Today we are continuing to look at the section of the prayer where Jesus teaches us to say:
Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. – Luke 11:4 (NIV)
As I consider those words, I cannot help but think about the conditions I tend to put on the forgiveness I’m willing to offer. I am a person who can forgive rather quickly. I don’t think this is an overly saint-like quality because, in all honesty, I haven’t been hurt or betrayed in ways that have caused deep wounds as other people have, including some of you who are reading these words. There are times I do not feel qualified to talk about forgiveness because I feel I have been in greater need of asking forgiveness than granting it. That is part of the reason why I shared Corrie Ten Boom’s story yesterday. If she can forgive a Nazi prison guard, why can’t I forgive the person who lied to me, took advantage of me, or maligned me? Even though I haven’t had to forgive something major, I still have one condition: I expect to forgive a person who asks for my forgiveness. It’s even better if they feel terrible about it too. I want contrition and repentance. Don’t you?
In the words that Jesus teaches us to pray, He doesn’t put any condition on our forgiveness of others. We can certainly assume that He is talking about forgiving someone when they come and ask for it, just as we are asking for God to forgive our sins. But that is an assumption and an interpretation more than it is explicit in this text. Reread it.
The word that sticks out to me in this line of the prayer is the word “everyone.” Really? Everyone? I want to be like the expert in the law who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” when Jesus said that we should “love our neighbors as ourselves.” I want to ask Him who He has in mind when He says, “EVERYONE.” Clearly, He must be describing the “Everyone” who comes and asks for forgiveness. Certainly, that is the “every” that Jesus is describing in “everyone.” The only problem with that interpretation is that you end up turning “every” into “some,” and those terms are not the same. If I tell you that I tip my waiter every time or sometimes, do you think those mean something different? If you don’t, my waiter surely might!
Some people are not in a position to ask for our forgiveness. Others are dead and gone and can’t even ask. What are we supposed to do in that scenario? First thing first, forgiveness is more about your heart than about what someone else did wrong to you. It is work that you do. I came across an article that sums it up well.
Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.
Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.
As Christians, we do not forgive simply because it makes us feel better, although that certainly helps. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We get to forgive because Christ, in His love and mercy, extended forgiveness to us. It is what pleases God, and therefore, it is what makes us pleased as well. We get a double-benefit out of forgiving others.
And before you go and start making excuses that God requires us to ask for His forgiveness, so you should be able to hold out on forgiveness until it is asked of you, I would remind you of a significant event. It is found in Luke 23:34 when Jesus is being crucified. The Romans are carrying out this brutal execution. The criminals next to Jesus are mocking Him. The crowds are wishing Him dead and laughing at His agony. He is beaten, bruised, naked, and near death. And what does He say? “Father, make them say they are sorry so I can forgive them!” Nope. He says the three most powerful words: “Father Forgive Them.” What motivated those words? Christ’s love for EVERYONE! I need that same love to take up residence in my heart so that I can follow Christ’s example and be willing and able to forgive EVERYONE! How about you?