~ You Must Forgive ~
After Jesus provided His disciples with a model of prayer we now call "The Lord's Prayer," He emphasized the aspect of forgiveness, ongoing forgiveness as He later asserted to Peter ("Not seven times but seventy times seven"). Jesus gave us a blunt, matter of fact, stunning statement, "Unless you forgive others, your father in heaven will not forgive you."
On first hearing, it sounds like a tit-for-tat juvenile deal like, "If you don't share with your little brother, I won't share with you." That's too human and not what God is about.
Some may think, "This is hard. I'm so human. God can forgive more easily. After all, He is God and can do anything." But this is an apples and oranges comparison. A sin of, say, misusing one of God's gifts, is so monumental because of who He is and the pure love instilled in the gift. Any damage to our relationship with our Father is critically devastating since God is our All. Consequently the chief commandment is to love Him with all we have and all we are. In comparison, the case of someone who hurt us with the same sin is quite trivial. Consider the depth of forgiveness when Jesus, hanging on the cross, asked the Father to forgive His torturers and executioners.
Chapter 18 of Matthew's book records a parable about this contrast between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness. Jesus tells how a wealthy man loaned a huge sum of money to his servant, then mercifully forgave the debt, freeing the servant of all obligations. But later the servant had a man jailed for not repaying a tiny debt. The servant's master was outraged upon learning this, and withdrew his forgiveness.
The matter becomes more complex when we consider that a sin against another is a sin against God, as King David makes clear in his penitential psalm (51). Human forgiveness may be difficult because of the typical clutter attached to the pain of being violated. Intertwined in that pain may be resentment, indignation, anger, and a burning desire for "justice," which really means "getting even" or wanting the violator to "be taught a lesson." All these are ego-satisfying and self-centered, so we who have been violated tenaciously hold onto this clutter. Christ's mandate to deny ourselves and sacrifice all for Him is the narrow and difficult path that cannot be traveled without His Holy Spirit. But self-denial is a supreme gift. Resentment, indignation, anger, brooding, vindictiveness and pain destroy us, not the one who sins against us. Thus the "sacrifice" or mercy of forgiveness in denying ourselves that destructive baggage is liberating! Consequently, God forgives our flaws and sins and that is heavenly grace! We receive blessing on top of blessing.
However, let us delve more deeply into this mystery, where few seem to go, about why God withholds forgiveness. It has to do with the design of the spiritual realm. If an unforgiving person asks God for forgiveness of sin ("Create in me a new heart, O Lord") God is "stuck," so to speak. Unforgiveness and the clutter attached to it are sins in themselves. Asking God for forgiveness (or even asking another human) is not a matter of saying one is "sorry for what happened." Receiving forgiveness from God requires a repentance, a personal loathing of the sins, and a resolve to keep from sin (so we pray "keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil"). Thus we must ask God to forgive our sin of unforgiveness. But in order to do that, we must repent of that sin and forgive the others first.
Until then, God will not forgive our sins, not because He doesn't want to grace us with mercy, but rather because it can't work that way. How can we attain forgiveness for a sin (unforgiveness) that we intend to keep? We were taught to also pray, "Your will be done." So we must free God's willingness (and great desire) to forgive us by forgiving others.
We can now journey deeper
into this mystery and see clearly how prayer is intertwined with the ability
of God's will to be done. Saying, "Your will be done, please forgive me
of my sins" is a dead-end prayer that cannot be fulfilled when we have
no intention of repentance. So, God's will is hindered. That is why Jesus
put the tag-on of
"as we forgive those who have sinned against us," and later bringing our attention to it. It is absolutely necessary because that is the way the kingdom is designed. It frees God's will to manifest. Prayer is so vital to God's will that we are instructed to pray without stopping, in all things. Prayer is so vital that the Holy Spirit is assigned to pray with us, "with groanings that are beyond words or that cannot be uttered."
Furthermore, in the original Greek that "tag-on" of Christ's is rendered in the past tense: "Forgive us as we have forgiven others." So we proceed deeper into this wondrous mystery into greater clarity: We cannot even pray as Christ taught without first having forgiven others.
It seems that God challenges us beyond our ability, for forgiveness is so difficult when we are in deep pain. Remember though, Jesus noted that evil when He said, "You who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children. Don't you think God, your Father, can do much better if you ask?" So we ask our most loving Father to grace us with the spirit of a forgiving heart, as we truly want this for ourselves and for His sake as well.
As Jesus told us, His burdens then become indeed light as we are freed from the bondage of unforgiveness and its destructive clutter. Our prayers are clean, penetrating the heart of God's will and love. As James wrote, "The fervent prayers of the righteous are powerful." And we are made righteous by the grace of forgiveness, as we have already forgiven. We must worship "in Spirit and Truth," and "The Truth will set you free." The Christ is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
We enter the mystery of forgiveness with Christ's words, only to find Him again at its center. That's the way the awesome kingdom of God works! Don't you just love Him?
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © May 25, 2002
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