Our Father in heaven,Matthew 6:9-15
your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.
Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive.Colossians 3:12-13
We probably all have owed someone money at some point. In fact, most Canadians owe a considerable amount of money. Or: most of us have debt of one kind or another. A mortgage, a vehicle, a credit card (or two!), a line of credit, or a student loan. A recent study says that 2 out of 5 indebted Canadians don’t expect to get out of debt in their lifetimes. But why am I talking about debt, you ask? It’s because debt is one of the primary ways the Bible talks about forgiveness. Including in The Lord’s Prayer where we read: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And of course, here’s the thing about debts we might never consider: all debts get paid, even if not by the debtors.
In his book, The Pursuing God, Joshua Ryan Butler tells a story: “Let’s say, for example, your neighbor drives home drunk one night and crashes his car through your fence. In the morning, you wake up, discover the shambles, and (once he sobers up) tell him you forgive him: ‘Don’t worry about the fence! All is forgiven.’” So think about this story. When the person forgives his neighbor, there is still a cost to fixing the fence. That’s why Butler then points out: “Forgiving your neighbor doesn’t do away with the bill or dissolve the damage; it means you eat the cost.” That’s forgiveness. It’s not the doing away of the debt altogether; it’s the paying of the debt by someone other than the debtor.
I think it’s safe to say that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. So it’s not surprising that Jesus includes our need to be forgiven and to forgive in The Lord’s Prayer. So we should ask first: What is forgiveness? What does it mean to be forgiven and to forgive? Why is it part of The Lord’s Prayer? In simplest terms, forgiveness means to pardon sin, to cancel a debt, to no longer hold a record of wrongs.
Here’s the thing. We’re all aware of wrong we’ve done. We’re all aware we’ve said and thought that which is wrong. Yet at the same time sin is deeper than actions, words, and thoughts. And sin is about more than the wrong things we’ve done; it’s also about the right things we’ve left undone. Think about the words from The Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts. We’ve incurred a debt. That means we owe. I owe it to my neighbor to show them the love of God in words and actions. How often does it occur to us that we owe it to our neighbors to share the good news of Jesus as an expression of God’s love?
In the Anglican liturgy there’s a prayer that precedes the Eucharist that goes like this: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” So our need for forgiveness is all about how we have not—and really never—manage to love God and our neighbors like we should. Forgiveness is all about relationships. Forgiveness means recognizing our mutual need for restoration. Forgiveness is about bringing relationships back to a place where they’re healthy and working again.
So forgiveness is a wonderful, beautiful thing precisely because it’s about making relationships right. Let me ask: What’s the most profound experience of forgiveness you’ve had from someone else? Or how have you found yourself having to forgive? What is that like? Because here’s the thing: forgiveness might very well be wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
And like we said at the beginning, it means eating the cost of the debt. So forgiving someone means no longer counting their wrongs—what they owe us—against them in the relationship. Quite simply, it means not asking them to pay for what they’ve done. Now, what do we mean by that? Part of what it means is that I’m not going to take my anger and resentment out on them for what they did to me. It means not relating to them out of those feelings of having been done wrong.
And this is not easy for us. Because it violates our sense of justice—or at least our desire for revenge. If you hurt me, I should get to make you pay. You should hurt too. “You owe me,” we think. Ever thought that? I imagine we all either know of situations or have been in situations where forgiveness has been needed. Maybe we also know what it’s like to see people camp out in a tent of bitterness rather than ask for or grant forgiveness. How many people have lost years of a relationship because of an unwillingness to forgive or, dare I say, to receive forgiveness?
There are people who refuse to give up their anger and bitterness because they’ve defined themselves as a victim or it’s too hard to swallow their pride or they just don’t want to give the other person the satisfaction of admitting wrong or giving in. One quote I read this week is instructive: “Refusing to forgive a person demonstrates resentment, bitterness, and anger, none of which are the traits of a growing Christian.”
Ephesians 4:31—32 puts it well: Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. You see the contrast Paul draws there? On the one hand, there is bitterness, anger, wrath, and on the other hand, there is kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Scripture calls us to a different way of handling relationships.
