us forgiving them without requiring them to accept it, ask for it or even recognize that they have wronged you.
In the second response, it is implied that there will be a cost to the offender at some future point. When opportunity affords it, payback will be required. Also, the offense comes between the two parties, invariably affecting the relationship.
Have you ever wronged someone and then avoided them? Isn’t that a natural reaction because you suspect that they have not forgiven you? How can you achieve that feeling of being forgiven by them if you don’t even have contact with them?
See my study on the original words translated as forgiveness which shows that God forgives all sins independent of whether we confess them or not. If God forgives sins then He can’t also require payment for them. Forgiveness cancels the debt.
For an excellent explanation of this see the video by Herb Montgomery that illustrates this so well.
So if love says “forget about requiring payment for a wrong done to you” and God is telling us to love, how can God require payment from people for their wrongs? Or does He? Most would say He does and that if sinners don’t avail themselves of Christ’s substitutionary payment for their sins they will have to pay the cost themselves and that cost (or wages) is eternal death. But isn’t requiring payment inconsistent with the admonition to love and forgive?
The confusion here is connected with the common understanding of the term “justice.” We know what justice means in our society and we are told that God is just. So, in the common understanding, God must require payment for every sin, if not from the sinner, then from a substitute. This is the gospel viewed in a legal framework or according to a legal model – the legal model as opposed to the healing model.
Lest I be accused of rejecting Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross let it be clear that I do not. It is a matter of correctly understanding what was being substituted for (and understanding Biblical justice). That will have to be the subject for another time. Let me just give this clue – that Christianity, in its early centuries, was very much influenced by the Roman legal system.