In recent posts, I've been exploring the Lord's Prayer as a template for daily prayer. I've procrastinating on today's topic because I feel very humble to even try to comment on the topic, forgiveness.
Matthew 6:9-13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
In my opinion, forgiveness is the foundation of Christianity. Everything else streams from this one concept. I have read many times that the singular biggest difference between Christianity and many other major world religions is the difference between guilt and shame. Christians primarily focus on sin and forgiveness while many others primarily focus on shame and honor. While this may be debatable, and a topic for another day, I think it does highlight what gives so many Christians such comfort: the knowledge of being forgiven by the only One who truly has that power.
I see this line in the Lord's Prayer, ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. as two different topics, asking forgiveness and giving forgiveness. So I will cover them in separate posts.
If you haven' thought a lot about this topic in a theoretical sense, forgiveness is so simple we see children do it from their earliest years on the playground. Someone gets hurt and he or she wants to see that the other person feels bad about it. Or someone accidentally hurts someone else and he or she feels bad; to feel better they say they are sorry and hope for forgiveness. It is interesting to note, however, that nothing physical or concrete was really made any better- it just made both parties feel better to participate in the exchange,
It is that simple, but it is also infinitely complex- literally stretching back to the begin of our shared story. We were one with God and then we decided to try things on our own apart from Him. For centuries, if we needed His forgiveness we had to try and bridge that gap between us with an imperfect sacrifice. It didn't make anything actually better, but as in the playground example above- both parties recognized that a token attempt had been made to mend the damage.
Then God fulfilled His age-old promise to make a way to permanently mend the gap so that we could all, once again, be one with God. He sent His Son to be with us as one of us. Jesus lived his life in the fallen world, but remained without sin so that he could be the final, complete sacrifice for all of our sins. All God asks in return is that we acknowledge that gift, ask for forgiveness, and then accept the forgiveness.
So, in the days that Jesus died and overcame death in the resurrection, He paid the full price for all sins for all time. You only have to acknowledge Him once for salvation, so why does Jesus include this line in the Lord's Prayer: ‘And forgive us our debts"
Because just like our daily bread, He wants to make sure we're keeping the conversation going. We still live in the fallen world and we're still committing sins as we go. If we bring them back to the cross each day, we remember Him, His sacrifice, and who we are in Him. The work was done by Him before we were ever born. Your salvation doesn't rely on you saying some magical incantation each day. But your relationship with God is just like all other relationships- it requires maintenance and interaction.
What to pray for?
It could be daunting and overwhelming to try and replay ever second of your day looking for infractions to confess to. That's not the point. This isn't a game that God set up to torture you. Part of becoming a Christian is inviting the Holy Spirit into your life. The Holy Spirit does a great job of communicating with you in ways you'll personally recognize, if you take the time to listen. He'll help bring to mind what to focus on in this part of your prayer.
One life-changing moment for me was at a college retreat when a speaker taught me the difference between guilt and conviction. Guilt is that feeling from the playground- you feel bad about something you can't truly fix. Guilt is erased by the grace of Jesus. He paid the price for your sin and you agreed to accept that grace from Him. That means- no more guilt. If you feel guilt it may mean that you haven't fully accepted the amazing gift Jesus gave, or it might be the devil whispering lies in your ear to make you feel bad about a debt that's no longer yours.
However, if you feel conviction in your heart, that is from the Holy Spirit- telling you that you have a sinful behavior in your heart, and you need to repent and head in the other direction. This is very different from guilt. This isn't trying to make you feel helpless and ashamed; this is drawing your attention to an improvement project God is ready to work on in your life- because He loves you and wants you to be your very best. In both the Old and New Testaments we find passages that the Spirit brings us a spirit of repentance. God doesn't expect you to be without sin instantaneously. He picks a project for you and helps you get better, through the gift from Jesus and the daily communication from his Spirit.
You quickly come to know the difference between guilt and conviction because one makes you feel bad because you're helpless to do anything about it, and the other makes you feel motivated and hopeful because you know the One who brought you out of the slavery of Egypt will make a way for you to the Promise Land. Asking for forgiveness each day is just one way to stay in touch with God on that journey.
As a side note: Different translations of the Bible use different words in this line: sin, debt, and trespass. I once had a friend describe the difference between these words, in this context, and now when I pray this line of the prayer, I include all three and think through each one separately as a means of searching my heart for any nooks or crannies where I may be storing a batch of rationalization or denial.
Here's one way to think about the three: (Warning: These are not biblical scholar definitions, just my own way of thinking about it)
- Sins: These are any "wrongs" at all. The term sin comes from the act of "missing the mark". These can include things you might not even think should be wrong, but biblically, you are missing the mark.
- Trespasses: These are thing you knew in your heart you shouldn't have done, but you willfully, intentionally did them anyway. This is willful act that you knew was wrong, but for some reason- what you wanted was worth more than following your conscience.
- Debts: These are exactly what they sound like- things you owe. Many times there is nothing we can do about a sin or even a trespass. The damage is done, the act is committed, and anything that needs to happen to make things better is out of your control. But sometimes, there are things left for us to do or pay. Not because we can add anything to work of Christ, but because we are given the opportunity to participate in God's renewal. You have to be really careful with this one. You can easily begin to think that you're working off your debt, and that you don't need Jesus. This can become a cancer in your faith and leave you trying to earn your grace- that's already been freely given. Just be grateful you get to participate in making the situation whole.
In tomorrow's post, we'll take a look at the opposite side of the coin. Giving forgiveness. Equally amazing, simple, and complex as accepting it is.