We have looked first at the forgiveness that God offers us, as this is absolutely basic to our standing before him.
We look now at the second part, ‘As we forgive those who trespass against us.’ At first sight it seems as if the Lord could be teaching that we can earn or deserve God’s forgiveness if we forgive others. But can it mean that? Could we ever earn forgiveness before God? Before God, our heavenly Father, even our best efforts are contaminated; our fairest offerings are only, as Isaiah so vividly describes them, ‘filthy rags’. We have fallen so far short that we can never, humanly, put things right. Reconciliation is all of God’s goodness. To teach that we can earn God’s forgiveness is to go against the whole teaching of our Lord and the whole of the Apostles’ consistent teaching.
Rather, the Lord is reminding us that as we have known and tasted the wonderful mercy and forgiveness of God so we must reflect it in our day by day dealings with those around us. Having been forgiven we must be eager to forgive those who have wronged us. We must not be like the unmerciful servant of the Lord’s story who owed his master a vastly great amount. Being totally unable to pay, he was freely and graciously forgiven, but he then went out and showed no mercy whatever on his fellow servant. The unmerciful servant was freely forgiven by his master but by his behaviour to his fellow servant he lost, he forfeited that forgiveness. We can never earn God’s forgiveness. But here we are solemnly warned that we can forfeit forgiveness; our heavenly Father will not continue to have mercy on us if we ourselves remain stubbornly unforgiving.
Our Lord is teaching us to pray: ‘Father, as you have forgiven me, give me a forgiving spirit.
As you have been merciful and generous to me, may I be merciful and generous to those around me.
Such a willingness to forgive is the exact opposite of our basic human nature. By nature, we demand from others justice, our rights, our ‘pound of flesh’ but, for ourselves, we beg to be excused and shown mercy.
Again, the godly forgiveness we are shown here will never be either easy or tidy. We will be forced on each occasion to find the right balance between the harshness of justice without mercy and the softness of mercy without justice. We are to be generous and merciful yet not to so abandon justice that people mock us and take advantage of us. Our heavenly Father well understands this, for in the cross of our Lord Jesus both justice and mercy play a full part, justice is satisfied as mercy is freely offered. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven.
What does it mean ‘to forgive’? The word itself means ‘to send away’ or ‘to put away’. Forgiveness is the putting away of the things that would keep us apart. The aim of forgiveness is that two persons or parties estranged by a wrong or trespass might be reconciled and brought together. To bring this about, the wrong needs to be put away. God is willing to put away our debt before him. We must be willing to put away the offences and trespasses that are committed against us; to put away, on our part, anything that would stand in the way of reconciliation.
The quiet resolve before God to be forgiving needs to be carried into the cut and thrust of daily living. And so we must move from the beauty and quietness of a chapel – where to be spiritually minded is easy – to the home, the work place and the neighbourhood where it is, most certainly, not.
Forgiveness of ourselves
The forgiveness of this second part of the petition is primarily about our relationship with others – and yet we do need to learn to forgive ourselves as God has forgiven us. The evil one, the accuser as he is often called in scripture, will constantly play on and remind us of our past failings, our guilt, our secret sins and weaknesses or our ineffectiveness. However true the accusations may be, once they have been brought openly before our heavenly Father and his forgiveness sought, then every time we are reminded of them and tempted to be cast down by the memory of them, our strong response must be, ‘Yes, sadly true, but my heavenly Father knows about these things, the debt is paid, and all he requires is that I live today for him as his forgiven child.’ If God has ‘put away’ our wrong doings and our failures so must we, so that we are set free to live in the present for him.
Forgiveness of those we know well
The moment we become really close to someone in friendship, courtship, marriage or as a colleague at work we soon discover that they are not quite perfect! It is a well established phenomenon that when a new minister comes to a church, for the first months he is thought wonderful, fresh and bright and clearly the answer to all the church’s problems, and can do nothing wrong. After a couple of years he cannot do anything right and after a couple more they know his every odd mannerism and expression so well that he is merely tolerated or ignored. You can see the wisdom of moving often! More seriously, it is a perfect illustration of the fact that when you really get to know someone you find that they are not the perfect person you imagined them to be but a frail human being with failings and weaknesses, blind spots and annoying habits. In fact, a human being in need of help and constant forgiveness.
Young people setting up home soon discover the same thing. Indeed, the first year of marriage is notoriously difficult. The lady finds that her ‘prince charming,’ though wonderful in the days of courtship, loses his charm as he sits sullen and unshaven over unpaid bills and cornflakes!
We need to learn forgiveness towards those closest to us. They will let us down. Our personal, treasured little ways may be upset or our possessions spoiled. We need a constant spirit of forgiveness in order to take in our stride the many annoyances. Talk them out, sort them out, but do not gather them and nurse them as growing, unforgiven resentments.
