3 ways to find grace and healing as we pray for forgiveness–for ourselves and others
When Jesus taught his followers to pray, He said to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Luke 11:4, NLT)
Notice that He linked our forgiveness from God with our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us,” he told us to pray, “as we forgive.”
As. That has to be the biggest two-letter word imaginable. Forgive us as we forgive. It can be taken several ways. And that may have been intentional on Jesus’ part. Because each of the possible meanings is instructive and potentially life-changing.
1) Pray to forgive willingly.
When Jesus says, “Pray like this…. Forgive us as we forgive,” he teaches us to pray graciously. He also teaches us that our forgiveness of others somehow activates the Father’s forgiveness of us.
The phrase can be taken to mean, “Forgive us in the same way we forgive others.” It can be understood as a suggestion that our forgiveness of others will set the tone for the Father’s forgiveness of us.
Jesus said as much. In Matthew’s account, after Jesus taught his model prayer to his first followers, he did what most rabbis would do—he offered a little commentary, rewinding things a bit and going back to the prayer for forgiveness:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15, ESV)
Wow. Jesus didn’t mince words. I don’t know how he could make it any clearer: Forgiveness is a big deal. And it’s a big deal not primarily because it’s bad for the people we can’t or won’t forgive; it’s a big deal because it’s bad for us. It’s a soul-eating infection. It will eat away at us from the inside out, and it will short-circuit our experience of forgiveness.
2) Pray to forgive fully.
The words, “Forgive us as we forgive,” may also be taken to mean, “Forgive us to the extent that we forgive others.” None of us wants partial forgiveness from God, so we pray for grace to forgive fully, because that is how God forgives—and what we need.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 has as its main character a “king” and one of his “servants” or “officials.” Jesus depicts that man as owing the king an enormous sum that he was unable to pay.
In those days, rather than filing for bankruptcy as we do now, it was common for a man and his family and possessions to be sold for such a debt. So the servant begged for patience and pleaded for time, and the king did more than give him an extension—he forgave the debt completely! The servant begged for a little mercy, but the king gave him immeasurable grace.
That is my story. Maybe it’s yours, too. I begged for mercy, and received grace. I bartered for help, and received the Helper. I asked for heart medicine and received a heart transplant.
Key to the ability to forgive is the grace to grasp the reality, the depth, the height, the extent of our own forgiveness, of how much and how completely we have been forgiven.
Unfortunately, we are too often like the man in Jesus’ parable, who went out, found someone who owed him a pittance and rather than forgiving as he had been forgiven, demanded immediate payment in full. Despite the incredible grace we have received, we withhold mercy, harbor a grudge and nurse bitterness in our heart toward someone who has hurt us.
We think that withholding forgiveness is going to make us feel better…even though we’ve been withholding forgiveness and yet we’re still miserable, still struggling, still flailing, still trying to move on, still trying to figure out why we can’t get better and even why we seem to be getting worse, as if something keeps eating away at our happiness and hope and spiritual strength.
But maybe, just maybe, if we can grasp the reality of our own forgiven-ness, and grant forgiveness to those who hurt us, we can actually move down the path toward healing. Maybe healing comes as we learn to pray, “Forgive us as we forgive.” And maybe forgiving fully opens the door to healing fully.
3) Pray to forgive constantly.
That little word, “as” in the prayer Jesus taught his followers can also be taken to mean “while.” That is, it can be taken to mean, “Forgive us while we are in the act of forgiving those who sin against us.”
When God forgives, it’s a done deal. When He forgives, He forgets. But for us, forgiveness is not so simple or so complete. Often, with us, forgiveness must be a daily decision. Jesus structured his model prayer to include the prayer for forgiveness in the same breath as prayer for daily bread. So, just as we pray for “daily” bread, we pray for “daily” forgiveness.
In other words, “forgive us today as we are forgiving today.”
You can choose—today—to grasp the reality of your own forgiven-ness, and extend that same mercy to whoever hurt you. You don’t have to feel like it. You don’t have to gin up any warm feelings for that person. But you can refuse not to retaliate today. You can wipe the slate clean today. You can forgive that debt today.
And as you do that, the forgiven-ness that accompanies your forgiveness will place a growing distance between you and the thing you’ve forgiven, like setting a toy boat into a flowing stream or river. Once you release the boat into the current, it will be taken farther and farther away until, some time in the future, you’ll lose sight of it.
And it will lose hold of you.
Excerpted from The Red Letter Prayer Life by Bob Hostetler (Barbour Books, 2015)