That ‘but’ relates to the line in the prayer referring to forgiveness: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. It has always worried me to think that in praying those words I might be praying for my own condemnation, because if God’s forgiveness of me is going to be a match for the forgiveness I offer others then without doubt I am in big, big trouble.
Jesus underlines the connection between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others elsewhere in the gospels. In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says, ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ In Mark 11:25 Jesus says, ‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’
I know God will forgive me if I truly repent (see for example 2 Chronicles 7:14), and I am entirely comfortable with that style of forgiveness: just me and God; no third parties. But I also know that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and so I have been prepared to tackle the issue of forgiving others.
It has been hard work, and until this week I thought I had made progress.
Using as a yardstick whether there is any lingering sense of hurt or judgement when I recall certain people or incidents, hand over heart I can claim to have pretty much forgiven some behaviours that today we would call workplace bullying. I have experienced this twice in my career, with very negative outcomes, taking on board the bullying as a sign that something was wrong with me and becoming very reserved in my relations with people as a result.
Having managed to get to the point where I was able to remain undisturbed when recalling some of the things done to me, and could even imagine myself smiling warmly at the perpetrators, I announced to myself, ‘By George, I think I’ve done it’! And it did feel good. I thought quite confidently that I could now safely navigate past remembrances without kitting myself out in the mental and emotional equivalent of kevlar protective gear, a crash helmet and safety boots.
My morning prayer routine usually includes the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. While meditating yet again on the line about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer I began to think about my newly achieved forgiveness of those bullies. I ran my mind over my memories, just to check there was no frisson of reaction. So far so good. Then I got to thinking about how – although I might have forgiven those people, although if I met them again I might actually smile and greet them and mean it when I inquired, ‘How are you?’ – I still could not imagine wanting to be in relationship with them.
A classic case of forgiving without forgetting.
Is that the kind of forgiveness I want from God? Absolutely not! I long for the kind of forgiveness that we are promised, the forgiveness that forgets (Isaiah 43:25), that puts our sin away as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). I was appalled at the thought of being forgiven but no longer able to experience close intimacy with God. Alive, but to all intents and purposes, dead.
I cried out, terrified, ‘What can I do?’, and the answer came immediately: ‘Stop thinking about yourself.’
I realised that I was working on forgiveness out of the perspective of my own pain. My focus was me. But Jesus invites us to love others for the simple reason that God loves them, and He shows us what it is like to love as God loves. If we want to align ourselves with God, we need to want what God wants and love what God loves.
I pray that as I focus on God, God in His grace gives me the gift to forgive.