Updated: Mar 22, 2021
We come to what might be the hardest part of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
This is the only part of the prayer that Jesus adds a follow up comment. After giving the prayer he adds this teaching, “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.” (6:14,15) Jesus emphasizes the importance of forgiveness.
Sometimes we hear people pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Different traditions in the Christian family say it differently. Why?
In Matthew 6:12, the word is “debts”. A debt is to owe something. A debt before God is not doing what we should have done. It is not being what we should have been. Sometimes sin is not what we do, it’s what we don’t do. Some people think being moral or good is defined but what we don’t do. We don’t get drunk, don’t steal, don’t hurt other people and therefore we are good. But God wants us to do good, show love, serve others, and bring the life of Jesus to others. We don’t always do that.
But in vv. 14,15 the word is “trespasses”. The New International Version of the Bible reads “sin against” but the word is really “trespasses.” We see signs, “Do Not Trespass.” To trespass is to go where we should not have gone. When we trespass we go where God did not want us to go, and when we are trespassed someone has done wrong to us. You might say they went onto our land when they were not welcome. They got in our lane. They offended us.
We can pray “forgive us our trespasses” or “forgive us our sins” and that is fine. However, “forgive us our debts” is the most literal way of praying what Jesus said. Different traditions have latched on to one or the other.
What makes this part of the Lord’s Prayer so difficult is that we ask God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others. In other words, we are asking God not to forgive us if we have not forgiven others.
Another time Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive that one, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
We love to be forgiven by God. We love that parable of the prodigal. We can always return to God. Are we as enthusiastic about forgiving those who wound us? We want to receive forgiveness but not always give forgiveness. And that is an issue with the Lord.
Think about this, when you pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to forgive us in the same manner we forgive others; if we have not extended forgiveness to the other, we are, in essence, praying a curse upon ourselves. “Father, I have not forgiven them so don’t forgive me.”
With this part of the Lord’s Prayer, the forgiveness we give is the forgiveness we get.
Forgiveness is hard.
Asking for forgiveness is a hard because it means we have to admit that we have done wrong. We have caused hurt and pain and need to ask for forgiveness. And that is where our pride and humility collide.
Giving forgiveness is hard because it assumes we have been wronged and hurt, and no one likes being wronged. Forgiveness is hard because it means we have to extend mercy to the one who caused us pain.
In order to ask the Father for forgiveness we have to first of all really believe we are in the wrong. We have to honestly admit that we have sinned against God. That is hard for a lot of us because we may not think we are sinful. We see ourselves as basically good people, although the qualifier “basically” is a hint to what might be going on deeper in our hearts.
All those people in the news are the bad ones. But we are pretty good. I mean, we go to church, right?
Well, I can always come out smelling better when I compare myself to someone else. But I smell absolutely rotten when I measure myself by God’s standards.
Have you ever been rude? Ever been proud? Ever said an insulting or hurtful word? Ever had an impure thought? Ever been even slightly dishonest to someone? Have you been perfect? Have you always shown complete love? No one has.
If we honestly come to our Father and say, “I make no excuses. I have failed and often have not been the person you want me to be” the promise is that God will forgive us.
But if we only make excuses, justify ourselves, or buy into our own press about how blameless we are, we are really alienating ourselves from God, even calling him a liar because all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Sometimes I need to pray, “Lord, show me my own sin” because there are probably things I have done that I am not even aware of. Sin runs deep.
If you really don’t think you are a debtor before the Father and owe him nothing, don’t waste your breath praying this prayer. But if you do, then pray for the Father’s forgiveness.
This part of the prayer is hard but it is also a gift because it claims the reality that we can and will be forgiven. Whatever we have done, whatever burdens our conscience, whatever plagues us, can be wiped away. No push ups, no staying after school, no 50 Hail Mary’s. God erases and forgives the debt.
But Jesus does say that being forgiven hinges on our forgiving others. If we aren’t willing to forgive those who have wronged us, then the Father will not forgive us.
Paul writes to the Colossians and instructs them to bear with one another and forgive whatever issues you have with one another. “Forgive as the Lord forgives you.” As the Lord forgives you…
If the Lord has forgiven us of everything, then where does that put us in terms of our forgiving others?
