Have you ever wondered about these words Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us”? If you pray this prayer, inevitably it will lead you to ask yourself if there is someone you have not forgiven. Or perhaps you might think, “I don’t always forgive. Does that mean that I’m not forgiven?” The prayer may prompt us to ask, “Who have I forgiven so that I can ask God to forgive me?” But can we really compare the way we forgive to the way God forgives?
Most Bible scholars would say that the use of the word “Father” indicates that the person praying is a believer, one whose sins have already been forgiven because he trusted in Jesus’s death to pay for his sins. The prayer seems to imply that being forgiven leads a person to forgive others. So if you realize that there is a person you haven’t forgiven, it should at least lead you to ask if and how you have been impacted by God’s forgiveness.
The Link between Forgiven and Forgiving
Why does Jesus link the forgiveness we receive to the forgiveness we offer? Jesus is not saying that God will only forgive us if we forgive others. He is not saying, “If you forgive, you will be forgiven.” That would mean that we can “earn” God’s forgiveness by our good works, and the Bible makes it clear that this is not something we can do.
God’s forgiveness doesn’t come to us because of our own efforts to deserve it. Paul reminds us, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Also, Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” So Jesus is not saying that you will be forgiven because you forgive others. It is the other way around! Jesus is laying out a pattern: First we receive forgiveness from him and then we offer forgiveness to others. Jesus’ death to pay for our sins made it possible for us to be forgiven. The result is that, even as sinful people, we can also forgive others. That is why the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of both these things on a daily basis. We need to be forgiven. We need to forgive.
The everyday nature of receiving and giving forgiveness is as basic and essential as our daily need for food. Each day as we ask God, “Forgive us our sins,” we are admitting we are sinful and guilty. Sometimes we are guilty of the sin of not forgiving others, but the more we realize how much God has forgiven us and how he continues to forgive us, the more our hearts are softened over the things we might otherwise refuse to forgive. Forgiveness leads to forgiveness. So if you want to be able to forgive others, the first question to answer is, “Have I been forgiven?”
When We Don’t Want to Forgive–a Flashing Warning Light
Forgiveness is a crucial issue for us, but it can be difficult. When I realize (yet again!) that I don’t want to forgive someone who has hurt me despite the Father’s forgiveness of me, my own hard heart is revealed. My inability to forgive reveals that I have lost my connection to my heavenly Father’s forgiveness of me. Instead of living out of my great forgiveness in Jesus, I have put my faith in something else—my actions, my record, my reputation, an “eye for an eye” system in which I think I’ve got the upper hand and want my “rights” exercised. I want justice done to someone who has harmed me. I’m willing to trust that type of justice instead of (and at the expense of) God’s mercy.
The lack of forgiveness in our own lives should be like a flashing light saying, “Warning. You have lost the gospel of forgiveness freely granted and freely offered. You are choosing a ‘judge by your actions’ paradigm that you could not live up to yourself. Continuing to follow this path means rejecting the Savior who can save you.” This warning removes me from my self-appointed role as judge, convicts me of my sin, and again reminds me of my need for mercy, the amazing mercy I have already received.
At the same time, it is important to remember that, because of the foundation of the gospel and God’s enormous grace to us, he is incredibly patient with our heart struggles. He invites us to obey him without demanding that we follow a certain timetable. But he continually invites us to himself. He knows that we are dust, that our hearts are hard and stubborn, and so, as a gracious Father, he uses mercy as an invitation to repentance and change.
The good news is that the One who loved us and gave his life to ransom us from the kingdom of darkness offers us forgiveness. Ransom can be defined as “to deliver especially from sin or its penalty; to free from captivity or punishment by paying a price.” It cost God a great deal to ransom us! By contrast, living without receiving forgiveness from God or others and without offering forgiveness to others can trap us just as a prisoner or slave is held captive.
As followers of Christ, we are God’s beloved children and so, when our hearts become entangled and immobilized by not forgiving, he pursues us with the same kindness he offered when we came to faith in him. Paul says in Romans 2:4 that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” In this way, God makes forgiveness the foundation of our relationship with him and then asks us to forgive others. When we first come to know God through Jesus, we admit to God that we need forgiveness for sin. This humbling admission leads to joy and freedom. The burden of guilt and shame is lifted. And then we are free to offer others a taste of what we have received.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you received God’s forgiveness?
2. How has the forgiveness God freely offers you affected the way you think about forgiving others? If it hasn’t affected you, what might be blocking its impact?
3. Have you experienced forgiveness from others? If your answer is yes, list some things others have forgiven you for, both one-time events and repeated offenses. If your answer is no, what might be blocking your experience of being forgiven?
4. Have you had to forgive others? Describe a time when you forgave someone and its impact on your heart and the other person’s heart.
5. What are some ways that knowing how much God has forgiven you might change your perspective as you attempt to forgive others?
This post is an excerpt from Moving On: Beyond Forgive and Forget by Ruth Ann Batstone, a compassionate and nuanced exploration of what forgiveness is and is not.
Steve Childers, Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL; President, Pathway Learning says: “I know of no better book on forgiveness, either in print or out of print, than Moving On by Ruth Ann Batstone. Find the warm invitation to explore your heart and discover what lies underneath the pain of being unjustly wounded. Discover the path of forgiveness—not an easy sprint but one filled with unexpected obstacles. But the forgiveness path is filled with hope. On this path you’ll learn how your story of forgiveness fits with God’s story and how you can find in God’s forgiveness power to forgive more than you ever imagined possible. Discover a new power to love God and others more deeply. Batstone offers a rare combination of insights rooted in sound gospel theology and compassion born out of her own brokenness. She has the finely honed skills of a soul-care surgeon. Read it slowly and prayerfully, then pass it on.”