“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As we spend a few moments today on this petition of the Lord’s prayer, I encourage you to think of a time when you have needed forgiveness from another person (we’re going to leave God to one side for the moment). And I want you to think about a time you have been asked to extend forgiveness to another person.
What did it feel like to need forgiveness?
What did it feel like to extend forgiveness?
What did you gain by being forgiven?
What did you give up by extending forgiveness to another?
Forgiveness is a difficult and emotionally heavy topic, which is interesting when you consider that everyone trespasses against others, all the time, and everyone is trespassed against by others, all the time. We all need to be forgiven and to forgive, whether you think about this in a religious framework or not. This is a human problem. It is not especially dependent on what you think about God.
But that process of forgiveness takes us to very vulnerable places in our lives. It brings us to places where we are emotionally exposed. So what are we even talking about? What are we asking for when we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
Forgiveness in the Scriptures starts with a specific loss or wound. It can be an injury to body or welfare. It can be a loss of reputation or honor in the community, such as slander or false witness. It can be a loss of relationship, a violation of the mutual requirements of family or between Israel and God. But it is always a specific harm.
And this harm produces a claim to retaliation or recompense. The Bible is very thorough on this. For a certain kind of harm, you make a certain appropriate restitution, which may be collected from you. The famous passage specifying an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life is a principle that limits the right of retaliation. “Only and eye for an eye.” If your neighbor, by malice or negligence, causes your eye to be put out, you can do the same to him. You can’t murder him.
The trespass creates a debt. Which is why in some versions of the Lord’s Prayer, today’s line is “forgive us our debts.”
So forgiveness means, first, that you release your claim to restitution, retaliation, or payment of a debt.
I have the right to collect something from you--literal or figurative payback. And instead I forgive you. And this is extremely intuitive if you’ve raised children. Their sense of justice depends on the ability to collect on a wrong done to them. This is a very human thing. So the Scriptures places some limits on this.
So in this prayer we are asking God to release us from the obligation to give satisfaction for our sins. We are asking God to give up his claim to compensation for the damage we do to our relationship with God. And in this prayer we connect God’s forgiveness with our own: Forgive us our trespasses, release our debts, eve as we forgive those who trespass against us.
This is hard, because as a society we don’t have a very clear idea of what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not simply indulgence, where we decide to let someone get away with something. It’s not looking the other way, where we just try to hide the truth from ourselves. It’s not living and letting live, cutting some slack, or giving anyone a break. It’s not tolerating or approving any behavior. Forgiveness is none of those things.
So maybe because we don’t have a clear idea of what forgiveness is or what it is for, as a society we tend toward unlimited punishment. Someone may be convicted of a crime and serve their penalty, but the fact of a criminal record becomes a permanent punishment, inhibiting their ability to get jobs and housing. We allow debt to accumulate without limit. A payday loan can accumulate interest and fees so that the debt may be paid over and over without ever being reduced. We even impose severe and unlimited penalties for saying inappropriate things on social media years in the past, in ways that have nothing to do with getting people to act better. And a lot of this comes from the fear that someone will get away with something. That someone will not pay enough. So to be on the safe side, better to make the punishment unending.
That is a very difficult world in which to understand forgiveness. To embrace or extend forgiveness. It’s a difficult world in which to even conceive of a God who wants to forgive, who wants to be asked to mend relationships, to release the claims of justice in favor of the work of mercy.
That’s why it’s important to remember that forgiveness starts with dropping a claim. It doesn’t require you to like someone or even to stop being angry at them. It certainly does not require you to put up with any toxic or dangerous behavior. It does not require you to be a doormat. And in my work I’ve seen people struggle with the feeling that they are not able to forgive someone because they are not able to feel a certain way toward the person who has wronged them. But forgiveness doesn’t require any of that. It just requires opening your hand to release your legitimate demand for satisfaction. The apology may never be coming. The check may never be in the mail. The exposure of the wrong may never happen in the way we want it to. But we are all dependent on that same mercy.
And so it’s very powerful that we pray this prayer every day, and that we ask God for forgiveness even as we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is hard to leave ourselves open to forgiveness--to say, in effect, I cannot pay, I cannot do what justice requires in this situation. I cannot restore your eye, or your brother’s life, or your health. I long to be restored and I wish this breach in our relationship to be repaired. And it is hard to hear these things, and to give that forgiveness in our turn. But here as in every other part of the prayer, here as in every other part of God’s promises, we participate in God’s economy of grace. God who longs always and only to give, and who would never take, even where justice permits it.