Donald Trump received a lot of attention several weeks ago for saying this about whether or not he has ever sought forgiveness from God – I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don’t.
My first reaction upon hearing those comments was to shake my head, but perhaps he was expressing the feelings of many when he uttered those words. Forgiveness is tough, it is difficult, and, if we are honest, it is also something we would often rather ignore.
As we continue through the Lord’s Prayer we come to the phrase forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Or forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Hear again, the Lord’s Prayer, and a passage from Luke’s gospel that provides the ultimate testimony of forgiveness.
Matthew 6:5-15 –
9 “Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, (leave out next phrase ) as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Luke 23:32-34 –
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.
34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Did you notice that I left out part of a verse? I skipped the line as we forgive our debtors. It wasn’t an oversight; I did it to make a point. If we’re honest, we might admit that we would prefer to leave out that part of the Lord’s Prayer, because of the difficulty of offering forgiveness.
Jesus taught about many subjects, and there are certain themes he returned to on multiple occasions. One of the regular themes in the preaching of Jesus is that of forgiveness. The words Jesus spoke about forgiveness are some of the most radical and challenging words he offered throughout his earthly ministry. It was not just that he pronounced God’s forgiveness for sins – which did offend some people, because they could not accept who he was – but because so many did not want to see forgiveness granted to others, and in that respect, human nature has not changed much in the ensuing two thousand years.
Forgiveness is one of those topics that make us squirm, because we recognize how incredibly difficult forgiveness can be. I think that if we are really honest, we will admit that forgiveness comes neither easy nor natural to us.
When we talk about forgiveness, we also have to say a few words about what brings about the need for forgiveness, which is the brokenness of humanity and our sin. The New Testament uses five different words for sin, whereas in English, we have only one.
1. Hamartia – this is the most common word used for sin, and it means a missing of the target. It is a failure to be what we were created to be. This is different from committing a particular action; it is being satisfied with how we are rather than how we could be. It is not unusual to be tempted to be content with our lives, thinking well, I’m just as good as anyone else and therefore, good enough. The real question, however, that we must ask ourselves is this – are we everything God desires us to be and created us to be?
2. Parabasis – which means a stepping across. This is an action that steps over a clearly marked line of right and wrong. It’s the concept of a line in the sand, where there is a clear distinction between right and wrong. Sometimes we eye that line for a long time, and then make a conscious decision to take that step across the line. It is a very willful, obvious act of disobedience.
In our congregation, we use the version of the Lord’s Prayer that contains the words trespass and trespasses. The word trespass means there is a line you don’t cross. To forgive those who trespass against us is an acknowledgement that someone has crossed a line of what is right, what is good, and what is acceptable and have done something that causes some kind of hurt to us. It acknowledges there has been real hurt that has taken place.
3. Paraptoma – which means a slipping across. This is similar to slipping on ice, where an action is not as deliberate but comes more from carelessness or neglect. We often use language to describe these types of actions, such as saying we have slipped up. There is no thought or plan in this type of action; it just seems to happen, causing us to ask, how did that happen? How did things go this far? We don’t go from point A to point B in a single step, but one small, sometimes unknowing step at a time, slipping further and further down a path that so often leads to heartbreak.
4. Anomia – which means lawlessness. This is when a person knows what is right, but very specifically does what is wrong. It’s the kind of action that reflects an attitude of I really don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m going to live how I want and I don’t care who it hurts.
5. Opheilema – this is the word used in the Lord’s Prayer, and it means a debt, specifically, a failure or inability to pay what is due. Some churches use the version of the Lord’s Prayer that contains the words debts and debtors, which express this idea. We usually think of the word debt as a financial word – someone owes a debt to someone else. That’s how we sometimes see forgiveness. When someone hurts us, we believe they owe us something. They owe us an apology, they owe us an explanation, and they owe us restitution. It is easy to hold the offense of the other person over their head and to place them in a position of being a debtor to us.
Jesus asks us to release that person from the position of being a debtor. We are called to remove the shackles of guilt we want to fasten to them and we are called to release the other person from any sense of indebtedness to us.
Now, allow me to offer a few brief words about forgiveness –
1. Forgive others.
Someone once said that we are most like God when we forgive. I hope, then, that we are often like God.
But there are some very important considerations to make when we speak about forgiving others.
Very shortly after the shootings at the Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, early in the summer, some of the families quickly, and publicly, expressed their forgiveness to the shooter. But not everyone agreed with this sentiment. More than one editorial column said it was too soon to offer forgiveness, and one writer expressed this in very blunt language – Recently, I wrote that I believe in forgiveness. I do. It is necessary to move on. But this was too fast. Too soon. Too quick. This was instantaneous forgiveness of the unfathomable kind where the wounds were still fresh, the bodies unburied, the echo of that horrible sin still ringing. Forgiveness, depending on what one is forgiving, should come over time. How much time? Not this soon. Not this soon.
I can understand that sense of withholding forgiveness, but I think it is an incorrect view. The writer of the editorial equated forgiveness, I think, with overlooking a terrible action. To forgive quickly, he seems to imply, is to fail to adequately acknowledge just how terrible this tragedy was. But others had a different view. Listen to the words of an editorial offered by another writer –
When we suffer injustice, the human heart craves revenge, vindication and retaliation. These are also desires Christ came to save us from. Christians are commanded to respond to injustice with forgiveness. This principle is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). Immediately after this prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, “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 6:14–15)
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22) In other words, you cannot forgive someone enough.
