As We Forgive Our Debtors

Approximate 27 minutes.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to bring Jesus before your minds: Jesus, mocked and humiliated, tortured and beaten. He is paraded through city streets to Golgotha, where soldiers strip him naked, and nail his hands and feet to a cross. When the final nail is pounded, they raise the cross perpendicular to the earth, maneuver it expertly, and drop it with a thud into the hole prepared for it.

While they are doing this (stripping him naked, forcing him down onto the cross, driving the large spikes into his hands and feet) – while they are killing him – they hear him pray: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

We are often told that we should forgive because, if we don’t, our resentment will eat us alive; it will make us miserable. But Jesus did not forgive because he was worried about being miserable. He was not trying to rid himself of negative feelings. He extended forgiveness because those men were in desperate need of it. He forgave them because he is “the image of the invisible God,” and forgiveness is what that God does.

It is also what his people do. It is one of their chief identifying marks. They forgive people who do not deserve to be forgiven. Even though people hurt them, they genuinely desire what is best for them and, to the degree it is in their power, they give it.  

Forgiveness is an identifying mark of God’s people, but it is not branded on them like cattle; it is not stamped on them in a moment. The mark grows clearer as they spend time with Jesus and learn from him. It is also why the people who get closest to Jesus are the ones who act most like him. That is why people whose Christianity is impersonal and transactional – doctrine-focused rather than Christ-centered – never seem to be able to forgive. It is hard to overstate how relational and personal the Christian life is.

Though God is ever the initiator in that relationship, it is not one-sided. It flows back and forth like the point/counterpoint in a Bach concerto. God acts: that is point. We respond: that is counterpoint. And that becomes the soundtrack of our life. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him” (1 John 4:19) Point: “He laid down his life for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1).  Point: “Forgive us our debts.” Counterpoint: “As we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

When point is present without counterpoint – God acts but we don’t – the soundtrack of our lives loses its power. Our talk about God rings hollow. Our children and our friends tune out.

We are thinking about the Lord’s Prayer and particularly about the request, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Can you hear the point/ counterpoint in that? It is always present when forgiveness is extended. Jesus gives us numerous examples. “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” (Matthew 6:14-15). “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

St. Paul understood the point/counterpoint of forgiveness. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Our ability to forgive others depends on and plays off of God’s forgiveness of us, the way harmony depends on melody. Counterpoint does not exist in isolation. It derives its power from point. Just so, our forgiveness of others does not exist in isolation. It derives its power from God’s forgiveness of us.

Marcus Doe spent more than a decade dreaming of revenge. His father was a member of the Liberian Secret Service. When a coup removed the president from office, people calling themselves “freedom fighters” began killing the president’s men, including Marcus’s father. So, he made it his life goal to find the man who killed his dad and make him pay.

He came to America as an adolescent—an adolescent dreaming of revenge. As a young adult, Marcus turned to God during a time of personal crisis. He trusted Christ, and something in him began to change. He still wanted to find his father’s killer, but now he wanted to find him to forgive him. He even began to practice saying, “I forgive you.”

In 2010, he went back to Liberia to search for his father’s murderer and discovered that he had died in Liberia’s civil war. He forgave him anyway and began proclaiming forgiveness to the aggrieved and embittered people of Liberia. He told them that it is possible and that it comes from Jesus.[1]

Could you – would you – do what Marcus did? You would need God’s Spirit dwelling, and his character forming, in you. And along with that, you would need to believe rightly about God, about yourself, and about forgiveness.

Wrong beliefs prevent us from experiencing and extending forgiveness; they make it impossible. If, for example, we believe that God does not really want to forgive or that he will only forgive once or twice before he writes us off, we will be afraid to come to him, ashamed of asking him yet again.

Dane Ortland tells this parable: A compassionate doctor traveled deep into the jungle to provide medical care to a primitive tribe suffering from a contagious disease. He diagnosed the problem and had a helicopter drop off the medical supplies needed to treat it. But the sick would not come to him. They stuck to their traditional (and ineffective) healing methods. People continued to die. Finally, one brave person came to him, was healed, and people saw that the medicine works.

