by Neatice Warner
“Pray then like this:
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day 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 evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses,
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’”
Matthew 6:9-13, 14-15
A teenage boy in our family recently received a greeting card with $10 inside. His father, watching as he opened it, smilingly teased, “Oh, I think you owe me $10!” The boy replied, “I probably do.”
Jesus’ direction to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” should be no surprise; we constantly require the forgiveness of our loving Heavenly Father for careless words, neglected prayer, or perhaps the same selfishness indulged in again and again. We depend every moment on our Father’s provision of payment for our sin-debt through His Son’s death on the cross, and so we acknowledge our sins in confession, contrition, and trust.
But the attached phrase, “as we also have forgiven our debtors,” though probably familiar, should be startling, especially with its emphatic explanation, “But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is forgiving others a requirement for God’s forgiveness—for our salvation? Forgiveness of others’ sins is not a condition for our salvation, but it is an assumption about the effect of salvation. Redeemed people are forgiving people; the realization of the immense love and mercy that brought us salvation leaves no room for refusing to forgive others.
Why then is forgiving so hard? It’s hard because people do inflict deep, destructive wounds, sometimes permanently altering life circumstances. Forgiveness is hard because we want justice for wrongs done, and it’s difficult to avoid thinking, “They don’t deserve it.” It’s hard because being hurt carves craters within us that become reservoirs of resentment. As time passes, that resentment may become almost unconscious, covered over with shadows, but still there, deep inside us. And those places of inner darkness are inconsistent with the light of the gospel in which our Father intends us to live. (1 John 1: 5-9)
So how is change possible? Almost always, Scripture connects commands to forgive others with God’s forgiveness of us. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (ESV) Forgiving links with being forgiven. If we are struggling with forgiving another person, we must run to the Savior who died for us and contemplate that great grace. Ask Him, by His Spirit, to show that grace to us in such an overwhelming way that we can think of little else—so that the awareness of His grace floods past the sense of wrongs done to us. This is a miracle, but grace is miraculous, and so is the work of the Holy Spirit who changes us to be increasingly like the Savior who, as nails were viciously driven into His hands, prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)
What about damage done to us, making us fearful or tentative, taking from us materially, or removing rightful opportunity? Should we not desire justice? The sovereign God is perfectly just, and His righteousness will prevail. He acts through human government when that is necessary. But just as we have real peace in His forgiveness of us, as we forgive others, wells of resentment are drained, and we are free to think and act in the light of His presence and purpose. Have the cruel acts or words of another person left you injured? God’s great love that forgives us from our sin is also fully powerful to heal and renew us when we are sinned against. This is the reality of His character and His mighty grace.