I’m sure most of you know that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, some churches say “debts” and some say “trespasses.” Do you know why? Well, Presbyterians are are old Scottish bankers, so they’re worried about debts, while Episcopalians are stuffy English landowners, so they care about trespassing. Or so the story goes, anyway . . .
In all seriousness, there is a good reason. “Trespasses,” in its older, deeper meaning, names the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done. “Debts” names the things we owe to God and to each other that we have failed to do. Theologians call these sins of commission and sins of omission; if we just say “sins,” we tend to think of trespasses and forget about debts. But while English and Greek treat these as two different things, the Aramaic that Jesus spoke used one word for both, and both are in view here.
Of course, that makes this passage harder, not easier, because it piles that much more weight on that word “forgive.” We have a painful time with that, because there are people we don’twant to forgive, and some we don’t think we can forgive; does that mean we’re asking God notto forgive us? Is his forgiveness conditional on ours?
To untangle this, we need to begin by asking ourselves a critical question: what does it mean to forgive? We need to begin here because most of the common answers to that question are wrong, and they can mess us up pretty badly. First off, forgiveness does not mean saying, “It’s okay.” It doesn’t mean pretending the past didn’t happen or that we weren’t hurt; it most emphatically does not mean denying that evil was done, to us or to someone else. To forgive the debts and trespasses of another is, first, to look at them clearly and name them clearly as wrong, as sinful, as violations of the character of God.
Second, forgiveness does not mean pretending, or assuming, that the sin which we forgive will never be repeated. As one of my old professors, Dr. John Stackhouse, writes,
People generally don’t become perfect after a single round of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus tells us to forgive the same person seven times in a single day to make hyperbolically clear that a single episode of repentance and forgiveness may not be the end of it.
Part of forgiving others is recognizing that even redeemed sinners are still sinners, and that in one way or another, they will do it to us again.
Third, forgiveness does not mean trust. Now, hear me carefully on this. When we don’t forgive wrongs that have been done to us, we have the tendency to re-member them—to give them new bodies in the present, so that they have new life to cause hurt all over again. We keep bringing them up and beating other people up with them, and beating ourselves up with them, rather than leaving them in the past. Forgiveness means letting go of that. But it doesnot mean “forgive and forget.” We can’t, and we shouldn’t. If you have a repentant embezzler in the congregation—even someone who stole from the church—you commit to forgive them and to embrace them as a brother or sister in Christ; you don’t keep punishing them for it. You also don’t make them the church treasurer. You don’t re-member their sin, but you don’t forget what you learned about their spiritual weakness.
Fourth, forgiveness does not mean tolerating injustice. If anything, forgiveness strengthens the pursuit of justice, because anger and bitterness do not overcome injustice, they only continue the cycle. True justice does not arise out of hatred and resentment and the desire to return evil for evil; it is rooted in the character of God, who created all things good and beautiful, and who hates all sin—ours included. Forgiveness means recognizing that we are not innocent, that we too have done wrong; it means laying down the self-righteous desire for vengeance, and seeking to make things right.
Fifth, forgiving someone else does not require their repentance. Forgiveness and repentance both are first and foremost between us and God, because every sin is ultimately against him, whomever else it may also be against. We are also called to confess and repent to one another, yes, and to express our forgiveness to one another, because this is necessary for us to be reconciled to one another and our broken relationships to be repaired; but if others refuse to repent—or refuse to forgive, for that matter—if they reject reconciliation, we are not bound to their rejection, nor are we bound by it. We are free to forgive those who hurt us whether they repent of their sin or not.
And yes, I did say free, because freedom is precisely the point. When we refuse to forgive someone because they will not repent, we aren’t hurting them any, but we are hurting ourselves. We bind ourselves with strong chains to the wrong done to us so that it will be a constant burden on our souls. Rather than letting the wound heal, we hold it open, we continually pick at it and aggravate it, letting its poison continue to seep into our hearts. As long as we do that, we cannot move forward. It’s only when we forgive that we can “cut [ourselves] loose from the burden and corrosion of anger, vengeance, fear, and other horrible feelings arising from the offense,” as Dr. Stackhouse says; it’s only then that we are “free to walk away from this horrible part of the past and heal.”
When we understand this, we begin to see why forgiving others isn’t just a gift to them, it’s a gift to ourselves; it’s not a regrettable duty to which Jesus commands us, but a blessing which he offers us, and a source of life. This is half the reason he calls us to forgive those who hurt us. The other half, of course, is something we’ve talked about before in this series: we do not forgive others from a position of moral superiority, we stand on the same ground. We too owed a debt we could never hope to repay; we too had done wrong to others that we could never hope to set right. We too deserved only judgment and punishment, but in Jesus, we were and are forgiven. He let go of his rightful claim against us—he let go and let it fall on himself. He paid the price justice demanded in order to show us mercy. If we understand that, how can we not show mercy to others?
As we saw when we were going through the Beatitudes, Jesus says “blessed are the merciful” not because we have to show mercy to earn God’s mercy, but because the merciful are those who have received God’s mercy and are being changed by it. When he says, “If you don’t forgive others, your Father in heaven won’t forgive you,” the point is not to set a condition on God’s forgiveness, but to help us see clearly the state of our hearts.
We may struggle to forgive someone who’s hurt us badly; we may try over and over again to forgive them, and find over and over again that we still aren’t free of the bitterness. But that struggle is evidence that God has forgiven our sins and his Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, because it’s a struggle that’s only possible by his power. It’s profoundly different from holding a grudge and cherishing unforgiveness in our hearts; the flat refusal to try to forgive another is what Jesus is talking about here.
When we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we aren’t asking that God would measure his forgiveness by the hardness of our hearts. I think part of Jesus’ purpose in teaching us to pray this way is to soften our hearts, to challenge us with the greatness of God’s mercy toward us and to grow in us the desire to forgive others just as we are forgiven.