The petition to forgive appears somewhere in the center of the Lord’s Prayer. That’s an interesting place for it. It would seem more likely, and is often taught, that we should first get right with God before we move on in prayer. And yet, Jesus brings it in after asking for our daily bread. What is the meaning behind this?
As forgiveness is central in the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is a central factor in the Christian life. It’s like the hub on the wheel of faith! That there’s forgiveness of sins brings forth all the joy and power for living a godly life. Forgiveness is central to your health, spiritually and physically. You have to have it, and you have to do it.
The good news of the gospel is- you have it! The bad news is, some of you don’t do it. That’s one reason, and possibly THE reason things are out of whack in your life. The Lord taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). We see the gross atrocity of failing to forgive after we’ve received such ultimate forgiveness. Jesus told the story of a servant who was forgiven an incredible debt he couldn’t pay. His king had mercy and forgave. But the servant turned right around and demanded a lesser debt from another who was in a bind. The king heard of this and was furious, and he punished this wicked servant severely (see Matt.18:23-34).
In light of this, Jesus taught, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt.6:14-15). Does this mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional, based on whether or not we forgive? It would at first appear that way, but then it would seem to change the terms of the gospel. The gospel is about “whosoever believes,” not “whosoever forgives.” The gospel is about receiving forgiveness based on the finished work of Jesus Christ.
In order to reconcile this, it’s necessary to consider that Jesus was teaching this, still within a law or an old covenant context. Everything changed after the cross. Before the cross, we read, “if you don’t forgive, neither will your Father forgive.” But after the cross, we read, “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness results from what God has already done, so Paul writes, “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13; ESV).
So why did Jesus teach it the other way around? As I said, it was a different context. His teaching still counts, however. I believe the main point of what Jesus taught was that there should be no disconnect between what we receive and how we respond. The point of the parable and the verses in Matthew 6 is that it should be unthinkable that you would expect from the Father what you yourself are unwilling to give.
Notice I didn’t say what you are unable to give. You may be unable to forgive someone, and if so, you are still in bondage. Something is wrong spiritually. There is a disconnect. Understanding and receiving the Father’s forgiveness is the key to empowering your own forgiveness for another.
So considering both what Jesus taught and what Paul taught, we could actually come up with two titles for this post: “Forgive and Be Free,” and “Be Free and Forgive!” Ultimately, they do not contradict each other, but they complement each other. And this is seen in the Lord’s Prayer.
Forgive Us Our Debts
I’ve received different sweepstakes offers in the mail, always promising the possibility of winning big money. Wouldn’t it be great if you received your bills in the mail and they had a stamp on them saying “debt forgiven”? Think of the freedom of finding out you no longer owe on your mortgage! That’s what the Greek behind the word, forgive, implies- a release or dismissal. It’s no longer going to show up on your account.
We would love it if the credit companies forgave us our debts. However, as troublesome as earthly debts are, our spiritual debts are greater. Think about it, we owe God our very lives, and daily fail to give Him all that He deserves. In Luke, the word is not debts, but sins (Luke 11:4). This reveals the need for forgiveness not just in what we have omitted, but also in what we have committed. And by the accounts in heaven, our bill is more than overwhelming- it’s impossible.
How did we get into this mess? How did we get in so over our heads? Yet “He has not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).
As the old song goes, “He paid a debt He did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay.” Glory to God! We’ve won better than the sweepstakes! We’ve been released from that which would hinder any favor from God, all thanks to Jesus!
This is part of the reason the petition to forgive is placed later in the Lord’s Prayer. You don’t begin with it, because you already have it. By grace, you begin with your relationship as God’s own son or daughter, and say, “Our Father.” A child comes in faith. A servant would have to start by seeking forgiveness.
But if we already have forgiveness, why do we have to pray for it again? For one, it’s there to remind us of our reconciliation with God. It brings us to humility and worship in prayer, and reminds us not to take for granted God’s huge mercy.
Another reason is that it’s healthy to come afresh into God’s forgiveness. It’s like taking a shower. 1John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In Christ we are ultimately forgiven, and in Christ we are already counted as righteous. Nonetheless, if we know we have offended, it’s only good for our relationship to ask forgiveness. If I know I’ve wronged my wife, it helps the relationship to ask forgiveness. But I didn’t stop being her husband. I didn’t have to ask her to take me back. And we don’t stop being children of God or accepted in the beloved, but the relationship is enhanced when we keep short accounts.
