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A humble, though essential, room in any great house is the boot room, a room full of pegs and racks, hats and coats, boots and shoes of every kind and size. Although the great doors will be opened and the carpet rolled out on occasion, this humble boot room is the essential way in for family members.
Near-by will be found a wash room. It may be outside in the courtyard or in the house very near the boot room. Together these practical rooms make it possible for household members to be made acceptable in the house.
For you enter the house not across velvet lawns, but across real lawns with worm casts and mud. You enter from the mess of the stables or the mud of the estate and these humble rooms are the way in. Here you wash and leave behind your soiled boots and your outer clothing, garb totally unacceptable within the house. It is simply not acceptable to sit at table, on a beautifully embroidered seat, unwashed, in dirty boots, and muddy over-trousers!
Our heavenly Father, too, has made provision for those soiled by the real world in which we live; provision for us to be made acceptable. The rooms are rooms of mercy, cleansing and forgiveness and all true members of the household must pass this way and do so often.
‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ The forgiveness of little things and the forgiveness of very great things; our Father’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others.
We look first at the beginning of this petition; God’s forgiveness of us, ‘Forgive us our sins, our trespasses, our wrong-doing.’ Such a prayer is basic to our spiritual well-being and standing before God. We must first come into our heavenly Father’s presence, as our Lord has taught us, and simply pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses; our sins.’ What does that actually mean? ‘Set us free from our total debt’, is closer to the Greek. But, even so, what is our debt to God our heavenly Father? What debt do we owe to the One in whose hand is our very breath and to whom we owe our very existence?
– We owe him love. He brought us into being for his pleasure, to give him glory in our lives and to enjoy him for ever. We owe him a debt of love, practically expressed in doing what pleases him.
– We owe him a willingness to refrain from all that would pollute us before him; to steer clear of all that we know to be active disobedience or rebellion against him. However, by nature we tend to ignore what God requires, doing what we want and failing to do his will.
– Our heavenly Father has commanded us to love him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength; to put him first. But who among us has truly so loved him? Religious words may slip easily from our lips, but what of the basic self-centredness of our day by day living?
When King David prayed his great prayer of confession, which we find in Psalm 32, he did not say, ‘Blessed is the man who has not sinned, who has no need of forgiveness,’ but rather, ‘Blessed is the one whose sin is forgiven, whose debt is paid.’
Where, then, does the forgiveness, the clearing of our debt, begin? Paul the apostle speaks of the disciples at Corinth as having been taken from a very grubby world, washed and set apart for God by the cross of our Lord. The apostle’s list of the goings-on in that port city of Corinth are as ancient as they are modern. Greed, theft, drunkenness, violence, perversion and vice are all there. The church at Corinth was composed of men and women taken from such a background and yet now, wonderfully, forgiven, adopted and made members of God’s holy family.
The apostle Paul uses the picture of washing as he describes how they were made clean, made acceptable before our heavenly Father. So here, in the great house, are these very practical rooms, wash rooms and bathrooms. We may need to begin first in an outside wash-house, for some of us are as well soiled as a dog that has rolled and besmirched itself in some canine delight that brings no delight to its owner and indeed makes it totally unacceptable in the house. ‘A stench, a stink in the nostrils of God,’ is exactly how sin, how godless ways are described in the Old Testament.
We may never have so deliberately soiled ourselves, and yet no matter how privileged, how well brought-up, how respectable we may be, when our eyes are opened, each one of us will find ourselves soiled and unacceptable before God. Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, was both noble and godly and yet, when face to face with the glory and holiness of the LORD, he found himself totally unacceptable, ruined and undone. The memorial stone of a godly and respected local Victorian Squire simply begins with the verse: ‘God have mercy upon me a sinner.’ Words that reflect his own plea before God and leave a signpost and an encouragement for those who read them today.
Why do we need forgiveness? What makes even the most privileged and refined of us totally unacceptable before God? Why are all our best efforts and fairest offerings only ‘filthy rags’?
Our need of forgiveness is hard for us to see for a number of reasons. For one, if we are not guilty of specific acts like murder, theft or adultery we assume we must be fine. Then again, we are so ready and eager to forgive ourselves that we cover over or make a very small matter of any ‘slight indiscretion’ before God. Why, it was hardly worth noticing and we can always provide a thousand reasons why we really could not help it or why it was not our fault! The fact is that we stand accused by precisely these deep-seated, self-centred habits of mind and body to which we are, by nature, totally blind. At rock bottom, we need forgiveness because by nature we live in God’s world as if there were no God. Perhaps not in the great crises of life or when we desperately need something, but by and large we ignore the God in whose hand is our breath. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we fail to honour him, fail to seek first his kingdom and right ways, fail to do his will, much preferring to do our own will. We also fail to love those around us in the way in which we love ourselves. These are the self-centred, God-ignoring ways that the Bible calls sin, a stink, and that cause us to be totally unacceptable before Almighty God, the righteous judge, and so in desperate need of mercy and forgiveness.
