And forgive us our trespasses…
The full line of the prayer is, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This assumes several things.
Forgiveness is the job of individuals in the context of the church. I can forgive someone who offends or sins against me without anyone else being involved. That is possible. But the prayer is about “us.” So what if I am harboring a grudge and am unwilling to forgive? Is this person any less deserving of my forgiveness? What would the church say? What would my heavenly Father say? When I pray this prayer and look at the communal context, I am given a kick in the pants.
I know and you know that transgressions carry weight with them. It is easier to forgive someone who says something slanderous against me than someone who breaks into my home and steals from me. By the very nature of the sin I may be quicker to forgive. I don’t think this prayer negates that. At the same time, I lose any rights to withhold grace when I pray this.
Our forgiveness is meant to mirror God’s. The plea here is that God would forgive us, not that we would forgive others. We are not praying for the ability to forgive others. That is assumed! We are instead asking God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive. This brings up a question for many: Is there ever a time when God isn’t forgiving? We take His forgiveness for granted because we know He is merciful and just. And yet, God intends for forgiveness to be relational, not transactional.
Relational for us with Him in the sense that our forgiveness is an extension of His. As we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, we forgive one another, just as in Christ God forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). And relational for us with one another in the sense that our forgiveness is a mirror of His, bringing reconciliation when possible.
When we ask for forgiveness, we ask for the very thing we are to proclaim. N.T. Wright says in The Lord and His Prayer,
“We, as the people who pray this prayer for the world, are called to be the people who live in this way ourselves. At the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends the disciples to announce ‘the forgiveness of sins’ to the whole cosmos. The church is to tell, and to live, the Jubilee-message, the forgiveness-of-sins message.”
Wright is right (I wonder how many times that’s been used?). There were years when I was unwilling to forgive my dad for what I had assumed was his mistreatment of me as a child. I had held the bitterness of never being able to meet up to his expectations. And God revealed to me that I was not only to forgive my dad, but also that I had a limited view, and that he really had tried to love me as best he could. And now, not only are he and I close, but I am free to tell others of God’s forgiveness because it is real in me.
And if that weren’t enough…
Forgiving sin is gospel work. Eugene Peterson writes in Tell It Slant,
“There are over fifty words for sin in biblical Hebrew. But exposing and naming sin is not at the center of life lived to the glory of God. Muckraking is not gospel work. Witch-hunting is not gospel work. Shaming the outcast is not gospel work. Forgiving sin is gospel work.”
As we pray this prayer, we are watchful and careful of our own tendencies to be very attentive to the sin in others’ lives. It is easy for us to name how we’ve been hurt; it is much harder to forgive those who have hurt us.