A Glorious Prayer
Posted by Ash Carter, 27 Mar 2018
The Lord's Prayer moves to the subject of forgiveness. Catch up with all our Lent series on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer here.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4).
Forgive us our Sins
Given how short the Lord’s Prayer is, and how very many great needs there are in the world, it would no doubt puzzle a worldly person that we are taught to pray about our sins.
But a moment’s reflection will show us that so much of the misery in the world is rooted in sin. Sometimes this is a matter of direct cause and effect as when, for example, an affair leads to broken marriages. But just as prevalent are the consequences of living in a world groaning under the curse of God (Romans 8:20). The brokenness of the world, in every respect, is a result of sin. Crime and natural disasters, disease and death. Sin is the great problem in the world.
And it is the great problem for us personally. As Jesus makes plain, that is true in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with others.
Once we have grasped something of the scale of the ‘sin problem’ we can begin to stagger in wonder at what Jesus does here. He commands us to pray, “Forgive us!” He invites us to expect God to forgive us.
Now, of course, we might be tempted to think that forgiving is what God does, like a benevolent uncle when you knock over his tea. If we think like this, then we will not grasp the glory of what Jesus is saying here.
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant. There is a King, who in the parable stands in for God, who calls in his debts. A servant comes before him who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, that already sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t really capture our imagination. The footnote in my Bible tells me that a talent was about 20 years’ wages for a day labourer. In new money, that is maybe £500,000. And this servant owes ten thousand of those! Here is a man who owes his king £5billion.
That is our state before God. Hopelessly in debt, and with no means of paying the debt. We are ruined, and the servant knows it. He cries out for mercy because that is all he can do.
That is our spiritual state before God. Our sin corrupts everything we are and do, and the degree of of failure to reach God’s standards is staggering. Just consider what has come before in the prayer: Do we hallow God’s name? Do we do on earth what is done in heaven? Seek first the Kingdom? Give thanks for all his daily provision? Hardly at all.
So all we can do is rely on the mercy of God. And Jesus teaches us to expect God to forgive us.
As we forgive those who sin against us
But this glorious prayer has a sting in the tail. To be forgiven people, to have our great debt before God cancelled through Christ’s death in our place, means that we must stand in a new relationship to others. Knowing the value of forgiveness, and how great our debt was, we should be willing to cancel the debt of others.
Indeed, the point is rather sharper: Jesus frames the prayer so that we actually ask God to apply to our forgiveness the degree of mercy that we ourselves use with others. It is a dangerous prayer, because it makes our forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others.
In this prayer, we ask God to only forgive us in the way that we forgive others. So if we hold the debts of others against them then we should expect God to do the same with us.
Jesus illustrates this in the parable of the unmerciful servant. Having had his £5bn debt cancelled, the servant goes out to find another servant. This servant owes him a considerable sum, about £20,000. I think it is deliberate that the debt is so large; in any ordinary situation we would expect him to pursue this debt.
But, having received so much clemency, so that he doesn’t need to find £5bn, surely he can forgive others such a relatively small amount?
Perhaps we need to pause before we pray this prayer again. We should ask whether we really want God to apply this to us? If in our hearts we refuse to forgive others, if the gall of bitterness has taken root and flourishes in our relationships, then this is a most dangerous prayer to pray.
That is not in any way to diminish the great harm that may have been done to us. Perhaps we had an abusive parent, a cheating spouse, a child who robbed us or any number of other, truly horrible, things done to us. I don’t think Jesus is dismissing these as small things. And God himself will be their judge, far better than we can.
But whatever has been done to us, we need to see that we have done far worse to God. To have lived our whole lives for ourselves, to have neglected him and his gifts, to have spoiled his world by our self-centredness.
In other words, this is a prayer that can only safely be prayed by one who has truly grasped the scale of their sin against God. Only by seeing the harm done by others in its proper comparison to the harm we have done to God, can we forgive others and so receive full pardon from God.
Of course, we will struggle to do this perfectly, and I don’t think Jesus is making our perfect forgiveness contingent on perfectly forgiving others. But the spirit has to be right.
In the parable, the king calls the servant back in and says to him, ‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ Then, he removes his forgiveness from this man and places him in prison.
Of course, this is an incomplete account of what happens when we are wronged and we haven’t space here to think about the need for repentance by those who have done wrong. But it would be wise for us to take seriously Jesus’ teaching, and to consider whether there are any people for whom we harbour bitterness, and an unforgiving spirit. If we do, we need to realise that it is ourselves most of all who are damaged by it.
Questions for reflection:
1. How does knowledge that you are forgiven by God help you to forgive other people?
2. Who do you struggle to forgive? Why?
3. Are there any active steps towards forgiving others that you need to take today?
Our Father in Heaven,
Give me grace to forgive others as you have first forgiven me. Help me to see the wonder and scale of your mercy to me, so that I may extend the same mercy to others. Lord, some people have hurt me, and I have held on to that bitterness too long. Help me to be at peace with all people, trusting that you will bring your justice in the end.
In Jesus’ name,
Ash Carter is the Assistant Minister at Christ Church, Earlsfield, and the Honorary Treasurer of Church Society.
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