Forgive Us Our Trespasses, As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

A single pang of hunger will drive home the truth of our need for bread, our utter dependence on it. But when it comes to survival, our need for forgiveness (both received and given) is a bit less obvious. Certainly, I can not forgive and I can not ask for forgiveness and live. I can certainly exist and hold a grudge (I do that very well, in fact). But if what Jesus says is true and we must to lose our life in order to save it, then forgiveness becomes all important because it leads to death and life! Truth be told, this is a more radical and urgent need over than the need for bread: death leads to new life, true existence, and real humanity—bread, on the other hand, merely has to do with corporeal sustenance!

Forgiveness, specifically the first part of this clause, demands (!!) a death to self. Flat out. Period. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. The confession of our trespasses is the admission that we are wrong—and the old man, our pride, suffers a great blow in that confession, even a death blow. That is, our pre-confession self believes with all its strength that it is right–hubris is its very lifeblood–so when it is faced with the ‘truth’, this false existence suffocates and dies. When we confess, we say “Yes, you God” and also “No, not me.”

But this petition is not just “Forgive us…” but also, “As we forgive…” And I am sure this is of particular interest and concern! To be clear, although it may sound like God’s forgiveness is somehow contingent on our forgiveness of others, it isn’t.  God’s forgiveness is pure grace and independent of any merit on our part. But there is a contingency of great import: the latter part of the petition is completely dependent on the former: we forgive others because we have been forgiven.

 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:40-48)

Simply put: we forgive because we have been forgiven. When we forgive—as we have been forgiven—a new reality is born, a reality of liberation by word (a tangible event). Above, I mentioned that in forgiveness we suffer a death, and that is true. However, when we forgive those who have sinned against us, there are three deaths: the person being forgiven, the person granting the forgiveness and the relationship between the two of them. Subsequently, a new reality occurs, new life all around. The people and the relationship involved will never be the same again; they will be completely new, starting from a new point and on new ground. Recompense or vindication doesn’t acquit transgressions, but only forgiveness; reconciliation comes only by way of the word of forgiveness and not by punishment because it creates complete newness in all dimensions. Forgiveness is a real, actual event; when we forgive we in effect say, “I see what you did and still love you.”

For us to say “I forgive you” is to say “I love you.” Every relationship that we have (even with ourselves)—if it is to be true and full of vitality—depends on the act of forgiveness, the act of declaration that says “you are not defined by your deed, no longer imprisoned to that act”. We hurt each other—anyone alive can attest to this—and our activity towards each other, our ‘love’ toward each other, is forgiveness-shaped. God made us to be remembering creatures, but, specifically, remembering more what we have done and less what our neighbors have done—made to be creatures in awe of what God has done on our behalf, forgiven us of and to be compassionate and forgiving toward our neighbors as a result.A complete miracle. I’ll close with a few more wise words from Gerhard Ebeling:

Wherever one man forgives another, and were it even holy the imperfect beginnings of forgiveness, there a miracle happens—and that of course does not mean a piece of magic, but on the contrary it means the breaking of the spell, an act of liberating power which is God’s doing alone and in which we participate solely in faith, by surrendering ourselves to the miracle of forgiveness.