“What would the doctor feel?” Ortland asks. Joy. And that joy would increase with every person who came and was healed. That’s why he’d come.

Christ is like that doctor. “He does not get flustered and frustrated when we come to him for … forgiveness.” He wants us to come. He longs for us to come.[2]

We need to think rightly about God. He doesn’t need to be goaded into forgiveness. He wants to forgive. And he is good at it.

We also need to think rightly about ourselves. When someone sins against us – and all of us have been sinned against since our earliest years – something happens to us, happens in us. Sin, whether committed by us or against us, is disorienting. What I mean is that sin orients us away from God. It knocks us out of orbit. Instead of our lives circling around God, drawing strength and order and purpose from him, our lives begin to circle around our sins – the ones committed by us and against us.

Order then becomes disorder. The gravity that was intended to keep us in orbit around God keeps us in orbit around sin. When that sin is committed by us, that gravity can trap us in addiction. When that sin is committed against us, that gravity can trap us resentment. Apart from God’s intervention and the impartation of his Spirit, we will never have sufficient power to escape the gravity of our sins.

When we think rightly about ourselves, we know that we are not strong enough to rise above our sin – to forgive and be forgiven. Try as we may, we cannot achieve escape velocity from our sins – the ones we commit, and the ones committed against us.

We need to believe rightly about God and about ourselves, but we also need to believe rightly about forgiveness. When we don’t understand what it is, or think that it is something it is not, forgiveness will seem impossible. We must learn to recognize and renounce false ideas about forgiveness and replace them with truth.

What are some of the false ideas about forgiveness that keep us from receiving it and extending it to others? I will mention five.

First, many people confuse forgiving sin with excusing it. Let’s say that someone you know has been spreading rumors about you. Old friends have started avoiding you and won’t take your calls. When you confront the person, they deny doing anything wrong. You have been sinned against and you are hurt.

You know that God has instructed you to forgive, but you can’t do it. You think that to forgive them is to excuse what they did, to say that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s alright. But it does really matter, and you know it.

Forgiving and excusing are different things. We do not forgive people for things that don’t matter; we don’t need to. We forgive people for their sins – sins matter! I can excuse you and in fact, it is my moral duty to excuse you – if what you did is excusable. But there is no excuse for people who sin; there is only forgiveness—thank God there is forgiveness. Sin, whether we commit it against others or they commit it against us, is inexcusable—but not unforgivable.

If I think forgiving and excusing are the same thing, I won’t be able to forgive, for I will believe that means minimizing what has been done to me. But forgiving is not minimizing. When I forgive, I am calling what was done to me what it really is: sin.

Likewise, when I receive forgiveness from God or seek it from others, I am admitting that what I did was a sin. I am not asking to be excused, as if I didn’t really do anything wrong. I am admitting my guilt. I sinned! I am a sinner in need of forgiveness, not a decent guy in need of understanding.

Right here is where we see the connection between forgiving our debtors and being forgiven. People who want to be excused rather than forgiven downplay their own sins. They make excuses for themselves and blame others – but they won’t do that for the people who sin against them. They will not forgive, and they cannot be forgiven. They are trapped by the gravity of their sins.

A second misbelief about forgiveness, related to the first, is this: We think that some sins are forgivable while others are not. So, we forgive this minor wrongdoing but not that major one. We say of it, “I can never forgive that!”

Strictly speaking, we don’t need to. We don’t forgive the sin; we forgive the sinner. Forgiving the sinner never implies that what he did was okay. When God forgives us, he does not say, “This one’s no big deal.” Sin is a big deal, which is why sinners must be forgiven. So it is with us: we do not minimize the sin; we forgive the sinner.