The swift forgiveness offered by the victims’ families, as hard as that must have been, is what Christianity is all about. Forgiveness is an extension of love. Christians extend forgiving love to those who have wronged them — including their enemies — because this is God’s disposition toward them. God is love, and he calls his people to love. God forgives first and expects his people to do the same.
The grace of forgiveness, in turn, empowers forgiven people to forgive others.
Allow me, then, to make a few brief observations about forgiving others.
First, it is important to understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. In an ideal world, reconciliation would come after forgiveness, but we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where some people see the possibility of a reconciled relationship as an opportunity to continue inflicting their bad behavior and bullying upon the other person. That is neither wise nor healthy. The reality is that some relationships contain such a toxic level of brokenness that the amount of pain and hurt caused make reconciliation all but impossible. In such cases, reconciliation might never be possible, but forgiveness is. Forgiveness can come even if reconciliation never does. But we must understand that offering forgiveness does not mean that the hurt and pain caused by others are in any way acceptable, and it does not mean that we are asked to overlook them. Forgiveness, in such circumstances, is very much an act of the will, and in situations where the hurt and the pain is so deep, it is necessary to call upon every ounce of our will to forgive.
Second, because forgiveness does not mean we must accept bad behaviors, enter into dysfunctional and codependent relationships, or overlook unacceptable actions, we are freer to make a conscious decision to forgive, which helps us refuse to allow the poison of bitterness to build up within our hearts and souls. I am convinced that some people cannot offer forgiveness because they believe that in doing so they are admitting that their pain does not matter and that the actions of the other person are in some way excusable. But nothing could be further from the truth. To forgive someone does not mean that we cannot condemn their actions, nor does it mean that we cannot acknowledge the deep pain and hurt that it has called. Forgiveness is sometimes confused with overlooking hurtful actions and pretending that nothing happened. What forgiveness, and the offering of it, does is to release one from a desire for revenge as well as releasing the pain and bitterness that seeks to fester within our hearts.
Third, we should also forget everything we’ve ever heard about forgiving and forgetting. I don’t know where the saying of forgive and forget originated, but it is both bad advice and bad theology. We do not always forget hurts and offenses, but that does not mean that forgiveness has not taken place if we have not forgotten them. We have so connected those two words – forgive and forget – in our minds that people believe forgiveness has not taken place unless they have completely removed the offense from their memory. Human nature being what it is, our emotions constantly remind us of our painful experiences. While we do not forget those experiences, we must be careful not to nurture their memories, with the end result being bitterness and resentfulness, but the fact that one does not forget them does not at all mean forgiveness has not, or cannot, take place.
2. Forgive ourselves.
Over the course of my ministry I have encountered scores of people who struggle to forgive themselves. As I sit and listen to people struggle to find a way to forgive themselves, I struggle over what to say to them. In all my years of ministry I haven’t been able to find the words to help people find self-forgiveness. The best I can seem to do is to say you need to forgive yourself. But how does one do so?
All of us, perhaps, carry guilt over something we have done or something we have said. Perhaps there were words spoken that could never be taken back. Perhaps it is guilt over missed opportunities. Perhaps it is guilt over a broken relationship. Perhaps it is guilt over an action that one deeply regrets. Whatever the cause, so many are desperate to find a way to forgive themselves, but they cannot do so.
And, regrettably, some people sense that guilt and use it as a tool for manipulation. Guilt is such a destructive force. Let go of the guilt and offer yourself forgiveness.
3. Forgive God.
This one may sound strange, but there are people who are angry with God and they cannot move past that anger. Now, when I say that some people need to forgive God, I’m not saying God has done anything wrong. What I am saying is that some people are angry because God has not done what they asked of him, what they hoped of him, or what they expected of him, and they are disappointed in him, and that disappointment has turned into anger.
Maybe it is anger because of praying so hard that someone would be healed, and they were not healed. The person knows God could heal, but he didn’t, so disappointment sets in and then turns to anger. Or, perhaps, life just didn’t turn out the way one has hoped, and they are angry about their life, and that anger is then directed at God.
I wonder if God might get more blame than credit. Perhaps people are quicker to blame God when things go wrong than they are to credit him when things go right.
And when we talk about forgiving God, we should include the church as well. There are a lot of people who have suffered hurt in churches and have joined what one writer has called the church alumni society. Any person who has been involved in a church for long has most likely experienced some kind of disappointment and hurt, but some of it runs very deeply.
Forgiveness is incredibly difficult, but if we want to be like Jesus, if we want to be the people he asks us to be, that is what we are called to do.
The author Robert Louis Stevenson made it a practice to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning with his family. One day, in the middle of the prayer, he got up off his knees and walked out of the room without saying a word. His wife followed him out and asked what was wrong. Referring to the verse we will study this morning, he said, I am not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume One, The Daily Bible Study Series, William Barclay, page 223).
This is both the power and the challenge of forgiveness. The power of forgiveness is how it can forever change a life, but the challenge of forgiveness comes from understanding all that is involved in its offering.