Jesus has let us in on one of the most profound secrets to liberated living: our willingness to forgive others the wrongs they’ve done to us.
Exploring our ability to accept forgiveness and its dynamics involves at least two major factors:
1. Our ability to forgive is in direct proportion to our acknowledgement that we’re debtors too. We’re not perfect. We’ve failed many times. We’ve hurt others. We’ve compiled debts in our lives, just like everyone else. We’re no better than anyone else. Until we first admit this human reality in ourselves, we’re not in a position to expect the forgiveness of others.
Here’s how that works. Going back to the story Jesus told about the debt referred to in an earlier reading (Matthew 18:22-34), when the king confronts the servant with his incalculable debt, the servant’s immediate response is, “Give me more time. I can pay it back.” Didn’t he see that his debt was too huge for him ever to repay?
Did he really think he could extend his life for another 190,000 years? Or did he simply have the worldview that you get only what you deserve? That there’s no such thing as a free lunch? That you work for everything? So his automatic response was, “I can do this! I could pay off my debt if I just had more time. So give me more time and I’ll clear it all up!”
This paradigm of life doesn’t acknowledge the existence of grace. It simply operates on the “payback” system. Do your work, and you will be rewarded. No work, no reward. And so, since that is what you expect from yourself, that is what you expect from others. Hence, the servant, who thought his debt was graciously cancelled by the king, still operated under the “I can pay you back” paradigm. When he came across his indebted colleague, rather than canceling his debt, he threw his colleague into jail. No grace, no forgiveness. You get only what you deserve, what you are willing to work for.
So, at the heart of Jesus’ model prayer is an acknowledgement of a very significant spiritual reality: “ ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ ” (Matt. 6:12, NKJV). It begins with confession of our own indebtedness—that we’re no better than anyone else; that we’re in debt to others and to God too. It includes the idea that the only way we have hope is through grace, a kindness toward us that we could never deserve but only accept—forgiveness of our debts that can never be repaid, no matter how many extra years are added to our lives.
Living in that truth empowers us to live in humility—a humble recognition of our own humanity, our own frailness and brokenness, our own need of grace and kindness and acceptance beyond our ability to repay our debts or to work out our sins and failures against God, others, and ourselves.
2. Living in this truth empowers us to forgive others. As the four-year-old prayed: “Forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.” Not a bad paraphrase! But certainly difficult to do sometimes, isn’t it? Time magazine some years ago told about a Sarajevo man named Pipo. He was a restaurant partner with a Muslim man. They were good friends—until Pipo’s mother was jailed and beaten by Muslims.
“When she got out,” Pipo recalled, “she wouldn’t talk about it. That’s when I picked up a gun and began shooting Muslims. I hate them all!” So Pipo vowed to live his life in revenge and hate against any Muslims he could find. He became a sniper, and through the years shot and killed 325 people. But the more he killed, the less free he felt. It took a toll. “All I know how to do is kill,” he told a reporter. “I’m not sure I’m normal anymore. I can talk to people, but if someone pushes me, I’ll kill them. In the beginning I was able to put fear aside, and it was good. Then with the killings I was able to put my emotions aside, and it was good. But now they’re gone. I have no feelings anymore. I went to see my mother in Belgrade, and she hugged me, and I felt nothing. I have no life anymore. I go from day to day, but nothing means anything. I don’t want a wife and children. I don’t want to think.”
Straight talk from a person who has chained himself to the past, who refuses to let go. Now he has nothing. Even the feelings of hate that empowered and compelled him are gone and he’s simply become a robot who breathes and walks and shoots. He has imprisoned himself.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” Jesus is letting us in on one of the most profound secrets to liberated living: our willingness to forgive others the wrongs they’ve done to us. We must become willing to no longer demand payment from them. As we did with our own sins and shortcomings and failures we do with theirs—we take them to God and let them be cancelled by God’s compassion and love. We let them go. And by doing this, we liberate ourselves from our own prison of anger, resentment, hate, and bitterness.*