Normally, when I am saying the Lord’s Prayer, I am leading worship and am somewhat distracted by remembering what comes next in the order of service so I don’t always give it my full attention. But when I do pay attention, I am always struck by the line that says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12, NIV). When I read the passage, I can’t help but notice Matthew 6.14-15, where Jesus follows up the prayer with the words, ” For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (NIV)
When I think of situations where I am unwilling or unable to forgive, I would prefer to have these words disappear–but since they are in the Bible and I can’t find a good way to discount them, I need to deal with them in the context of my inability to forgive.
It would be easy to say that the words force me to forgive: “If I want to be forgiven, I need first to forgive others.” This is a quick, easy and simply formula–all that is left is singing the final hymn and pronouncing the benediction. Of course, the ultimate result probably isn’t an immediate act of forgiveness on my part but rather a strong sense of guilt and an increase in my emotional and spiritual burden associated with the inability to forgive.
And so, in my wondering and searching, I have begun to think that maybe this isn’t a ritualistic formula but a deeper insight into God, humanity and forgiveness. God forgives–that seems to be a clear and strong theological reality in the Bible. His forgiveness is available to all who will accept it–and maybe the issue Jesus is dealing with in the Lord’s Prayer and the follow up verse has more to do with our ability to accept what God is offering.
Maybe my ability to comprehend and accept God’s forgiveness is tied in with my ability to offer forgiveness to others. Being human, I have a tendency to think other people think and act a lot like I do–and so if I have difficulty offering forgiveness, I think others have that same difficulty. And if I and others have that difficulty, maybe it limits my ability to accept forgiveness from others and from God–what they offer may not be real or may have strings attached or there might be some catch in the fine print.
Whatever the mechanism and reasoning, it seems that when I can’t or won’t forgive, it limits my ability to accept forgiveness, even from God. Maybe Jesus is pointing that out in the prayer–that only as we extend forgiveness to others can we really experience the forgiveness that God offers to us. That would mean that God doesn’t make his forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others. It makes our ability to accept his forgiveness conditional on our ability to offer forgiveness to others.
This then is another part of the burden that I carry when I find myself unable to forgive–I can’t really appreciate the offer of forgiveness that God offers me. My inability to forgive will cloud and distort my view of God and at some levels at least, cause me to think that God thinks a lot like I think. No matter that I know God offers forgiveness; no matter that I know he has shown that forgiveness in and through Jesus Christ; no matter that I have at some point accepted that forgiveness–on some levels, my inability to offer forgiveness to someone else is probably going to damage my ability to see and appreciate the forgiveness that God offers to me. I will feel that God can’t forgive me.
Fortunately, God isn’t bound by my feelings and has already forgiven me. But when I can’t forgive someone else, I likely can’t get the most out of that profound theological reality. I am forgiven because of my faith in Christ but I am unable to completely enjoy the forgiveness because I can’t offer the same forgiveness to others.
The burden of being unable to forgive is heavy and as I said before, it is good to know exactly what we are letting ourselves in for when we can’t–or won’t–forgive.
May the peace of God be with you.