I love the idea of forgiveness. I feel so happy every time I think about God’s incredible grace for me. And I feel so excited to extend the same grace to others. That is, until I actually have the opportunity to do so - at which point I often find that it is much easier for me to be enthusiastic about the idea of forgiveness than it is to actually forgive. Many years ago, I was able to have a conversation with someone who had hurt me very deeply as a young teen. I wanted to let him know that I was doing well now and that I didn’t hold anything against him. As I tried to talk with this person, he was just as distant and opaque as he had been almost three decades before. And though I thought I had forgiven him, I found myself becoming angrier and angrier. I wanted this person to open up. I wanted him to be sorry! I wanted answers to questions that had bothered me for years. And I have to admit, in retrospect, that my behavior was atrocious and not at all reflective of the forgiveness I had initially intended to convey. Forgiveness is a cancellation of debt - a relinquishing of what we feel is owed to us, and in this situation I ended up doing the exact opposite of that. In fact, I was behaving just like the man in this parable told by Jesus:
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.”
Matt. 18:23-28 (NIV)
This man’s behavior seems shockingly ungrateful and hypocritical to me when I read the parable. And yet, the truth is that this is a story about me. I’m just like the man in the story. Perhaps it is partly because forgiving others can be so difficult for us that Jesus names our need for forgiveness as the reason we should pray as he instructs us in the Lord’s Prayer.
Last week, I noted that the Lord’s Prayer is enclosed in two bookends that explain why we should pray in this particular manner. Before the prayer, Jesus tells us not to pray in such a way as to attempt to seem godly to others or to attempt to manipulate or butter up God. Instead we should pray as follows:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
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 lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Afterward, Jesus tells us why we should pray in this way.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
According to Jesus, forgiving others is not optional, even though we sometimes treat it as if it is. Jesus says multiple times that our sins will not be forgiven if we hypocritically fail to extend to others the forgiveness that God has extended to us. For this reason, Jesus tells us that, instead of praying in order to seem more holy, we should pray in such a way as to acknowledge our own sinfulness and our own desperate need for grace, while searching our hearts to make sure that we are treating others in the just the way that we desire for God to treat us.
Last week, after meditating on the Lord’s Prayer, I spent some time repenting of how I treated this person whom I felt owed something to me and searching my heart for anything else I might be holding against someone. I felt the Spirit showing me in a whole new way how foolish I had been not to recognize how alike my old acquaintance and I truly are. It was painful to look at the ugliness of my own heart. But I also felt free in a new way. It’s on days like these that I feel perhaps I am finally just beginning to understand the good news about the kingdom of God.
Here is what I wrote in my prayer journal that day. Perhaps you would like to pray along with me. Feel free to modify my prayer to fit your own circumstances.
Father, please forgive me for all the ways I have held other people’s sins against them. I’m thinking in particular of _______ and ________. I did not forgive them well. I demanded too much. I willfully avoided looking at my own sin while blaming them for theirs. If there are amends I should make here, please speak to me about them. Also, help me to see any other places I have refused others the grace that I so desperately need for myself. Make me always gentle and forgiving. Help me always to see my own desperate need for grace and to pour grace liberally on those around me in gratitude for what you have given me and in hope of eternity with you. Amen.
Love in Christ,