Editor’s note: The posts you’ll read this month will all center around the word “perissos” as found in Ephesians 3:20 and John 10:10. In the future, we’ll offer a greater variety and breadth of scripture, but we wanted to explore some of the depths of these two passages first.
Perissos (περισσός) – exceedingly or abundantly; more than could be expected
I recently had the privilege of watching the newest movie version of the classic story, Cinderella with my two year-old daughter. In this version, Cinderella is once again raised by her stepmother who in this case might not be characterized so much as wicked or evil, but cruel. She is constantly demeaning toward Cinderella, and as you might have guessed, eventually forces her to live in the attic.
At one point Cinderella, befuddled by her stepmother’s actions begs “why are you so cruel?”
“Because you are young, and innocent, and good,” Lady Tremaine replies. She pauses. “And I …”
“Am not” is one possible version of the phrase omitted. Though Lady Tremaine’s silence is perhaps a more powerful statement.
The movie progresses with all the things you would expect: fairy-godmothers, pumpkins, dancing, glass slippers, and of course, a handsome prince. But it was a moment near the very end, as things were winding down, that caught me by surprise. Cinderella is about to be whisked away from her old home to a new life filled with power and wealth and fame, and presumably, her happily ever after, when she suddenly turns to face her resentful stepmother.
Cinderella looks up the stairwell to her and says “I forgive you.”
I was shocked. Why was that included I thought. This is a kids’ movie, a Disney movie, how did they arrive at that conclusion?
Apparently I was not alone in my surprise. A USA Today column noted that in pre-release test screenings there were those in the audience who loudly vocalized their disapproval of this scene. They would have rather seen Lady Tremaine stripped of her title, punished for her cruelty, and thrown out upon the street as punishment for her actions. Director Kenneth Branagh said he was surprised by their “vehemence.”
What is it about the words “I forgive you” that caught me off guard, and made other viewers long for vengeance instead?
Forgiveness, by its very nature seems unnatural in this world. It does not follow the same pattern of tit-for-tat, quid pro quo, or an eye for an eye that we have come to expect. It is an unequal exchange.
To better understand this we must also understand what forgiveness really is. We may be tempted to think it is as simple as a choice, or saying some little words to cover over another’s crimes, but true forgiveness is far deeper and more complex.
When an injustice occurs, say, a stepmother acting cruel, someone else suffers as a result. The victim becomes, at least temporarily, less-than-whole in an emotional, mental, and sometimes physical way. Our natural tendency when this happens is to seek to restore balance by wanting the offender to suffer in turn. We wish a similar fate upon them “let them get what they deserve.”
But forgiveness is a conscious effort to break this chain. Often motivated out of love, the victim chooses to simply take the pain, absorbing it and withholding it, rather than sending it back out. Forgiveness is a sacrificial act. Someone suffers in order to restore the wrong, but with forgiveness the victim sacrifices her or himself. Cinderella had to swallow her pride, push down any longing for revenge and absorb, rather than return, what she had suffered.
In Ephesians 3:20 we find a descriptive characteristic of God. The word transliterated from the Greek comes out as perissos, meaning “exceedingly, abundantly, or more than could be expected.” There are many good applications for this word because in a great many ways I believe the God of the Bible is exceedingly and abundantly more than we could imagine. This is true of God’s goodness, God’s justice, God’s power, and simply the “otherness” of God that makes God, God.
But I also think there is one aspect of God’s “perissos” that trumps all others. That is in the exceeding abundance of God’s forgiveness for humankind. Imagine, all the wars, all the violence, all the selfishness and greed, all the cruelty of all the stepmothers, and God still comes to the same conclusion. “I desire to be known by you because I love you, and because I love you I forgive you.”
All the evil of all our lives, abundantly forgiven just like that. That is perissos.
Yet knowing the pattern of forgiveness, this grace did not come free. Someone had to suffer. As we saw before, someone always does. In this case humankind is the offender and God the victim of offense. And while there may be some members of the audience somewhere yelling “give them what they deserve” that is not what God decided. Instead, he gave himself, he suffered, taking the pain, preventing it from being returned.
Jesus from the cross, looked not up to a stepmother, but down to the crowds below, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
So, how do we best live our lives in light of perissos? How do we live exceedingly and in abundance? It seems that if forgiveness is the most profound characteristic and the greatest work of an abundant God, then it should also be the hallmark of lives of those he has forgiven.