Forgive us our sins
Forgive us our sins
In our series on the Lord’s Prayer, we finally arrived last Sunday at the place where we ask for our own needs, and we found that the first request was pretty inclusive: Give us today all that is necessary for this day.
But Jesus found it important to add a couple more specific requests to His list and today we’re going to look at the next item in this model prayer: “Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Another translation says, “Forgive us our sins just as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” This is not simply a request for forgiveness, but a promise to forgive others who have done us wrong. So, let’s take a closer look.
“Forgive us our sins” seems like a simple and obvious request. We who acknowledge that we’re sinners really should have no trouble with this at all. But what about those who won’t or can’t admit that they’re sinners? What happens to the people who are quite content with their reasoning that they’re just as good as anyone else in their neighbourhood and so don’t need to ask for forgiveness?
Especially, they don’t see why they would need to ask God to forgive them because they can’t think of anything they’ve done to Him. So that’s the first problem in this passage, but it’s not the only one.
There’s the second phrase in this part of the prayer which seems odd: “for we also forgive everyone who sins against us”, or, “just as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” If the first part causes problems for the people who don’t yet believe, the second part often causes problems for the ones who do. What can Jesus possibly mean by saying, “For we also forgive” or “just as we forgive”? Isn’t that an option that depends on how we’re feeling about the situation and whether the other person has demonstrated that they’re really sorry for what they’ve done to us? It may seem that Jesus has some ‘splainin’ to do on this one.
Let’s take these two problems in turn, starting with the problem for the ones who don’t believe: why do I have to call myself a sinner?
You know the quotations about self-love. Some are many centuries old, like this one from Prince Guatama Siddharta, who became known as the Buddha:
You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire
universe, deserve your love and affection.
The more modern and trendy quote would sound like this one:
Believe in your dreams and they may come true;
believe in yourself and they will come true.
Here’s the true existentialist self-love quotation, from Thaddeus Golas:
Whatever you are doing, love yourself for doing it.
Whatever you are feeling, love yourself for feeling it
Or this one, from Denis Waitley, who has a way of dealing with failure:
To establish true self-esteem we must concentrate
on our successess and forget about the failures
and the negatives in our lives.
There is a really healthy and important side of this kind of perspective. As Christians we believe that we are created in God’s image, that we have incredible worth simply from the fact that He loves us and has eternally significant purposes for our existence. He has give His own life for us and has placed His Holy Spirit within us. He has given us gifts and powers by which we can confront the powers of this age and through which we can bring glory to God and advance His Kingdom here on earth. We are incredible beings, with creative abilities that could only come from being made by such a creative God.
However, we are also flawed people whose only hope for experiencing the wonders of the age to come are through this counter-cultural awareness of our flaws and to allow that self-awareness to produce in us a deep humility.
You have probably run across a verse of Scripture that says “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” I say you’ve probably run across it because it appears three times in the Bible: in Proverbs, in 1 Peter and in James. It states an important principle about how God relates to human beings: as long as we want to be the ones who make the decisions, who have the power and the desire to maintain control of our lives, we are in a position that the Bible calls “pride” and God is resisting us, opposing us. Do we want that? Well, no, but we also don’t want to let go of that control thing, and so this becomes a challenge for us.
This issue comes to a head when we have to choose between Denis Waitley’s prescription for success and that of the Scriptures. He says we should forget about the failures and negatives in our lives and concentrate on our successes, thereby building our self-esteem. The Bible says we should be real about who we are, be thankful to God for every success in life and be humble and open about our failures and weaknesses. While the power of positive thinking types are onto the potential that is ours, they are seemingly quite afraid, or maybe its proudly resistant, to admit the flaws in our character that cause us to fall flat at times. But we’re both -- as David noted in the Psalms when he reflected back to God that he was fearfully and wonderfully made and yet could openly confess his sin to God and declare that he was in need of mercy.
One of the key spiritual battles -- maybe it’s THE key spiritual battle -- that a person has to fight in order to accept the Lord and begin a new life as a Christian is the battle to say no to pride, to confess that we’re sinners and to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness. It may seem easy to us now, now that we’ve learned not to pretend to be something we’re not, but it’s not easy the first time and the enemy of our souls tells us that we shouldn’t give in to any admission of guilt or shame or failure -- focus on success.
“You can’t handle it. You’ll grow up burdened with guilt and always feeling unworthy. Better off to admit that you’re as good as the next guy and, if you make some mistakes in life, well, so does everyone, and that’s how you learn.” Notice the enemy doesn’t call them “sins”, just “mistakes”, and who doesn’t make mistakes?!
On the other hand, the Bible teaches how we ought to respond to our failures to live up to God’s holy and righteous demands -- confess them to the Lord and ask Him for forgiveness, all the while forgiving others who do things wrong and hurt us in the process.
This brings us to the second part of the prayer -- “forgive us our sins just as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Notice that the verse doesn’t give us permission to forgive the sins of people who rebel against God or who hurt other people. We have only one responsibility in this area, and that is to forgive those who have hurt us. Notice also that the forgiveness we receive is linked to our willingness to forgive others. There is no room in this prayer for us asking God’s forgiveness for our sins without our being willing to forgive those who have hurt us. “Forgive us our sins for we also have forgiven everyone who sins against us.”
Now, what’s challenging about this verse is this word “everyone”. “We also have forgiven everyone who sins against us.” In the Greek that means everyone. In Latin or Hebrew or French or German it also means everyone. That means that when we come to God, humbly asking that He forgive us for our foolishness, our pride, our independence, our sin, our angry words and hurtful looks, He asks us, “Have you forgiven? Have you let go of any harsh feelings, any bitterness, any desire to get even with people who have hurt you, said unkind things about you, judged you unfairly or ripped you off somehow?”
