“Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…Luke 11:2-4 NLT
Jesus instructs us to ask our Father for forgiveness. We need this to become part of the daily routine of our interaction with our Heavenly Father. But the next part of the request seems to add a condition to our forgiveness. Why does Jesus want us to say this – as we forgive those who sin against us? We long for forgiveness, to be made clean, to be able to start again, to turn over a new leaf. But must our forgiveness be conditional on our forgiving?
There are two reasons I think Jesus includes this phrase into the prayer he taught his disciples to pray. The first is to remind us that our forgiveness is, indeed, conditional. Not that we can earn our forgiveness by our good deeds, but that we cannot expect undeserved favour – grace that is – if we refuse to forgive. Jesus taught about this in other places. Including it in this daily prayer is his way of reminding us of just how important this condition is. Our forgiveness of others who have “sinned against us” is part of his divine order for creating a better world. There appear to be three requirements for us to be forgiven: we need to acknowledge our need, we need to ask for forgiveness, and we need to forgive others. All three are necessary.
The opposite of forgiveness is unforgiveness, which is a sin that grips the world. As much as many of us find it difficult to admit our own sin, we on the other hand find it easy to identify the sin in others, especially when that sin is directed toward us. Unforgiveness leads to never ending conflict. Forgiveness is the only thing that breaks the cycle of sin leading to punishment and revenge, which creates a self perpetuating process.
The second reason that Jesus instructs us to include this phrase in our prayers is because it reminds us that just as our Father desperately wants a relationship with us, he also desperately wants us to live in the joy of relationship with each other. Unforgiveness destroys any hope of such a relationship.
We all like to think that if we love each other there will be no need for forgiveness. But anyone who has lived in close relationship with another human being knows that eventually we feel wronged, eventually we will be offended, hurt, disappointed, in the other. Unless we are willing to forgive, these things will eventually lead to the breakdown in our relationship.
The other day someone told me about a woman who had been wronged by her father when she was a child. This woman is now old herself and her father has been dead many years. She had said that she would never forgive her father: “I can never forgive him for what he did to me, how he treated me.” We can only imagine what sins he may have committed against her. She had been scarred for life and one could feel only sadness and compassion for her. Yet the woman she had become was not only the result of what her father had done, but also of how she had responded. She had decided to live in unforgiveness. This had affected her whole life, the very essence of who she was, and marked her ongoing relationships with others. She had become a bitter old woman.
It is easy to understand her reaction. After all, it was her father who had committed the sin, so why should he be let off? Justice demands that he be punished, not forgiven. But he is long dead and gone. Her unforgiveness of him is to this day having no effect on him, only on her. He may be punished for his sin in eternity. But she is suffering in the here and now. For she has become gripped by, possessed by, unforgiveness. The result is that her own suffering continues. The only way she can be free from that is to forgive him, the one thing she says she can never do.
We live in a world where loneliness is rampant. In the western world at least, more and more people live alone. More and more marriages end in divorce. More and more parents are alienated from their children. We seem to find it harder and harder to live together with other human beings. We are all desperate to be loved, but we find it harder and harder to love. The reason for all this is unforgiveness. Unforgiveness traps us in our hurt, imprisoned by the offense we feel, nursing our grievances toward others.
When Jesus said we need to forgive one another he was trying to help us understand what is needed for a happy life, a life of deep and satisfying relationships. The willingness and ability to forgive is the key to that. Unless we are willing to forgive those who have sinned against us, as unjust as that might seem, we will never be free to experience true love and true joy.