Let’s make sure we understand what forgiveness is. I’d like to help us do that by understanding what forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not easy. No one says it is easy to forgive someone who has wronged us. It is hard mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It takes lots of energy, effort, and struggle. It might take prayer, counseling, venting rage, working up nerve and courage. Many times we can’t “just forgive”, and the larger and more horrendous the hurt against us, the harder it is to forgive.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. You’ve heard the phrase, “forgive and forget”. What a bunch of “hooey.” We will never forget what was done to us. “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory.” But when we forgive we remember in a new way, and the memory no longer controls us.
Forgiveness is not instantaneous. It takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. And I think God knows the struggle and time we need to forgive.
In fact, some people would say that to forgive too quickly isn’t really forgiveness. Is the father of a child who has been shot and killed in a random shooting, and tells the TV cameras an hour or two later that he has forgiven the gunman, really forgiving? Has he really come to know the pain and anger of what has happened?
Now, if what needs to be forgiven is just a casual but hurtful offhand remark, that can be forgiven rather quickly. We need to get over those common, petty offenses. If someone unfriended you on Facebook and you are torqued, get over it and pretty quick. Petty hurts should not be nurtured. But many things we suffer can’t be forgiven overnight.
Forgiveness is not saying “it’s all right” or ignoring the wrong. In fact, forgiveness assumes real wrong was done. When we forgive we are not rubber-stamping or erasing what happened. The wrong was real and is acknowledged as such.
Forgiveness is not about staying in hurtful situations, or necessarily coming back together. A woman being abused by her husband should not stay with him, even if he continues to say he is sorry. Just because we forgive a person doesn’t mean we need to remain in relationship with them. Maybe there can be reconciliation, but maybe not. Distance may be the best and healthiest thing.
Forgiveness is not about fairness. When we are hurt we want justice or even revenge. But even justice or revenge cannot reverse the wrong. Hitting back can’t change the pain and hurt of the past.
It is not about fairness, but about mercy. It is not about hate, but about love. Forgiveness helps us move forward. It breaks the cycle of suffering, resentment and bitterness. It frees us to live and go on. The wrong is still wrong. But we move ahead.
As long as we don’t forgive, the offender and the offense have power over us.
Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily clean up all the mess. We may still have hurt feelings and bad memories. But we will know we have forgiven when we do not want to see harm come to the offender. We may not have any deep love for them, but we aren’t interested in seeing them destroyed.
Forgiving others grows us. It enlarges our hearts so that we grow in love and mercy in ways we didn’t imagine we could. Forgiveness breeds new strength. Forgiveness unburdens our souls.
There are unspeakable wrongs that have been done to people.
There are spouses who were unfaithful to us,
parents who abused or neglected us,
employers who cheated us and devalued us,
strangers who stole from or violated us,
others who hit us, insulted us, or did violent things to those who were the absolute dearest to us.
Jesus knows the struggle to forgive. And when it is hard let’s ask him to give us the grace to help us get to that place.
When we forgive we imitate God. “Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you.” We embody his mercy and love. He came into this world in Christ to make forgiveness possible.
When we forgive we acknowledge that being on good terms and in relationship with our heavenly Father is more important than our hurt. When we forgive we honor what the Father requires from us.
How can I forgive what that person did to me? There is no formula. Every wrong is different. Every person who was wronged has a different capacity to forgive, depending on their maturity, faith and strength. And what effects one person severely may effect another person much less severely. There are different wounds, different people, different circumstances.
But one vital key to all forgiveness is knowing how much we’ve been forgiven. Again, it goes back to our debts and sins before the Father.
When I realize how much the Father has forgiven me, my heart begins to soften in mercy toward those who have wronged me. When I stand at the foot of the cross and see Jesus hanging there for
…my lack of faith,
…a lot of things look different.
No, I haven’t done a lot of things maybe other people have done. But what I’ve done is wrong enough.
And so we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” because we owe the Father. We owe him our lives, but he gave the life of his Son instead.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of our Christian faith and relationship with our Father. Which is probably why the Lord Jesus Christ put specials emphasis on it.
Now that you know what this part of the prayer is about, be careful what you pray for.
Lord, help us to give the forgiveness to others that we want from you. And where that is hard, give us your grace. Amen.
 Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving, p.171