Each Sunday, Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet like many of the recitations we memorize and repeat, especially those that proclaim what we believe, reciting the Lord’s Prayer can become a somewhat inattentive practice.
This does not mean that we should end this important part of worship. Rather, it means that we must become more conscious of what we are praying when we pray the prayer Jesus gave his followers to pray.
But being conscious of what we are praying when we recite the model prayer means that we realize we are not simply casting a wish list before God as if something magical will happen. Instead, praying the Lord’s Prayer is an act through which we are confessing what we believe about the gospel and how we are committing ourselves to living that gospel.
There are several lines within the prayer that deserve our attention, but perhaps the one that is most troubling for many of us is the portion in which we not only ask God to forgive us, but more seriously, we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is comforting to believe that God forgives us, and many of us would have wanted Jesus to leave it at that. But to confess that we must also forgive others is uncomfortable, especially when we think about what that really means.
The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” might be viewed as a stronger term than Luke’s “sins,” although they are essentially making the same basic point. Yet in Matthew’s account, the statement expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.
Yet we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before, or at least simultaneous to, our seeking God’s forgiveness.
The serious question for us, then, is what does it mean to forgive our debtors, those who sin against us? It means that we must not only forgive those who sin against us in minor ways, but perhaps more importantly, we must also forgive those who commit the most horrendous acts against us. In forgiving others who sin against us, we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. If God’s forgiveness has no limits, then the forgiveness we must offer to others should have no boundaries.
Why does this part of Jesus’ prayer seem so difficult for us? The simple answer is that when we are wronged it is our human nature to seek punishment and even revenge. We rightly desire justice, but we wrongly assume that justice is better served through vengeance and punishment. From our perspectives, we view justice as making someone pay for what they have done.
But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. By commanding us to forgive, Jesus was calling us to wield the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends. Moreover, Jesus understood that to forgive someone, especially to forgive them of a heinous action, is to free one’s self from the debilitating power of hatred and revenge.
This kind of forgiveness seeks the justice that is centered in the gospel of grace. It is not justice that seeks to make the other pay for their sins. Rather, it is justice that forgives them of their sins, thereby offering freedom to both the perpetrator and the victim. It is restorative justice.
Many of us are aware of what took place in the African country of Rwanda in 1994. Tribal clashes between Hutus and Tutsis led to the genocidal killings of almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days. Armed mostly with machetes, the killers ravaged villages, killing any Tutsis or moderate Hutu without regard to age or gender. In fact, many of those who killed took the lives of those who were once their neighbors and their friends.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, the perpetrators were imprisoned for their crimes. Yet due to the overwhelming backlog of court cases, in 2003 the government of Rwanda began releasing those prisoners who confessed their crimes. Instead of seeking justice through punitive actions, Rwanda set itself on a path of reconciliation and restoration, with the liberating power of forgiveness as the force behind restorative justice.
The documentary, “As We Forgive,” tells the story of Rwanda’s tragic past, but more importantly shows the power of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently restoring and strengthening this country. You can visit the film’s Web site to find out more about how forgiveness and reconciliation are helping to restore a nation once torn by the tragedy of genocide.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.