As We Forgive Our Debtors
To pray this is not to bring it up as a condition, but as a declaration. We are saying we will operate in godliness. As you pray this, consider how your life reflects a response to God’s mercy. Have you received so much, and yet hold a grudge against somebody? To forgive is divine, but to hold a grudge- that sounds more like satan!
Satan loves it when believers hold a grudge. That’s when he has us playing by his rules. His whole evil ministry is one that has been fueled by a grudge. Forgiveness is as foreign to him as air-conditioning in a desert! Satan fell because of pride, and pride has no room for forgiving. Whenever we fail to forgive someone, Satan administers another dose to our pride. As long as we hold on, he feeds us more and more. And it tastes so good! It is so easily swallowed, so we nod in agreement as he brings another spoonful. Meanwhile, though, the Holy Spirit is grieved; and Satan’s medicine begins to devour us. Bitterness and sickness ensues. We have followed him to destruction, losing sight of Christ on the cross.
Your unforgiving spirit doesn’t stop God from loving you, but it short-circuits the victory in your life. It eats away at you, and allows the offender control over you. You continue to suffer the pain and hurt of what they did, while they continue on unaffected.
“But you don’t know what they did to me!” They may have hurt you and may be guilty as charged, but if you don’t release them and forgive, they continue to have control over you. You continue under their lordship, so to speak, rather than find healing and favor in God’s love.
Do you see the necessity of re-affirming a commitment in prayer to behave like Jesus? “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Godliness with contentment is great gain (1Timothy 6:6). The flow of forgiveness from God unto others brings life.
See how the world comes against this and promotes revenge. The world cheers on the foolishness portrayed on television and movie screens. They delight when they watch the bad guys get filled with bullets because they believe that is justice. Sometimes such justice is necessary, but the continual message coming forth is “get even.” God sees something sweeter in mercy.
When Jesus went to the cross, He could’ve easily gotten even. He could’ve called down all forces from heaven to come and smite His enemies, but then there would have been no hope left for the world. His purpose was to carry the sins of the world to the cross, so that there might be forgiveness. In victory, He affirmed His purpose when temptation to do otherwise was raging.
There He was, beaten and bleeding on that old rugged cross. How the demons must have been laughing in the spiritual realm: “We’ve got Him now,” they might have laughed as they envisioned their victory as just around the corner. “He couldn’t possibly still love these sorry humans we’ve used as puppets. Now let’s not have any more talk about a Savior!”
And how they must have trembled and been taken aback, when they heard the very words they were trying to stifle: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk.23:34)! Indeed victory had already come, even before the resurrection!
Later, Jesus was vindicated, and you will be too when you forgive.
The Neighborly Thing to Do
Early on in China, we lived next door to a man who liked to get drunk and sing karaoke. Only he did it all in his apartment next door to us! It was often loud and never good. Culturally, it was improper to go and ask the neighbor to please turn it down, so we just lived with it. But one night, we were trying to get the baby to sleep, and it was getting late, and there he went croaking, I mean karaoking again! We couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided I was going to knock on his door and politely ask him to turn it down.
He opened the door, and before I could politely make small talk, he huffed and slammed the door in my face. I went back livid. I wanted to punch his lights out! But I knew that as a Christian, I needed to forgive him.
As I lay in bed, I tried so hard to forgive, but the more I thought about him, the angrier I got. “Who is HE to do that to ME?” Then I remembered something I had read. Someone once wrote that in war, soldiers do not aim at the horses, but at the riders of those horses. The people who offend us are just the horses. It’s the demons using them to offend us. We can forgive these horses, and direct our hate towards the riders.
That sounded so reasonable and should’ve done the trick, but it didn’t help me. I kept thinking, “Who is HE to do that to ME?”
But then the Lord helped me to direct my thoughts on Jesus. I began to see Him upon the cross. I began to see things from His point of view. If anybody ever deserved to execute justice, it was Jesus Christ upon the cross. He was without sin, and the attacks He suffered were directed to God Himself. Who were THEY to do that to HIM? Their offense to Him was much greater than any offense I received. And yet while it would have been perfectly reasonable for Him to lash back and destroy them, He instead said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Placing myself in position with Jesus on that cross and hearing Him say those words gave me the power to forgive my neighbor. The next day I greeted him as a friend and we became good friends after that. The karaoke eased up as well!
There’s such power in forgiveness. It brings freedom and releases spiritual victory. It is central to the Christian life. Celebrate it in prayer. You’ve received it. You will give it. You will be like your Lord and not the devil.