You can see that’s it won’t be good enough to reply that we have forgiven several people who have said or done things we found hurtful, but that there are still one or two that we cannot, cannot forgive. That’s where this word “everyone” comes in and becomes a problem for us.
Why does God demand this kind of sacrifice from us? Because it is a sacrifice. We have to give up our hope for justice and fair play in order to let someone else go free. We have to deny ourselves the chance to even plead our case, to defend ourselves, to tell the world that we’ve been wronged. So there is a degree of sacrifice on our part that takes place whenever we forgive someone for hurting us. Why does God demand it? I think there’s a principle at work here: sin has always required that a sacrifice be made in order for the wrong to be made right. In the Old Testament times, the blood of an animal was offered as a payment for sin and in the New Testament the blood of Jesus was shed so that our sins could be forgiven. While the blood sacrifice is not required any more to make a person right with God -- because Jesus’ sacrifice was fully sufficient -- there is still an element of sacrifice that one person has to make so it might be possible for our human relationships to be made right again.
The alternative to forgiveness is, of course, absolute justice. Everyone gets what they deserve and the world is a very harsh and cruel place. We get what we deserve from God and from others and so do those who do hurtful things to us. Everyone gets to go to jail. No one escapes. Mercy is taken out of the dictionary. Heaven is renamed “Never never land” because no one ever goes there.
But, someone might say, it’s not fair. Some people are woefully lacking in the ability to be kind, while others seem especially gifted at being cruel. It’s not fair that we have to forgive the worst of offenses when we’re doing the least.
And to that line of reasoning, Jesus told a parable. It’s in Matthew 18. I’ll read a few verses before the story to give it some context:
Then Peter came to (Jesus) and asked, “Lord, how
often should I forgive someone who sins against
me? Seven times?”
Peter probably thought he was being generous on this point. Seven times seems like a lot of times to forgive the same human being.
“No!” Jesus replied, “seventy times seven.”
Which means that you keep forgiving until you have totally lost track of how many times you’ve forgiven -- and then it doesn’t matter any more.
For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be
compared to a king who decided to bring his
accounts up to date with servants who had
borrowed money from him. In the process, one of
his debtors was brought in who owed him millions
of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so the king ordered that
he, his wife, his children and everything that he had
be sold to pay the debt. But the man fell down
before the king and begged him, “Oh, sir, be
patient with me, and I will pay it all.” Then the king
was filled with pity for him, and he released him
and forgave his debt.
But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow
servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He
grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant
payment. His fellow servant fell down before him
and begged for a little more time. “Be patient and I
will pay it,” he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t
wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the
debt could be paid in full. When some of the other
servants saw this, they were very upset. They went
to the king and told him what had happened. Then
the king called in the man he had forgiven and
said, “You evil servant! . . .
I forgave you that tremendous debt because you
pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your
fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” Then
the angry king sent the man to prison until he had
paid every penny.
If the story ended there, we would have learned an important lesson and would be wiser in the ways of God. But Jesus also adds this sobering final thought:
That’s what My heavenly Father will do to you if you
refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your
The first thing we have to take into account in this story is that, in God’s economics, we owe Him far, far more than anything that any human being owes us. He has had to forgive far greater pride and rebellion against Him and has paid with the price of His own blood. What we have had to endure is far less -- it’s a few thousand dollars compared to many millions.
The second thing is that this parable repeats exactly the lesson from the Lord’s prayer, and that is that our being forgiven is directly linked to our willingness to forgive others. Here we are back to that uncomfortable phrase, “Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Forgive us Lord, because we’re already forgiving everyone who wrongs us. There is no separation here - the forgiveness we seek from God is dependent on our having the willingness to forgive others.
Is it fair? That’s the wrong question. It’s necessary. If we are to receive God’s forgiveness, we have to understand at least in some small measure what it has cost Him to offer that forgiveness to us. And if we are going to represent His Kingdom on earth, to act as His ambassadors, we have to do so in a way that demonstrates His character.
For both those reasons, it is essential that we learn to forgive. How do we do that? The root word in Greek that is translated “forgive” is the same word that is, in other contexts, translated “divorce”. It means to release, to send away, to let go. It is the removal of any legal or other obligation from the person. You no longer have any expectations that the person who has wronged you will do anything to make it right. If they owe you money, you release them from the obligation to pay you back, thereby “forgiving” the debt. If they have damaged your reputation by speaking lies about you, you let go of any hope or even desire to get revenge. If they have hurt your feelings or treated you in an unkind way, you let go of expectations, you let go of any manipulative scheme to get back at them.
Unforgiveness is hanging on . . . to hurt, to resentment, to thinking about revenge, to scheming ways to get even. And when we pray, we are to say, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” You may not have the same level of trust or fondness or loyalty or hope for the relationship after you have been wronged, but you also have no tie to the event that hurt you. You will not hang onto the emotional pain, which can cripple you, in a variety of ways. You will let it go and will find health in your mind, your spirit, your heart and your body. People want to know when forgiveness is done and I’ve read things like, “When you can think about the incident and no longer feel the emotional pain that you once felt.” That’s a great outcome, but it goes beyond forgiveness.
When God forgives, He removes our sins as far as the east is from the west. The relationship is reopened by His act of grace towards us. When we forgive, we also remove the wrong, we send it away from being a barrier to the relationship. We invite the person to enter into a restored relationship. They may choose not to. And we may find our feelings have changed. But we will forgive, we will let go, and we will find real freedom as we do.