Forgive Our Trespasses

Decades ago I read a Russian story—by Tolstoy, I think—in which a very pious character said he was a terrible sinner. The details are now vague, but the author’s sense remains clear. Society ladies replied and said, you are wrong: you are a good person, lots of people are worse than you. You’re not a murderer, not an adulterer, not a thief (and so on). But the pious character replied: you are wrong, I am worse than a murderer.
    I thought at the time that this was so obviously false, the author must be exaggerating to make a point.
    I was wrong.
    Jesus simply assumes we have trespasses and that we go on trespassing; hence, every time we pray, we are to ask God to forgive us our trespasses. One could read the assumption on Jesus’ part as sober realism. No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much God does with us, we will remain sinners and we will keep on sinning. One could read this as an admission that there is no progress in the spiritual life.
    But there is an alternative reading. Perhaps spiritual progress is truly possible, that we can indeed get better (become, in a good sense of the word, more truly pious). But it turns out that the road is a lot longer than we ever expected.
    In a dream, you are a runner. You start out not very good; you pant and you tire and have to walk to get to the end. But you get better: your form is more efficient, your attitude is more helpful, your strength increases. And so you go to run the race again, and you start out feeling so good, but (as if the course were elastic) the distance is stretching, the race is much longer than you thought. You tire, you have to walk.
    The dream continues. You exercise more, you train better. You’re ready for the race. Again it starts well, again it turns out to be even longer than you thought, again you aren’t able to make it to the end.
    Something like that is the truth about our life.
    At the very moment we learn we are sinners we also learn that Jesus has loved us and has overcome our sins.Christians learn the bad news and the good news simultaneously. The prayer does not say “trespasses” before it says “forgive”: knowing that we can be forgiven is the condition that makes it possible for us to know we have trespasses.
    So the Christian life starts out with great good news, the relief that the terrible burden of sin is lifted from us, that our possibilities for flourishing and significance are as unbounded as the possibilities of God’s kingdom.
    But as we walk further in this life, with our true friend Jesus beside us, we come to realize things about ourselves that we had never before been aware of. We come to see that sin is not just on our surface, but like a weed it has dug its roots deep into our souls. We go deeper, we walk further, and we find more and more.
    It’s never bad news: whatever we discover about ourselves is forgiven as soon as we give it over to God. But my, the journey—the race—may be a lot longer than we thought. That’s okay: our friend Jesus is with us every step to encourage and strengthen us.
    He ran the whole race, even to the cross, and, with him, so can we.
    Out & About. Sunday, July 14, I am to preach at the traditional services at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas: 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.
    My sermon on Luke 9:51—Jesus “set his face” to Jerusalem, and some of the resonances of “face” in the Scriptures—will be posted here:


The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."