October 2, 2011

Forgive As We Are Forgiven
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Lord's Prayer

I John 1:8-2:2; Ephesians 4:29-31

This morning we return to our reflections on the Lord’s Prayer.  And we come to the one that carries the greatest emotional load.  FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US. 

I don’t know where you are today. Perhaps your greatest need this morning is to be forgiven; or it may be the need to forgive.  They are both as crucial to our spirit as bread is for our body.

Paul Tillich said that nothing greater can happen to a human being than being forgiven.  For forgiveness means being accepted in spite of being unacceptable.  Forgiveness, he says, is nothing short of a miracle.  Sometimes forgiving those who have deeply wounded us is nothing short of a miracle.

The good news is we worship the God of miracles.  The God who forgives us our trespasses, and helps us forgive those who have trespassed against us.

FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES begins the petition. 

Confession is an essential part of honest prayer.  We all have sinned.  Not one of us can dare to claim that we have perfectly fulfilled our duty to one another and to God.  And this need for confession and transformation is not just individual.  Here we come face to face with corporate sin and corporate confession:  FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES.  Confession is always individual and corporate.

Because of our sin and the guilt that comes with it, confession as well as the experience of God’s forgiveness in the depths of our being is absolutely vital to our emotional, psychological, spiritual, and even physical well-being. 


Forgiveness.  Just the saying of the word itself can bring a cry:  “Oh God, forgive me!”  Or “Help me forgive myself.”  “Help me forgive those who have wounded me.”

Do we have to talk about forgiving those who have hurt us?  Can’t we just say the benediction and go home as God’s forgiven children? 

                                                    The Significance of Confession

At the heart of Christian faith lies the experience of forgiveness. Many of us enter the Christian faith to find forgiveness.  However, we must continue in the faith to become forgiving people. 

It is significant to note that before there is any mention in this prayer about forgiving anyone, we are called to ask forgiveness for ourselves.  Before there is any consideration of the wrongs that we have suffered, we are made to ponder the wrongs we have brought upon others, including God.  In order to forgive those who have hurt us, we must first acknowledge our own sinfulness and remember that we have been forgiven.

Our forgiveness of others begins as a response to our being forgiven.  It is not so much an act of generosity toward those who have hurt us as it is an act of gratitude toward our forgiving God.  Being a recipient of the infinite love of God should create within us the growing capacity to forgive.  We forgive with the forgiveness we have received.

We begin with the confession of our own sin in order to save ourselves from self-righteousness.  Self-righteousness says we must be right; the ones who hurt us must be wrong.  Sometimes we feel so wronged we can’t conceive of our doing wrong.  We place the blame.  He or she is the monster and I am innocent victim.

When you have been wronged God sympathizes deeply with you.  Sometimes we have been dealt with monstrously.  And with certain injuries we may very well be innocent.  But really, we are not innocent.  We are flawed human beings as capable as the next for meanness and cruelty; as capable as the next of doing these stupid and crazy things that hurt ourselves and hurt others. So we pray FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES.

                       Is God’s Forgiveness Conditional On Our Being Able to Forgive?

One of the questions raised by this petition is this: “Is God’s forgiveness conditional on our being able to forgive?”  We read at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  And for many of us, our immediate response is, “If God’s forgiveness of me is dependent upon my being able to forgive, especially this one who has hurt me so deeply, then I’ll be literally damned.  There is no hope.”

If God’s forgiveness were conditional upon our being able to forgive, there are those of us who feel we might not ever receive God’s forgiveness.  But if we look at the context of The Lord’s Prayer set in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that Jesus has been teaching against hypocrisy - giving, praying, and fasting just to be seen by other people; and here, in The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is warning us about praying to God for forgiveness but refusing to forgive others.

It is not the inability to forgive that Jesus is condemning; it is the attitude that refuses to forgive - and there is a difference.  Jesus is telling us that forgiveness is not a one-way street.  When we receive God’s forgiveness, it sets us in motion toward forgiving others.