A third misbelief about forgiveness is that forgiving means forgetting. This one has caused endless trouble to people. They tried to forgive. They thought they forgave. But then they woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what had been done to them. Or they saw the person who hurt them at the store, and a sudden surge of emotion ran through them. If they haven’t forgiven until they’ve forgotten, then they haven’t forgiven.

But forgiveness is not forgetting – not even for God. Someone will remind me of Hebrews 8:12 (which is itself a quote from Jeremiah 31:34): “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” We need to be careful here. God is not saying, “I can’t remember what they did.” God is not getting forgetful in his old age. He does not suffer from dementia. What he says is, “I will remember their sins no more.” That is a choice on God’s part.

It is also a choice on our part. It is not that we forget what was done to us but that we choose not to remember. We choose not to recall that person’s sin to use it against them – either in our own minds or with others. When it does come to mind, as it will for a while, we affirm our forgiveness and we move on.

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, was at an event with a friend when someone who had wronged her came into the room. Her friend saw the woman and brought up what she had done to Clara. Clara didn’t seem to remember, but her friend wouldn’t let it go. She kept talking about it and said, “You must remember what she did to you!” Finally, Clara replied: “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that.” She was not suffering amnesia. She was choosing to forgive.

A fourth misbelief is that genuine forgiveness relieves us of feelings of anger or hurt. We think, “If I had really forgiven, I would not feel this way.” But forgiveness is not a feeling – though it can change our feelings. Forgiveness is more like surgery than anesthesia. Forgiveness removes the problem, not the pain. It may even initially, like surgery, increase the pain. But once the problem is gone the pain will begin to diminish. Recovery takes time – after surgeries and after forgiveness.

When I forgive you, I do so before God and with God. I enter into an agreement, a covenant of forgiveness, in which I choose not to use your sin against you. I do not seek vengeance against you because of what you did to me. I refuse to hurt you by showing contempt to you, by talking badly of you to others, or by rehearsing your guilt to myself. I trust God to make right what happened and I do to you as I would have others do to me.

Another misbelief (this is number 5) that makes forgiveness hard comes from the false notion that forgiveness restores trust. Let’s say you lend me money with the understanding that I will pay you back next week. But next week comes and you don’t hear a word from me. Next month comes and goes, and many months after that, but I don’t pay you back. Let’s say you forgive me and write it off as a loss. You say, “I’ll just consider it a gift and move on.”

But what happens when I come back to you in two years and ask to borrow money again? If you really forgave me the first time, shouldn’t you trust me the second time? How can you say that you have forgiven me when you won’t lend me more money?

That is a small matter compared to what some people face. I have met women whose own fathers abused them as they were growing up. Some of them, as adults, have forgiven their father. But does that mean they must now trust him to be around them or to be around their kids?

It does not. Forgiveness and trust are two different things. Forgiveness is not and cannot be earned, but trust is earned. Because you have forgiven someone does not mean you must place yourself or others at risk of injury from them. It is always wise to forgive. It is not always wise to trust.

Let’s bring all this back to the Lord’s prayer. We pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and we have Jesus’s word that if we forgive others “when they sin against [us, our] heavenly Father will also forgive [us]. But if [we] do not forgive others their sins, [our] Father will not forgive [our] sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Now we’ve seen what forgiveness doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean excusing sin or saying that it’s no big deal. Forgiveness is not the absence of hurt or anger or distrust. It doesn’t mean that we forget what was done to us or put ourselves back in the place where we it can be done to us again.

Well, what does it mean? It means that before God and with his help, I choose not to use your sin against you. I will not harm you because of it. I will not seek revenge, either by talking badly about you, or going over and over your sin in my mind, or by avoiding you or by getting even. I will commit you to God and treat you as I would want to be treated if I were you.

That is how God treats us and how he wants to help us treat others. Doing so will bring us freedom and bring God glory. Is there someone God wants you to forgive? Will you obey him now?

[1] Marcus Doe, “Orphaned by War,” CT magazine (November, 2016), pp. 95-96

[2] Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Crossway, 2020), p. 36


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Faith, Peace with God, relationships, Sermons, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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