I believe in the forgiveness of sins. For me, it’s not just an article of the Creed to recite, it’s what I pin my hopes on to get through life. I count on this, but then I’m brought up short each time I recite the “Our Father” and pray the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It sounds as if Jesus is setting out a precondition for God’s forgiveness here. Is he telling us to pray that God should forgive us only insofar as we forgive others? If that’s the case, aren’t we all in trouble?
The great fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430) called praying that we might be forgiven as we forgive others the terrible petition — terrible, because, as he saw it, if we ourselves fail to forgive others, then we are praying that God not forgive us, as well! Who can honestly say, as the Gospel of Luke puts it, “we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us?” I know I’m not capable of such instant, across-the-board forgiving, and I don’t think many of us are. In some cases, when it comes to some people, it’s just not that easy to forgive.
I recall the struggles a recently divorced man shared with me about trying to be totally forgiving. “I can forgive what my wife did to hurt me over the years,” he said, “but how can I pardon what she’s done to our children? In so many ways, she has alienated them from me. Since we separated, it’s as if she undercuts my relationship with them at every turn. I may not be perfect, but I’ve been a darn good dad. I dearly love my kids, but it feels like I’m losing them! It’s so hard to forgive right now when I see the harm she’s doing to our innocent children!”
Jesus knew his followers well enough to understand how imperfect we are at forgiving each other. It just doesn’t make sense for him to teach that God’s mercy depends on our ability completely to forgive everyone who has hurt us. And he always taught that his Father’s will cannot be held hostage by what we do, or fail to do. So just what was Jesus getting at when he taught us to pray: “forgive us as we forgive one another”?
Another great fourth century theologian, John Chrysostom (349-407) provides the insight we need. Reflecting on this passage, he affirmed that God can and does forgive you without depending on your efforts to forgive others, but that God wants to do even more. God wants you to be empowered by his mercy with, not only a forgiven heart, but with a forgiving heart, as well. Knowing that God’s mercy sets you free from your failings, it’s as if you can’t help but offer forgiveness, as much as you’re able, to those who need your mercy.” God’s mercy invites you to live in the world as a “forgiven forgiver,” and provides you, as John Chrysostom beautifully put it, “innumerable occasions of gentleness and love . . . casting out what is brutish in you, and quenching wrath, and in all ways cementing you” through forgiveness to your brothers and sisters. (John Chrysostom Homily 19 on the Gospel of Matthew)
As Jesus saw it and taught us, mercy begets mercy; God’s forgiveness is meant to empower us to be God’s forgivers in the world. We mock God’s generosity when we accept forgiveness for ourselves but refuse to be merciful to others. How can we really expect to taste the power and fulness of God’s mercy, to be set free, consoled and renewed, if we ourselves remain unforgiving and consumed with bitterness, resentment and recrimination for someone else?
The biblical text itself is a reminder that when you forgive, it’s not just a gift you give to someone else, it also carries benefits for you who do this hard work of forgiving. The aramaic/Greek word Jesus used for ‘forgive,’ ἀφιέναι, has the root meaning ‘to release,’ ‘to let go of,’ ‘to throw off,’ ‘to let be.’ To forgive someone, then, is to let go of the burden of bitterness that weighs me down so. It is to be released from the acid of resentment that eats away at my soul. To forgive is to find the courage to let it be and find peace at last.
Now, it’s important to be clear that ‘to forgive’ does not at all mean to condone. Nowhere, not once in all scripture, are we expected simply to succumb and just go along with what is wrong. In fact, there is strong biblical warrant for us to stand up to evil, to resist and to oppose what is wrong, as Jesus himself did at every turn. We can and should forgive the wrongdoer even as we resist and oppose the wrong that is being done.
But this is no easy thing. It’s not so hard to say ‘I forgive you’ to someone who tells you they’re sorry for what they’ve done and resolves to do better. But what of those many people in our lives who refuse to admit that they’ve done anything wrong at all, who won’t take responsibility for the hurt they cause? Are we to forgive them?
The answer, according to Jesus is yes, we must try to do this difficult thing, to forgive those who have hurt us, whether they think they need it or not, whether we think they ‘deserve’ it or not!”. Jesus himself is our great model in this. He was always ready to forgive those who hurt him, even before they were able or willing to admit their offenses. The first words he spoke from the cross was a prayer for those who did not take responsibility for the pain and suffering they were inflicting: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”(Luke 23:34)
One model for this compassionate, not condoning, but forgiving spirit is found in Wendell Berry’s beautiful poem, “To My Mother.” Berry describes himself as her “rebellious son,” who always enjoyed her complete forgiveness, a forgiveness that was always already there for him. Whenever he went wrong, he was still, “safe found” within her love. How much this unqualified, loving forgiveness can bless someone! That’s what Jesus wants us to experience, first from God and then with each other.
But there is one thing more: Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is intended not just for us personally, but for us as members of the Christian community. Consider one more time the text: “When you pray, say: Father . . . forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Note how this prayer is intended to be prayed together with others: “forgive us, our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” — four community-oriented words in a single line! In fact, scholars have a word for this, identifying it as a “‘performative utterance,’ in which saying the prayer is also accomplishing the prayer, offering forgiveness to all with whom we pray. (Word & World, Vol. 16, no. 3 “Forgive Us as We Forgive,” Arland J. Hultgren, p. 289)
Jesus wants the community of his followers to be marked above all by the sign of their forgiveness for each other! That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer every time we gather in Christ’s name — not only to ask forgiveness, but to be forgivers of one another in this extraordinary, blessed community Christ calls us to. Wendell Berry concludes his poem suggesting that his mother’s loving forgiveness has given him a taste of that blessed community where “all is unentangled, and all is undismayed.”
To come to that place where “all is unentangled, and all is undismayed” — that is what it means to gather in Jesus’ name, to pray in Jesus’ spirit, and to live — as best we can — as God’s ‘forgiven forgivers.’
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2016