‘Lord give me a forgiving spirit; kindness to those around me.’
Forgiveness in our society
In this fallen world we can be really hurt, really let down, seriously offended against and owed much. What should we do then? What should our attitude be? In the New Testament, it comes across very clearly that there are conditions to forgiveness. The father of the prodigal son in our Lord’s parable was desperately let down and yet ran to meet his son. He was ready and eager to forgive and to be reconciled with his reckless son. However, there could be no forgiveness, no reconciliation, until that son ‘came to himself’ and became willing to admit his mistakes and return home. Such a willingness to face the truth and offer an apology is never easy. ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong . . .’ are perhaps some of the hardest words to say. It took a famine and the pigs’ trough to bring that son to that point! But there must be this turning, this repentance, if there is to be any true forgiveness or reconciliation.
Having said that, if those who have terribly wronged and hurt us seek our forgiveness and an opportunity to put things right, we must be as willing and as eager to forgive as the father of the prodigal son who rushed to welcome and reinstate the filthy but returning lad.
Moving into a yet larger scene: as God’s children wanting to honour him by reflecting his mercy, what of those who deliberately hurt and maim and destroy; who deliberately steal and cheat. What of those who would scoff at your willingness to forgive; who have no intention of seeking reconciliation?
At a Remembrance Day service in Northern Ireland a bomb was detonated and a Christian man lost his much loved daughter. That father was able to bear no malice, no hatred, towards those who killed her. That is the Christian reaction. You cannot forgive where there is no desire for reconciliation, but you can offer it, you can be willing to forgive, you can bear no malice. From the cross, our Lord Jesus himself prayed, ‘Father forgive them . . .’ He did not declare them forgiven. He prayed that they might come to the place where they might be forgiven, and there find forgiveness freely offered.
Agents, together, of justice and peace
‘To bear no malice.’ As that applies in each of our own personal lives, it also applies to groups of people. There can be great feuds between families, tribes and nations; people determined never to forgive or be reconciled and living with resentment, hatred and bitterness; people living with a determination to be avenged.
What part can disciples play in such situations? Our Father’s economy is always based on his people being peacemakers; praying, working and seeking for reconciliation; being willing to forgive. And so it becomes plain that forgiveness is a matter both for individual disciples and for disciples together. Hence the ‘us’ and ‘our’ and ‘we’ of the Lord’s Prayer; ‘As we forgive’.
At school my German teacher, under Hitler’s regime, had lost everything – his home, parents, brothers and sisters: everything. He escaped to this country and twenty years later he was teaching German. But he was doing more than that. He was a godly man, and he used his position to arrange exchange groups with German families. This man had been hurt so deeply and yet here he was working for reconciliation. By the grace of God he was free from bitterness. Having personally forgiven, he was able to be a peace-maker.
Here is peace-making, forgiveness in practice. It is personally very costly but it has about it – a touch of heaven.
Humanly it is always easy to justify an attitude of contempt, hatred or the seeking of revenge. But, by the grace of God, may our lives be free from these things and marked by an openness to reason, a bearing of no malice, an eagerness for reconciliation – a willingness to forgive as we have been forgiven.
‘Lord God have mercy on us. Help us to recognise our own natural and inbuilt lack of mercy. Give us a forgiving spirit. Give us grace, individually and together, to put away bitterness and hatred and to forgive those who trespass against us, as we have been forgiven, that your holy name may be honoured and your will done.’
- ‘Filthy rags’ – Isaiah 64:6
- The unmerciful servant – Matthew 18:23-35
- Stubbornly unforgiving – Matthew 6:14&15
- Conditions to forgiveness – Luke 17:3&4
- The prodigal son – Luke 15:11-24
- Willingness to forgive – Matthew 6:14
- ‘Father forgive them’ – Luke 23:34
- To what extent is it human nature to be like the unmerciful servant, taking forgiveness offered to us for granted but being none too hasty to forgive those around us?
- Why should we be willing and eager to forgive?
- How easy is it to love justice and show mercy?
- Is it sometimes almost hardest of all to forgive ourselves? Yet, can we, should we, must we? Why?
- ‘Not perfect, but with weaknesses, ‘blind spots’ and annoying habits . . . a human being in need of help and constant forgiveness.’ How well does this describe those close to us? How well does it describe us?
- ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong.’ When these words are really meant, are they some of the hardest words to say? Why?
- Can there be true reconciliation without a willingness to admit our mistakes?
- In what situations do we need to ‘bear no malice’? Are we willing to be searching for and eager to welcome the first hint of a move towards reconciliation?
- Have you known or read about people whose Christ-like willingness to forgive has challenged you?
- In what ways and in what situations would our heavenly Father have us be his peacemakers?