But God’s forgiveness comes firstForgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.  It is almost impossible to forgive those deep, stabbing wounds when we have not experienced God’s forgiveness.  But when we receive God’s forgiveness the possibility of our being able to forgive becomes real.  Forgiveness cannot stop with us; we must pass it on to others.  When we refuse to pass the gift of forgiveness along to those who have hurt us, we prevent the grace of God’s forgiveness from fully entering our own lives. 

Think of it as spiritual snorkeling.  Sometimes forgiving others feels like trying to breathe under water.  A snorkel is one tube that enables you to breathe air in and out, giving you life.  The love of God that flows to you flows through the same tube that the love of God flows through you to others.  If you refuse to forgive others it’s like duct taping the snorkel.  You have shut off the pipeline.  You cut off the air both ways and you are unable to receive love from God.

                                                    Why is Forgiveness Necessary?

Most of us have some monsters in our closet we need to forgive.  Because forgiveness is essential to our own well-being.  For a while the bitterness of holding a grudge brings the dark pleasure of superiority.  It feels good to hate those who have done harm to us.  But eventually hate and bitterness begin to destroy us.  And we need to let go.

However, our own freedom from bitterness and hatred is not the primary reason we are called to forgive.  The need to forgive is larger than our own personal benefit. 

We are called to forgive because the world is in desperate need of healing relationships.  We think of Israelis and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.  One of the most threatening and destructive problems in our world and throughout world history is bound up with the assigning of guilt and the refusal to forgive.

Forgiving each other is something that is necessary even in the small things of life.  Leo Tolstoy wrote a story about two neighbors, Ivan and Gavrilo.  They lived in a small Russian village.  For many, many years they lived peaceably with each other.  But suddenly a quarrel arose and a series of misunderstandings and accusations ended fatally.  It began with a misplaced hen’s egg and concluded with half the village falling victim to flames.  Only when irreversible damage had been done did forgiveness and reconciliation take place.  We need to deal with the small disagreements and problems that arise before they get out of hand.

We live in a world where we hurt each other, where we are violated, where we wound others and others wound us.  And forgiveness, says Henri Nouwen, is the name of love in a wounded world.  Forgiveness is one of the ways we love in a world like ours.  Forgiveness is the only way we can live with each other.  How long would our marriages last if we did not forgive each other?  Our friendships would be short-lived as well if we refuse to forgive.

                                                     The Difficulty of Forgiveness

Many times, the things that have been done to us are small things that we must forgive; but sometimes they are big things - deep, heart-breaking pains that refuse to go away.  And talking about forgiving the people who have inflicted such wounds becomes a stabbing pain in itself. Forgiveness becomes a serious problem.  We know we ought to forgive, we may even want to forgive, but sometimes we feel it’s just not in us to forgive.

When someone has wronged us or hurt us we feel they have stepped over the line, that we have been violated, trespassed upon.

Who is it that’s come to mind this morning?  Someone who’s betrayed you?  Classmates that have laughed at you and humiliated you?  Those who have called themselves your friends and then stabbed you in the back?  Someone who has made promises to you and breaks them over and over again?  Is it a parent, a spouse, a relative, a stranger that has abused you - physically, emotionally, sexually?  Is it children that have hurt you?  Is it God you feel you need to forgive?  Who is it that you find difficult to forgive?

                                                         What Forgiveness Is Not

Sometimes our difficulties with forgiveness come from a misunderstanding of forgiveness. 

Sometimes we think or we are told that to forgive is to excuse or condone unjust behavior and say that everything’s alright.  But that is not forgiveness.   There are evil and destructive behaviors that are inexcusable:  abuse, violence, genocide, economic injustice and oppression, the denial of human rights.  We must not wink and pretend not to notice.   To forgive is not to excuse or ignore justice.  Forgiveness is not about letting the rapist or murderer go free!  Forgiveness doesn’t require that you say that everything’s alright.

To forgive is not to forget.  There is pain and rejection and grief resulting from some wrong done to us that we know we cannot forget.  There are those major assaults upon us that cause deep wounds and we know we will not forget them.  And sometimes it is important that we not forget.

