“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Often when I recite the Lord’s Prayer, I am troubled by the part about forgiveness. It almost sounds like we’re asking God to forgive us because we are forgiving of others and I honestly don’t find people reliably forgiving. If we are asking God to forgive us like we forgive others, we’re certainly not asking for enough. I need God to forgive me more than I am able to forgive others. I need God to forgive me more than I can forgive myself. I need for God constantly to forgive instead of every once in a while like I forgive. I don’t need God to do it like I do it. I need God to forgive much better than I can.
But occasionally I recite the prayer with a different thought. Instead of hearing the prayer as asking God to forgive us “like” we forgive, it works better for me to concentrate on the prayer as one of asking God to forgive us “while” we are forgiving others. That little shift in emphasis seems to open the door to a wider understanding of forgiveness.
While we are struggling to forgive ourselves and others, God is forgiving us all. When we are able finally to forgive ourselves or others, our hearts open wide to receive the gospel truth that we have been forgiven for all we have done and left undone, all that we will do or leave undone. When we do arrive at forgiveness, we quickly see that God’s grace and forgiveness of us is precisely what has brought us to be able to forgive. We realize we cannot give to others what we have not received ourselves. We feel, when we let go of a burden that has embittered us, a tremendous sense of freedom. We realize that, while we have been carrying that great weight, God let go of it long ago. We see, in that moment, that we have become more like God which is to be assured that God does not become like us in our unforgiving moments.
To ponder God’s forgiveness of us while we are seeking to be more forgiving also acknowledges more honestly that forgiveness is a difficult process which takes time, struggle, and involves a long lack of forgiveness prior to the breakthrough. It is that lack of forgiveness that haunts us. It aches inside us, calls out to us, gnaws at our gut, and leads us to say, “I can’t go on like this.” Our lack of forgiveness is the bottom we hit which leads us to ask for help and the desire to surrender our burden of hatred. Seeing just how hard-hearted we have become leads to a softening where we can experience grace more readily. It hurts us so much that we come to the place of realization: my lack of forgiveness is hurting me more than it is the person I haven’t forgiven.
Give thanks this day that God does not forgive us like we forgive others or ourselves. God forgives while we come to forgiveness, before we get there, while we surrender and let go of our burdens. And on the other side of that thin little veil we know God’s love for us so much more clearly. We wonder what took us so long. And we give thanks that God lives in the place of forgiveness so securely that he can wait patiently for us to arrive there ourselves.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.