Jesus teaches us to connect our request for divine forgiveness with a strong statement of our own forgiving of those who have wronged us: “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (11:4). This imperative could be translated more literally, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (ESV).
During my years as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I helped my congregation wrestle with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Sometimes, after I had preached about the command to forgive others, a member of my church would make an appointment to meet with me. In the safety of my office, I would hear horror stories about wrongs that people had experienced. Often these accounts involved physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by their parents when they were children.
After laying out a heart-wrenching story, a tearful man or woman would look at me and ask, “How can you expect me to forgive someone like that? How can God expect me to forgive?”
In times like these, I often felt inadequate as a pastor. After all, I had never experienced the things I heard about. Yet, I knew that my job was not to offer just my own wisdom or experience, but to speak the truth in love, sharing God’s wisdom as graciously as I was able. So, I’d begin by acknowledging the pain in a person’s life and how awful it must have been for him or her to suffer such terrible things. I’d admit that I could only begin to imagine how difficult it must be to forgive in such a situation.
How can I forgive?
Then I’d point to Jesus. I’d point to the cross and to Jesus’ experience of both physical torture and extreme rejection. If anyone in the universe can understand what an abused person feels, it is Jesus. And it is Jesus who calls us to forgive those who have wronged us. Yet he offers, not just a command, but also healing and help. Jesus alone can enable us to forgive the one who seems to be unforgivable. Moreover, and most important of all, it is the forgiveness we receive through Jesus that empowers us to forgive others. The more we internalize the reality that God has forgiven us, the more we are able to forgive those who have wronged us.
Forgiveness of this kind does not usually happen quickly. Nor is it saying “That’s okay” or “I understand” or “No problem.” On the contrary, forgiveness assumes that a genuine wrong has been committed. It doesn’t minimize either the wrong or the painful results. Rather, forgiveness says, “Though I was truly wronged, I will not allow that wrong to rule my life. Though I was deeply hurt, I will not allow the hurt to harden my heart. Instead, I will release the wrong. I will give it over to the Lord.”
Forgiveness, when matched with genuine repentance by the offending party, can lead to reconciliation. But, sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible in this life. Nevertheless, when we forgive, we allow the Lord to touch our hearts. We invite him to heal us more deeply. We take down the barriers between ourselves and others, so that we might enjoy deeper and more loving relationships. We let the love and grace of God pervade our lives, so that we might live more fully as forgiven, whole people.
Is there a person in your life whom you have a hard time forgiving? Why might God want you to forgive that person? Have you asked for God’s help? Have you shared your struggle to forgive with a wise, caring Christian who can support you and pray for you?
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the forgiveness you offer through Christ. Thank you for the riches of your grace, by which we are forgiven beyond measure. Thank you for allowing us to experience the joy and freedom of forgiveness as we confess our sin to you and ask you to forgive us. And thank you for the way our experience of being forgiven by you enables us to forgive others.
But, as you know, sometimes it is very hard to forgive. Sometimes the wrongs are so pernicious and the wounds so painful that forgiveness seems impossible. Your call to forgive is clear, but we feel inadequate to live up to it. Or sometimes we don’t even want to.
So, gracious God, we ask for your help. May our experience of your grace both heal and transform us. May it give us courage to forgive even when we have been terribly wronged.
Today, I pray especially for those who are struggling to forgive. Open their hearts to your loving presence. Impress upon them the majesty of your mercy. Help them to trust you even to the point of forgiving those who have hurt them so deeply.
All praise be to you, God of grace and mercy, God of healing and reconciliation. Amen.
Note: This reflection was originally published in 2013.