The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to pray. Not that it is the only way to pray, or that our prayers must cover all the bases of this prayer, but it teaches us much about Whom we are praying to and the language we can learn as we grow in our communication with Him.
There is often a bit of confusion and concern when we hit this clause of the prayer. At first glance, it seems to say, put another way, “We agree that if we do not extend forgiveness to others, that you withhold Your forgiveness from us.” Or, more simply, “Forgive us our sins because we forgive others.”
And indeed, we see some verses that, removed from context, seem to support this, even within the same chapter:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your father who is in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you your trespasses.Matthew 6:14-15
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your father who is in heaven forgive.Matthew 11:25-26
This is a grave warning that we ought to take seriously. But how does this reconcile with the truth that it is God who forgives us, that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation, that it is indeed His grace that enables us to truly forgive in the first place? What do we do when the thing we are asking forgiveness from God for is the sin of withholding forgiveness?
This verse and those quoted above must coincide with this:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.Ephesians 4:2
God has forgiven us, granting us the ability and placing on us the duty to forgive others. There cannot exist a Christian who does not show forgiveness to those who have wronged him (see Matthew 18:34-35).
So what are we to do with this as we pray?
First, realize the power of forgiveness and the severity of withholding it. Forgiveness is central to the Christian life and faith – it is the very foundation of the new identity as Child of God. These hard words of Jesus illustrate to us that we must fight our flesh to forgive others. The power of forgiveness is glorious and beautiful – we can and ought to wield it without reserve. We must pray fervently that this sin is fleshed out of our hearts whenever we see it rear its ugly head.
To put clearly: God forgives us every sin, including the sin of holding a grudge. But the mark of the Christian, the one who truly has the forgiveness of the Father, is that they do not hold this with joy or even apathy. There is no forgiveness for those who withhold forgiveness willingly. Truly, this is the sign of an unbelieving heart.
Secondly, remembering the order of salvation, that we love because God loves us (1 John 4:19), we can read this another way – a way that has been historically accepted and taught by the church.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When we forgive people by God’s enabling, we experience a godly exchange. Rather than reeling, experiencing wrath and judgment toward another in response to even the most atrocious of wrongs committed against us, we experience compassion, love in spite of sin, and desire for restoration. This is but a taste of the overwhelming forgiveness God gives and continues to offer us.
So, we read this clause more like this: “Forgive us our debts, as You have shown us in the way that we have been enabled and called to forgive others.”
By this word the Lord intended partly to comfort the weakness of our faith. For he has added this as a sign to assure us He has granted forgiveness of sins to us just as surely as we are aware of having forgiven others, provided our hearts have been emptied and purged of all hatred, envy, and vengeance.John Calvin
So as you pray the Lord’s prayer and walk the path of Christ, continually sacrifice your pride and forgive others, without hesitation. Do not give into the unbelieving way of holding a debt, for you have been forgiven much.
And as you forgive, recognize the infinite reality in that moment: that this love that fills your heart is infinitely surpassed by the love your heavenly Father has for you, even in your sin.