It would be inexcusable for the white race to ask Native Americans or African Americans to forget the evil done against them and their ancestors by the white majority in this country. 

It is necessary that our Jewish friends continue insisting that we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.  There are evils and brutalities that must not be forgotten if we are to avoid repeating them.  There are actions that cannot, humanly speaking, be forgotten.  They can, however, be forgiven.  To forgive is not to forget; to forgive is to no longer allow the memory to be used against others.

Christian forgiveness allows us to remember but calls us to end the cycle of revenge.  The Christlike love that absorbs the blow and responds with forgiveness is the only real hope this world has.  To respond to hate with hate only guarantees that hate will win - and the world will remain the ugly place that it is.  Grace is God’s idea of how the world can be made new.

The world of resentment and bitterness is a small ever-shrinking world.  Unforgiveness has a devastating way of eliminating new possibilities.  Everything remains chained to the past, and the suffered injustice defines our lives.

Forgiveness represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair vengeance might seem.  The wound and pain are not forgotten, the seriousness of the offense is not dismissed, the behavior remains condemned, but we refuse revenge or retaliation.  Forgiveness means that you no longer want them to hurt the same way you have hurt.  In forgiveness they are released.  And that’s hard to think about doing, isn’t it.

But if we can ever get there, the power of resentment that has been replayed over and over again in our lives will finally be broken.  In releasing the offender from our judgment we are also released from the burden of anger and bitterness that has eaten away our peace of soul and spirit.

True wrongs can never be repaid.  The hurt and pain caused are not reversible.  Forgiveness is about making things right.  It doesn’t reverse the pain but moves beyond it toward something new.

Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Columbian senator, was held in captivity for six and a half years in the jungles of Columbia.  She said when released, “I don’t want to forget, but I want to forgive.”

Nelson Mandela forgave 27 years in prison for speaking out against apartheid in order to put the past behind him and give his country of South Africa the possibility of a new future.

The refusal to forgive is a toxic memory that endlessly pulls the painful past into the present, poisoning the present and contaminating the future.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said regarding the apartheid wounds of South Africa: “There is no future without forgiveness.”  Forgiveness is both closing the door on a painful past and opening a new door to look toward a hopeful future.1

You may choose to get even, you may achieve payback, you may gain your revenge, but you will stay forever chained to the injustice done to you. 

You are in danger of forming your identity around your injustice in such a way that it forever shapes your future.  Cruelty and vengeance will become your identity, your character, and you will do the very thing you hate: you will inflict cruel injustice upon others.  Worse yet, you will become the very thing you hate.  And evil will perpetuate itself. 

In his outstanding book, Unconditional? Brian Zahnd says, “Violent retaliation is a practice that has caused human history to be written in the genre of tragedy.  It is forgiveness that creates the world you want to live in.”2

Individuals, families, churches, nations have to move beyond their wounds.  Sometimes our wounds become our companion, and our identity becomes “the victim.”  When healing grace is to be our companion, and our identity “ministers of reconciliation,” “peacemakers.”

Zahnd says that forgiveness is how God saves the sinner, and our practice of forgiveness is how God heals the world.3

The bumper sticker has it wrong when it says that “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  We are not just forgiven.  We are forgiven that we might become radical forgivers.  We are forgiven forgivers.

And to forgive doesn’t mean we can go back to the way things were as if what has happened doesn’t really matter. Things will not likely be just as they were before.  By the grace of God they can be better, but they will never be the same.

The call to forgiveness is extreme, transcending the bounds of what conventional wisdom would consider reasonable.  As followers of Christ we are called to radical, unreasonable, reckless, endless, seemingly impossible forgiveness.

In calling us to forgive, Jesus is inviting us to turn the world around, to throw a monkey wrench in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance.  If we can ever get there, the power of resentment and the burden of anger that has been replayed over and over again in our lives can finally be broken.  Release for both offender and the offended is one of the greatest gifts inherent in forgiveness.

