Forgive Us Our Sins As We Forgive Those Who Sin Against Us
We are now entering the home stretch in our series of eight sermons on eight consecutive Sundays in reflections about the Lukan version of The Lord's Prayer. Today we look at forgiveness as we hear the words, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
The first thing that struck me is that I am in trouble. Because it seems to me to say, that God will forgive me my sins only to the extent that I forgive others their sins against me. I am not as good at forgiveness of others as I hope God is with me. I would probably be more comfortable if the line went, "Forgive us our sins BETTER THAN we forgive those who sin against us."
Then I was reminded of something I was taught at seminary by a great theologian—a native of Meridian, Mississippi—the Rev. Albert T. Mollegen, or "Molly," as we all called him. One day in class he was answering a question about a particularly difficult passage from St. Matthew's Gospel, "…Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." We students were having a tough time imagining that Jesus had called us to be perfect, perfect just as God is perfect. Molly told us something that has helped me ever since. What is meant by this instruction about our lives is more clearly expressed this way: "Be perfect within your potential for perfection just as God is perfect within God's potential for perfection."
Now I know that I do not have the potential, in this life, for perfection. I am human, therefore imperfect. So the standard against which I need to measure myself is most certainly not God—we know that God IS perfect. The standard against which I should measure myself is, at best, my potential for excellence but never perfection. We all have the potential for excellence. It is when we think we can be perfect that we get into trouble.
When we are little children we tend to think our parents are perfect. They are, in fact, like God to us. I remember as a little child, after my father had died very young of a heart attack, praying The Lord's Prayer and thinking that the phrase, "Our Father, Who Art in Heaven" was all about my own Dad.
The problem with thinking that our parents are perfect is that we are bound to get let down, to be disappointed, until we are able to accept the fact that our folks are human beings—imperfect human beings—and we should love them as they are, not as we thought they were or wish they were. Accepting our folks as human beings is part of the process called growing up.
Another kind of trouble that comes from thinking we can be perfect is when we find we cannot forgive ourselves. You know you've heard it from others, and you may have heard it from yourself: "… I know that God forgives me, but I cannot forgive myself." I have always thought that that stance is a prideful one, but I have always had difficulty explaining why I think so.
Maybe this time I will get it right: If I say I cannot forgive myself (even though God, who is supposed to be the Boss, does forgive me), by what standard am I measuring what I have done? Am I saying, "Well, I am imperfect so what I did is understandable"? Or am I saying, in effect, "I have the capacity to be perfect, so what I did is unforgivable, no matter what anybody says"?
I believe that when we have been forgiven by others and/or by God, but feel that we cannot forgive ourselves, it is a prideful position to take. And I believe it comes from the inner conviction that we should be perfect and that, unlike other mortal beings, we have the capacity for that perfection. But we cannot be perfect. So we should forgive ourselves, learn from it, make restitution of one kind or another, and move on with our lives.
History is filled with the debris and destruction left behind where forgiveness is wanting: the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Irish and the English, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Pakistanis and the people of India. And perhaps most destructive of all, the millions of families down through time who have been estranged, even through times of dying and death, due to bitter hard-heartedness—a refusal to consider forgiveness or repentance.
Which brings us to another question: Does forgiveness require repentance or contrition? If I wrong you and refuse to recognize my wrong, even defend it, can you forgive me? Is it even appropriate or helpful for you to forgive me?
First, let me paint a word-picture for you. Remember the motion picture The Mission? In it one of the male leads goes around dragging a huge wooden or metal object behind him by a chain. He is, as long as he has that mighty weight slowing him down, unable to use his energy for much else, unable to run or dance or be free.
I think we can compare that with us when we go around dragging a grudge against someone else, or dragging a wrong we know we have done someone else but can't admit it, or when we go around dragging unnecessary and inappropriate guilt. We are sapped of spiritual energy; we are unable to dance the dance of life. And we are certainly not free.
So back to the question: Can/should you forgive me if I have wronged you but I am unrepentant, if I am anything but contrite? Yes, because if you don't forgive me we both are dragging those big awful weights around, but if you do forgive me in your heart, at least you will be free of life-deadening weight.
I believe that the reason that God is so forgiving is that God always knows what was in our hearts and minds when we did whatever it was we did that needed forgiveness. God understands our fears, our hurts, and the dark stuff in us that spawns our dark thoughts, words and actions. If we can try to understand what is going on in the person who wrongs us, or if we can believe they would not have done it or said it or whatever, had they not had some pain within themselves, then perhaps it will be easier for us to let go of whatever it is from which we have been withholding forgiveness.
Another major point about forgiveness: We cannot really forgive others until we can see ourselves as being potentially as sinful as the person sinning against us. Our sinfulness may take very different forms from what others do when they stray, but sin is sin. If I steal and you gossip, can I feel righteous because I have not gossiped? Another way to put that is: I need to know that I am a person in need of forgiveness if I am to be forgiving. There is something in scripture about taking the big plank out of our own eye before we make a critical comment about the speck in the eye of our neighbor.
A time came in my life when I realized that I was a sinner in need of forgiveness. A redeemed sinner, hopefully, a forgiven sinner but nevertheless one who could not point to the shortcomings of others and feel superior. That time was in another seminary class with another professor who taught us what is called "Pastoral Theology." We were studying a book called The Informed Heart.
It was about the years spent in a Nazi concentration camp by the author, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. I learned from his writings that in the Nazi camps there was something called a Capo, a prisoner who received an extra, often life-saving, daily ration of bread in exchange for his labor at the ovens. The Capo would help move prisoners to what they thought were showers but were really gas chambers, and then, after they were dead, the Capo would help carry bodies from there to the crematoria.
Reading about this lower-than-low behavior, I realized at the age of 33 that had I been in such a place I might very well have accepted the job of Capo in order to stay alive. For the first time in my life I realized that I could, under the right circumstances and pressures, do things as bad as any that had been done by others. I realized that I was a sinner in need of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not natural for us fallen human beings. We wish to hold on to the wrongness of others, contrasting it with what we would like to believe is the rightness of us.In forgiving, we become part of a cosmic drama in which God refuses to let sin have the last word in the way the world is moving. To forgive, then, breaks a natural cycle of retribution and vengeance, of which the world has already seen too much.
A good example of the interposition of forgiveness on a situation in which the natural inclination was for vengeance is the sermon preached by Billy Graham just days after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Speaking at a nationally broadcast memorial service, Dr. Graham preached forgiveness. He must have known that the crowd was in no state of mind to forgive, but he apparently felt that his Christian duty was to encourage the better angels of their nature.
This part of The Lord's Prayer, as with the entire prayer itself, is subversive of many societal values: materialism, violence, and individualism. In this part of the prayer about forgiveness, Christ is once again turning the world upside down by teaching us to pray for a forgiving heart rather than a vengeful one. Christ's way is nothing short of life-changing and Kingdom-making.
I close with these words, written at least three thousand years ago and eventually called Psalm 103:
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness
He will not always accuse us, neither will he keep his anger for ever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy upon those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he set our sins from us.
As a father has compassion on his children, so is the Lord merciful towards those who fear him.
—from The Common Worship Psalter
Copyright ©2002 Bill Kolb. This series was first presented at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN.