(This is part two of a three-part previously published series on forgiveness.)
In what is arguably the most oft-recited Scripture text in history, Jesus teaches his apprentices how to pray. We call this, “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father Prayer,” but it might be more accurate to call it, “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It was given as part of Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount and was meant to serve as a pattern for the disciple’s own prayers.
Jesus apparently felt one part of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” required clarification. Immediately following the prayer, he explained: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With these shocking words Jesus puts us on notice: Our forgiveness is related to our choice to forgive.
Experience has taught me that many people struggle with this issue. They know, all too well, that they need forgiveness, and genuinely want to forgive those who have hurt them, but they don’t know how. When the pain of the past still washes over them like ocean waves, leaving a residue of bitterness and profound sorrow, what can they do?
The fact that God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive can be unsettling, but one can learn to use that dynamic to one’s own advantage. A person who relishes God’s grace in forgiving his sins will find the grace necessary to forgive others’ sins, which is why Paul says, “Forgive, as in Christ God forgave you.” One ought to give thanks for God’s forgiveness, even bask in it. Only those who have experienced forgiveness can fully extend it.
“Forgive . . . as he forgave you.” If God’s forgiveness is the standard, then we must attempt to understand how he forgives. When God forgives us, for example, does he say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Forget it. It was nothing”? Not at all. In fact, he takes sin so seriously that he sent his Son to die for it. Offering forgiveness never minimizes the seriousness of the offense.
The idea that it does has prevented many people from experiencing the freedom that forgiveness brings. If I believe that forgiveness requires me to act as if abuse, deceit, or adultery – offenses that may have turned my life upside-down – are something trivial, best ignored, I simply will not be able to forgive. But the truth is, trivial things don’t require forgiveness; sin does. Forgiveness isn’t – and needn’t – be offered for idiosyncrasies or foibles or personality conflicts. It is offered for sin. God won’t ignore sin. He takes it so seriously that he insists on forgiving it.
People who have suffered physical and sexual abuse as children often struggle with forgiveness right at this point. If forgiving one’s abuser implies that his or her sin was insignificant, then it can only mean that the victim’s life is also insignificant. But rather than implying that sin doesn’t matter, forgiveness insists that it matters very much.
Forgiving as he forgave us also means forgiving completely. Some people hold out forgiveness like a carrot on a stick or offer it a piece at a time so that they can be in control. But God forgave “all our sins” (Ps. 103:3). Some people use the possibility of forgiveness or the threat of unforgiveness as an instrument to manipulate another’s behavior. This is especially common with parents and their children, but it is always counterproductive. God does not act this way with us, and we must not act this way with others. Forgiveness cuts the chains of the past, it does not use them as marionette strings to control someone else’s behavior.
Does forgiving as God forgave also require us to forget? No, we cannot forget on demand, but we can refuse to remember. Clara Barton, the founder of The American Red Cross, was reminded of an offense, but didn’t seem to remember. Her friend said, “Sure you remember what she did to you!” But Clara responded, “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that!” It’s not that she couldn’t remember, but that she chose not to, which is just how God forgives us.