Of course, the funny thing is this: our feelings of anger and resentment often affect us more than the person we’re angry at or that we resent. Think about it. We can even resent someone who’s dead. We can hold onto anger towards people even when there’s no possible way to forgive them in person. Forgiveness also means “to release.” And it’s not just about releasing someone else from the debt they owe us. It’s also about releasing ourselves from carrying the weight of anger and resentment and hurt feelings that motivate our actions and shape our attitudes.
Let me share something honestly. My relationship with my own Mom wasn’t always straightforward. And years after she died, I found that I had feelings of anger towards her. I had to learn to release those feelings, to let them go, and to forgive her of mistakes that had affected me so profoundly. Have you ever had feelings of bitterness or resentment towards someone? How do they affect you from day to day? How should you deal with them? Or maybe we should ask: How can we deal with them?
There’s something about this line of The Lord’s Prayer that’s a little tricky. Jesus teaches us to pray: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. It sounds as though Jesus is saying God only forgives us when we forgive others. Right after giving his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also told them: But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses. So, naturally, we have to ask: is Jesus making our forgiveness conditional upon our willingness to forgive others? What’s going on here?
Let’s think of it this way. If withholding forgiveness is sin, then don’t we need to seek forgiveness for that sin too? There times in our lives when we have to pray along these lines: “Dear Lord, I’m so sorry that I’ve held onto bitterness towards this person for so long because they hurt me so deeply. Please help me to have a more forgiving spirit.”
John Piper says “If Jesus said that we should pray that our debts be forgiven, and if one of those debts is a failure to forgive, then the phrase “as we forgive our debtors” cannot be absolutized to imply that only a perfectly forgiving spirit can receive forgiveness from God . . . It means: No one who cherishes a grudge against someone dare approach God in search of mercy.” Because the truth is this: we can all struggle with forgiving someone. The question is: do we want to be a forgiving person? Or are we instead content with nursing our grudge?
Talking about this line in The Lord’s Prayer, Wesley Hill writes: “Jesus isn’t offering a condition for our receiving God’s forgiveness so much as he is offering an illustration of what’s God’s disposition toward us is really like.” This is an incredibly important point. Our heavenly Father, our Abba, is a forgiving God. Think of what we heard in our opening Psalm 103: As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. When we receive God’s forgiveness he no longer holds our sin against us. Again, as the psalmist writes: He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities.
You see, the extent to which we hold onto resentment and nurse a grudge is also the extent to which we have failed to understand God’s forgiveness. Or put another way: If we don’t think we need God’s forgiveness, then how likely are we to think we need to forgive? I think of the words we read from Colossians 3: Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Forgiving like Jesus means forgiving with no motivation except the restoration of the relationship.
Here’s the thing: any wrong anyone has done to us is nothing compared to the debt we owe—but can never repay—God. This is what we don’t always get. Even the wrongs we’ve done against people around us are actually done against God most of all. In Psalm 51:4 David prays to God and says: Against you—you alone—I have sinned and done this evil in your sight. The sin he’s confessing here in this Psalm is his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. When we sin against our neighbor, we sin against God.
In other words, if God can forgive our overwhelming debt to him, surely we can forgive those who owe us.To pray this prayer—And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors—is possible when we are captured by an overwhelming vision of the forgiveness we have through Jesus himself. It’s when our hearts are filled with the reality of the cross and how Jesus shouldered our debt load that we ourselves can grow to have more forgiving spirits. Indeed, the more we experience the fullness of Jesus’ forgiveness, the more forgiveness will come as naturally to us as it does to God himself.
So here are a few closing thoughts:Are our churches really places of forgiveness? How many church splits could be prevented if people could simply have more forgiving, gentle spirits, if we were more transformed by the forgiveness of Jesus? Because the majority of what the NT says about forgiveness applies directly to the church. What does an unwillingness to forgive say about our relationship with God? How does it affect our witness to people around us? How does it keep us from living with grace towards others?How can we cultivate a more forgiving spirit?
I think we need to ask God to open the eyes of our hearts so that we get a clearer vision of his forgiveness, our need for it, and our need to share it with others. I think we need to pray that he would soften our hearts with his grace. Because it is through his grace that we are forgiven, it is through his grace we forgive.This petition of The Lord’s Prayer is the heart of the gospel, of our faith. Everything else we pray stems from this. Our need for forgiveness should constantly point us to Jesus and his grace for us. Our call to forgive should constantly point us to Jesus and our need to extend this grace to others by the power of his Spirit.