In calling us to forgive others, Jesus is refusing to let sin have the last word in our story.

                                                         What Forgiveness Means

Forgiveness is ending the cycle of revenge and desiring the well-being of the one who has harmed us.  The former is a little easier than the latter.  After a while, we may give up the fantasy of burning down the house of someone who has cost us our job by lying about us.  But giving up the hope that he or she will some day lose their job in the same way, and suffer as we have suffered, that is much harder.  Actually getting to the point where we pray for that person’s success - and mean it - is truly hard.

Hopefully, forgiveness will bring reconciliation of relationship.  Whereas our idea of justice is often retribution, of everybody getting what they deserve, God’s idea of justice is reconciliation.  It runs throughout the biblical story.  God never gives us what we deserve.  God always seeks to restore relationship with us.

But let me say this: when the offense has been one of abuse - emotional, physical, or sexual - to forgive certainly doesn’t mean you remain in an abusive relationship.  A relationship may not be able to continue.  To forgive may not always lead to reconciliation.  Such is the brokenness of our world.  To forgive does mean we refuse to continue the cycle of revenge

                                                           Our Response to Hurt

Pastoral counselor John Patton says that often the problem when we cannot forgive is the deeper problem of shame.  When you have been deeply injured by someone you experience shame.  You feel disgraced and humiliated.  Your whole selfhood, self-esteem, self-image, has been threatened and violated and you’re not sure you’re gonna survive in one piece.

Shame is such a terrible experience that we defend ourselves against it with everything we can grab.

When we’ve been shamed we usually respond by withdrawing into a shell.  We run from our shame.  Or we react in rage.  And both withdrawal and rage can destroy us. 

But sometimes we’re trapped; we feel as though we have lost our dignity, and rage or withdrawal seems to be our only choices.

This morning if you are in withdrawal because of shame due to a hurt caused by another, God’s grace has come to find you, has come to find you in Jesus Christ and in the love of this churchIf you find yourself locked in rage,  God’s grace has come to care for you and nurture your deeply injured self so that you may discover the strength and grace to forgive.

The answer to our problem of forgiveness comes through grace - the grace of God working in and through us toward the one who has so deeply hurt us. 

                                                                   Amish Grace

Carl Roberts spent nine years grieving the death of his infant daughter, blaming God, growing angrier as the years went on.

Five years ago today, Carl Roberts carried his guns and rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.  Earlier that morning the students had prayed the Lord’s Prayer together as a class: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us . . . and deliver us from evil.”

Having sent the boys and the teacher outside Roberts told the ten girls present that they were going to pay for his grief.  Five schoolgirls died that day, and five others were seriously wounded.

Something else happened five years ago today.  Within hours of the killings, a group of men from the Amish community went to Robert’s house to speak with his wife Amy, to express . . . forgiveness!  They brought gifts of food to Amy and her children, telling Amy they had forgiven her husband and held no animosity toward her.  They also promised to help her in the future by providing for her what she might need.  They did not the sun go down on their anger.

Five days later when the Roberts family gathered to bury the gunman, more than half of the 75 mourners were from the Amish community.  Some of them who offered Amy hugs of support were parents who just days earlier had buried their own children.

When people from around the country sent money to assist the Amish families who had lost children, the Amish families shared this money with the Roberts family.

The act of forgiveness at Nickel Mines did not erase the tragedy, but it did transcend it.  The Amish refused to participate in the cycle of revenge.  They decided to write a new script for the world to read rooted in the ancient biblical story.


So we pray every Sunday in worship FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.  Living those words provide the only chance for peace and reconciliation for this world.  It is the only chance for life and survival in a world that is now too dangerous for anything but love.  Forgiveness begins with the forgiven, praying, and confessing Church.

This morning God’s grace is here to find you and to help you through your hurt and shame.  There is hope.  There is grace.  And aren’t you glad?  We all need it don’t we?


1. Brian Zahnd, Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, Charisma, 2010, 71-72

2. Zahnd, 83-85, 91

3. Zahnd, 91