“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (C.S. Lewis) And so Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4)
But the “As” is troublesome.
It suggests that there is a conditionality about my relationship with God (which, of course, there certainly is). It is confirmed in many other passages. The measure that you use to others will be the measure God metes out to you. No one can love God and hate their brother.
Jesus teaches that as we ask God for forgiveness, we should also confirm our practice of forgiving others. Of course, this assumes that we are in the practice of forgiving others, an assumption that may or may not be true for us. Martin Luther King Jr. said:“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
How could we pray in the way Jesus teaches us if we are unwilling to forgive?
How could we ask God to forgive us if we hold grudges or become mired in the quicksand of resentment?
The “As” underscores the connection between receiving divine forgiveness and forgiving others. As we experience God’s gracious forgiveness, we are called and empowered to forgive those who have wronged us. If we choose to hoard the forgiveness granted to us by failing to forgive others, not only do we disobey the Lord’s teaching, but also we miss the full benefit of forgiveness. God’s purpose in forgiving us is that we might be reconciled to him and to each other. The experience of divine forgiveness enables us to do what otherwise is beyond our strength.
In my experience as a pastor, I have seen unforgiveness wreak havoc on individuals and their relationships. The failure to forgive can destroy marriages, families, business partnerships, friendships, and entire church communities. This is a big, big deal.
And more, unforgiveness fills our hearts with bitterness, quenching our gratitude and flowing out of us as poisonous anger.
A recent Christian novel that has approached this question in a remarkable and powerful way is Paul Young’s The Shack. Here’s a key passage, to which I return again and again.
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat……Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established………Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation………Forgiveness does not excuse anything………You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for his wholeness……”
How easy do you find it to forgive people who have wronged you? Do you hold back in forgiveness? Why?
- Could you honestly pray in the way Jesus teaches us, connecting your forgiveness of others with your request for God’s forgiveness?
- Are there people in your life right now whom you need to forgive? Will you?
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Heavenly Father, I must admit that I feel uneasy about this prayer. Yes, yes, I want you to forgive me. But there are times I forget to forgive others. I can fool myself into thinking that the offense against me is gone, but, in fact, it lurks in my heart, ready to lash out at others. Forgive me, Lord, for my unforgiveness. Help me to remember those who have wronged me so that I might forgive them.
I must confess that there are other times when I am aware of my unforgiveness and I don’t want to let go of it. I feel comfortable living behind the wall it builds between me and the one who hurt me. I like the sense of self-righteousness that puffs me up with pride. Honestly, I’d much rather stew in bitterness or spill out with gossip than offer the forgiveness you require of me.
Forgive me, Lord, for my unforgiveness. Help me to choose to forgive even when it’s hard, even when I really don’t want to.
I pray in the name of Jesus, who calls me to forgive, who shows me how to forgive, and whose death enables me both to be forgiven and to forgive others. Amen.
Prayer from Mark Roberts, The High Calling