As We Forgive Those
Earlier this year I had some posts on the Lord’s Prayer. The hard line is the one about trespasses, and we’re rather stuck there, it seems. It calls on us to acknowledge that we have trespasses, that sinning is something we do. Indeed, since we say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day—or at least every time we go to church (I can’t imagine a worship service that lacked it; Cranmer had it twice in the Eucharist, and it was also in Morning and Evening Prayer, so on a Sunday you’d be saying it four times). And every time, we are to say “our trespasses,” every time there are trespasses that we need God to forgive—which is to say, the prayer just assumes as a matter of course that we who pray it are going to be going on sinning.
That’s not exactly a cheerful thought.
Its severity is mitigated, however, by the thought that this is a prayer that Jesus taught us to say. And Jesus has no trespasses, doesn’t have any now, never had any, never will. Does Jesus pray his own prayer? If he does, what does it mean for him to ask “Our Father” to forgive his trespasses?
It seems to mean one thing: that Jesus is always in solidarity with us. He prays right alongside us. You never say this prayer alone. When you say “our” Father, you’re not (only) putting yourself alongside all other Christians, you are also right there alongside Jesus.
Every prayer, in fact, is glued onto Jesus’ being. We can’t pray alone. Even in the proverbial closet, in those secret prayers that no one around us knows about—even there, we are not alone. When we confess our most secret sins, Jesus is right beside us, saying the words with us, taking our selves upon himself.
But it doesn’t stop there. We ask for forgiveness, “as we forgive those”—those who? Those other folks. You know. The bad ones. The ones we don’t want. The ones who “have trespassed against us.”
Here the prayer opens a door upon a healthy realism. There really are people who have sinned against us. A sin, of course, is not a mistake, an act done in ignorance; it is an offense, a harm of some sort, intended and brought upon us. This is the realism that at least some of the things that may have offended us really were offenses.
So, realism, not denial. And then, the healthy response: forgiveness. We really have been offended and we really need to forgive. In the prayer, Jesus tells us to say that we have, or at least, to ask God to forgive us “as” we have forgiven.
Should we despair? Who has really forgiven, in the way we want to be forgiven, in a godly way? And if we haven’t forgiven, does that mean that, in the prayer, we are not asking God to forgive us?
I will write next week about what forgiveness is. But here is a hopeful thought. If we fail to forgive, that itself is a trespass. And so when we say the prayer, we are asking forgiveness for it also! It’s something like this: “Forgive us our trespasses, including our failure to forgive those who have trespassed against us!” And the second half is then something like, “as we forgive those who have failed to forgive us for our trespasses against them!”
It is precisely to save us from such unavoidable circularity that God has decisively cut through the mess of the world in Christ Jesus.
Out & About. My lecture on Ruth—with focus on what it says about the need to be married (and what that means for kinship, loyalty, and human flourishing today)—is, at least for now, available here.
I am to preach at All Souls’ in Oklahoma City on Sunday, November 3, and to teach classes on Ruth and “Christian anthropology” over the ensuing three days.
The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be on The Warden by Anthony Trollope, an absolute gem of a small novel, set in the 19th century fictional diocese of Barchester in the Church of England. If you have never read Trollope, you’ll find his prose to be delicious like Viennese whipped cream, but capable of heart-stabbing insight. In Dallas, at Church of the Incarnation, 6 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17.