The fourth line of the Lord’s prayer is, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After having honored his name and his intentions and having asked for him to provide our daily needs, we inquire about one specific need: we pray for him to forgive our sin and to empower us to forgive others who sin against us.
This portion of the Lord’s prayer reminds us that not only our eating and drinking but also our forgiving and being forgiven is a sign of his kingdom. Why are these two activities—forgiving and being forgiven—so closely connected? Because the two-fold pattern of Christian living involves loving God and loving neighbor; one way of living that pattern is to love God by asking his forgiveness and to love our neighbor by being willing to forgive them.
When we harbor resentments and refuse to forgive, we are making light of the fact that God has forgiven us of much; we are revealing that we don’t truly know God or ourselves. To know God is to beat one’s chest and say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Thus, when we seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness, we provide the watching world with a preview of the coming Kingdom, when everything will be forgiven.
We are tempted not to forgive others because we feel morally superior to them. However, when we gaze at the cross, our sense of moral superiority quickly fades. We begin to overflow with grace and mercy, which are marks of genuine Christianity. That is why the Bible has a lot to say about forgiveness. It speaks often about God’s willingness to forgive us and, subsequently, his desire to empower us to forgive others. When we cannot forgive others, it not only reveals our lack of gratitude for God’s forgiveness but also enslaves us in a prison of resentment.
Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of a Father who was willing to forgive his wayward son’s egregious sin and a brother who was unwilling to forgive the same. In the story, the Father sets aside his dignity to run toward the wayward son, embracing him and holding a feast in his honor. This is our Father’s disposition toward us. When we have finished wallowing in the mud of foolishness and rebellion, he welcomes us home. By implication, the parable also reveals God’s will for us to forgive our neighbors for their trespasses. When we are willing to forgive the sins of our fellow man, we embody for the world God’s shockingly merciful offer of forgiveness.
God will enact this truth in our personal and public lives by enabling us to forgive the things we cannot forget. Perhaps you remember a time when you experienced the mix of anxiety, disorientation, and soul-blinding pain that was a triggered by a serious offense committed against you. Maybe the person harmed you or betrayed your trust. Or, it might have been that the person harmed or betrayed the trust of a person you love.
Even in the case of grievous offenses, God gives us—via Christ’s work on the cross—the ability to be a conduit of his grace toward others (Eph 4:7). “When we receive [forgiveness] freely from the Lord and refuse to give it,” Lysa Terkeurst writes, “something heavy starts to form in our souls. It’s the weight of forgiveness that wasn’t allowed to pass through.” When we refuse to forgive, our soul begins to rot in a prison or resentment. But when we do forgive, we stun the world by displaying God’s grace and we release ourselves from prison. We break free from the chains that shackle us.
It is important to note that forgiveness does not necessarily imply a return to “normal” in the relationship. I might genuinely forgive another person who has betrayed my trust repeatedly and grievously while at the same time wisely refusing to trust that person in the near future. I might forgive someone but recognize his or her generally toxic demeanor, and thus decide to put some boundaries in place to keep them from derailing my inner life or the ability to exercise my callings.
We must also note that forgiveness does not always happen in a moment, especially when it comes to egregious offenses. We must make a decision to forgive, but then often it can take a while for our feelings to catch up with our decision.
When we refuse to forgive, we begin to resent. To resent is to review or rehash the wrongs committed against us. The more we resent, the more the resentment soaks into our bones. And resentment rots the soul. It curdles the milk of gratitude and makes our personalities bitter. Thus, let us determine to “clean our side of the street,” asking the Lord’s forgiveness for our own many trespasses and forgiving others for theirs.