The true sons and daughters of God are like street children taken from the filth, violence and vice of the city and adopted into a royal household. The first step is a complete wash and change of clothes. Here is mercy; here is the forgiveness of God, here we are given a fresh new start. Thereafter begins the very gradual, faltering process of a total change in the basis of our thinking and acting. We slowly learn to love the Lord who made us acceptable and adopted us into his family. We begin to long to please him; to put the Lord God, rather than ourselves, at the centre.
God our heavenly Father has made it wonderfully possible for each one of us, to be made acceptable before him. No matter how soiled, we, too, may be made sons and daughters of the living God. Not on the basis of our own goodness or merit or worth but by the mercy and forgiveness of God, found in our Lord Jesus Christ. He came to this world for our rescue; came to lay down his life for us, for our forgiveness. On this basis, our Father is most willing to forgive. He is more willing to forgive than we are willing either to admit our need of forgiveness or to humbly ask for it.
This is the great and primary application of these words. We will often need to return to confess and wash away the grime of real, everyday living in this world as a child of God, but never again for this radical treatment that first brings us into his household.
‘Heavenly Father, forgive us our trespasses, have mercy on us, write off our debts once and for all, put us right with yourself. May we, like the ancient Corinthian Christians, be washed and made acceptable before you.’
- ‘To love him with all our heart’ – e.g. Mark 12:28-31
- Corinthians ‘washed’ – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
- A stench, sin abhorrent – Genesis 6:5-6
- Isaiah unacceptable before God – Isaiah 6:1-5
- ‘God have mercy’ – Luke 18:13
- ‘Filthy rags’ – Isaiah 64:6
- Open confession before God – 1 John 1:5-10
- Living by faith in the Son of God – Galatians 2:20
- The love of God poured into our hearts – Romans 5:5
- How natural is it to excuse, cover over or make a very small matter of our own failures before our heavenly Father?
- ‘Failed to honour . . . failed to seek first his kingdom . . . failed to do his will’ – to what extent is the Lord’s Prayer itself a mirror in which we can see our own falling short and so see our own need of forgiveness?
- Where do we stand, personally, if even the noble and godly Isaiah found himself totally unacceptable before the holiness of the LORD?
- ‘A fresh new start – like street children taken, washed and adopted into the family.’ How well does this describe the beginnings of discipleship?
- ‘The very gradual, faltering process of a total change in the basis of our thinking and acting. We slowly learn to love the Lord . . . ‘ How well does that describe our own spiritual pilgrimage or walk with our heavenly Father?
- The apostle Paul expressed what it is to be a forgiven child of God in words like these, ‘living by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ and of ‘the love of God shed abroad, flooding, our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given us’. Could we echo such expressions?
Forgive us our trespasses, continued . . . ongoing, day by day forgiveness
Having been made a child of God by his mercy, we will often need to return to confess and wash away the grime of real everyday-living in this world but never again to make that initial cry for forgiveness, ‘Lord, have mercy on me’ that first brings us into the household.
As adopted members of our Father’s family, we shall want to leave each day’s mud behind as we enter the house. Both the boot room and washroom are rooms of repentance and confession, rooms of cleansing and forgiveness. They give us a moment to reflect on the day: ‘Father, these are the opportunities that I missed to serve you, to honour you, to speak for you, to love my neighbour. These are the things I have failed to do. These are the things that I did in haste, anger . . . or in foolishness – at home, at work, in society.’ Scripture urges us not to hide or cover them over, not to belittle them as being of very minor importance, but to come openly to our heavenly Father. Such prayers are no longer in terms of our acceptability before him, our place in the family, but rather in terms of our walking with our heavenly Father at ease and in the joy of a right relationship.
If we pray it aright, the wonder of the Lord’s Prayer – and, indeed, the wonder of all true Christian living – is that it will change us; it will reform the way in which we live; we will grow as disciples.
Sadly, there is a lot of religious activity about which does not change us at all. We go and do certain things in a compartment of life we call ‘worship’; it may be with colour and candles and beautiful, traditional music, or it may be with stirring, modern music, shining faces and uplifted arms. We enjoy it, it moves us at the time but it does not change us. It does not touch the rest of our lives. We go on living exactly as we had done before. But, for example, if we really pray the Lord’s Prayer from the heart it will change us. We will find, for example, that as we bring our trespasses, day by day before our heavenly Father, our conscience will be awakened and sharpened. We will be more aware of our Father giving us opportunities to serve him and also increasingly, painfully aware of the opportunities we miss. We will begin to be aware of those things that do not bring honour to his name, even before we do them. We will begin to long not to do them. By the grace of God and the prompting of his Holy Spirit, we will be changed. This gradual changing is the purpose of God for each one of us; that we might be more Christ-like. Hence this prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins, our trespasses, our debts’ will need to be often on our lips if we are to grow as disciples.
Our communal failings
Like all these petitions, the prayer for forgiveness is set in the Lord’s Prayer in the plural, not ‘me’ and ‘my’ but ‘us’ and ‘our’ sins, debts and trespasses. Although our heavenly Father chooses to deal with us one by one, giving us an individual walk with himself, we are set in communities. Like a stone thrown into a pond, we begin with personal confession, but the ripples move out to affect the whole surface. As we really begin to pray we will look beyond our own personal standing and walk before God. We will begin to see and acknowledge our collective responsibilities and failings before our heavenly Father.
Throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, there are many examples of godly leaders crying to God for forgiveness, not only of their own failings, but for the failings of those around them.
Moses, pleading with the Lord not to destroy the people of Israel who had so soon turned their back on God and were worshipping an idol; a calf they had made from gold.
Or King Josiah, humbling himself and seeking the Lord when he discovered that his people had not been keeping God’s law.
Or Job, rising early in the morning to confess the possible sins and excesses of his sons as the feasted and celebrated in one another’s houses.
Or Nehemiah that man of God who so strongly held together prayer and action. Hearing of the trouble and shame of his fellow countrymen who had escaped the exile, he sat down and wept and fasted, pouring out the failings of his people before the Lord God. Asking that the Lord would hear the prayers of those who fear him and grant mercy and success. Secretly, he wept and prayed and cried for forgiveness, publicly, he asked the King’s permission and went and rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls.
Or Daniel, confessing his own and his people’s failure, pleading with the Lord for mercy and that, for the honour of his name, he would restore his ancient people and their city.
– Here in Britain we live in a land that has been the centre of an empire. Do we need to look afresh at our national pride and arrogance and at our collective ‘blind eye’ to the commercial exploitation of those who produce the food and goods we buy so cheaply? . . .
– We are part of a society that is still greedy and generally unconcerned in its use and abuse of the environment . . .
– We live in a land that has been so blessed of God. He has had such patience with us; spared us so many times, and yet, as a people, we are turning away from him, ignoring him at every level. We cling to our materialistic lifestyle and ignore the God in whose hand is our very existence . . . ‘Father forgive our wilful forgetfulness of your goodness and turn us again, as a people, to godly ways.’
– God has given the historic churches of our land very great privileges and very great spiritual responsibilities. By and large we have enjoyed the privileges but have failed in our great responsibility to uphold godly ways in our land and to win the people of each generation for the Lord . . . ‘Father forgive the coldness, formality and absorbing self-interest of our churches and kindle afresh courage, love and vision.’
– Finally, and so significantly, we live in a society in which so many people now place the bringing-up of children, and particularly their spiritual welfare, well down the list of priorities, well below the pursuit of their own career or of their own personal happiness. But before God the family has a far greater priority. Godly society depends on godly parents.
Our families are the basic building blocks of community living and of a godly society. They are the seedbed of love, trust and stability. They are given to be the royal nursery for the rising generation. They can also be the guest rooms for godly hospitality. Our homes are the setting where godly love can be shown to our neighbour and where justice, compassion, forgiveness and faithfulness can be learned and practised by parents and children together.
In our pursuit of wealth and personal happiness, we so easily forget that our heavenly Father’s priority is the raising of godly offspring. The debt we owe is to use our homes for the Lord; especially to do all in our power to faithfully bring up the youngsters he has entrusted to us to know and honour the Lord . . . ‘Father, forgive us . . .’
As a land, as a church, as a society and as individuals we have fallen so far short.
‘Father have mercy, forgive our neglect, our failure, our wilful disobedience, our trespasses and give us a hunger to live to please you.’
- Open confession before God – 1 John 1:5-10
- Moses – Exodus 32:11-13
- Josiah – 2 Kings 22:11-20
- Job – Job 1:4-5
- Nehemiah – Nehemiah 1:4-11
- Daniel – Daniel 9:1-19
- Godly offspring and family priorities – Malachi 2:14-16
- Bringing up youngsters – Ephesians 6:1-4
- What distinction is drawn between our first becoming disciples and our day by day need of forgiveness as members of the family?
- ‘Father these are the things . . .’ In what ways can admitting our need of forgiveness each day enable us to grow as disciples?
- Oh, that singing was so uplifting’ or ‘I could listen to that preacher for hours’. What hidden danger could lie behind such appreciative words?
- In what particular ways is our church and our whole society in need of repentance, a turning away from wrong thinking and wrong doing, and of the forgiveness of our heavenly Father?
- Of what ‘blind spots’ could we be guilty?
- To what extent are our homes ‘the royal nurseries of the rising generation’? What are our priorities in home life? Are they as God-centred as they should be?
- The caption under a picture of a father earnestly praying for his sleeping, young son simply reads, ‘Spiritual Warfare’. Do we know anything of such warfare? Have others engaged in it for us