Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.
Once as I was starting to pray, I suddenly realized that I could go no further. I was stuck. The Holy Spirit had pulled the emergency brake to stop me. I realized that I was holding a grudge against someone. I had refused to let go the wrong I felt he had done. In a word, I had not forgiven him, as God had forgiven me.
We cannot explore the subject of prayer without also exploring forgiveness, taking on the ill feelings we harbor towards another. We must do this because Jesus instructs in today’s Scripture that forgiveness is to be granted as we are praying.
Note in Jesus’ words that He says nothing about the person who wronged us even being present. Nor does Jesus say anything about the wrongdoer’s repentance being required. This is something that takes place strictly between God and us as we are praying.
But what does it mean for me to forgive the wrongdoer? The Greek word Jesus uses for “forgive” is instructive. It is the word aphiemi that literally means “to release” or “to let go”. I forgive the wrongdoer when I release Him to God, when I let go of him to God. It is, after all, God’s sole prerogative to judge and not mine. As I release the wrongdoer to God, I am letting go any penalty I might have wanted to inflict, any vengeance I might have wanted to seek. I am unconditionally releasing my supposed right to even the score.
This forgiveness, releasing, or letting go, is something I first do for me. It frees me from the wrongdoer. It releases me from the anger, resentment and pain caused by the wrong done to me. “When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free is us.” (Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget) Having been set free, I will then in time be able to feel compassion toward the wrongdoer. “When I pray for my enemy, hard as that is to do, my enemy’s grip on me loosens. While we do not fully understand all this change in ourselves, we sense it.” (Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer)
Jesus told us His secret for dealing with those who have wronged us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We see Jesus doing this very thing on the cross as He prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
We may not feel like forgiving as we are praying, but we can obey Jesus and rely on Him as we choose to forgive. Theologian Richard McAlear writes about choosing to forgive:
Forgiveness is a decision that we make. It is a choice of the will. It is not a feeling. We do not need to feel forgiving or loving…If we are waiting to forgive until we feel loving, we might wait a long time. Rather, we choose to let go and we decide to forgive. It is a one-way process, a matter of the will. It is not an emotion and it is not necessarily reciprocal. (Forgiveness: Experiencing God’s Mercy)
As you pray the Spirit of God might remind you of someone you need to forgive, and a ‘prisoner’ needing to be set free: you!
- Ask the Holy Spirit to show you if there is someone you need to forgive. Take plenty of time to do this and listen for God.
- If a person you need to forgive comes to mind, make the decision to forgive him/her. Release that person to God, including any penalty or hurt you might want that person to suffer.
- Pray for the person who hurt you, asking God in His time to give you love for him/her.
- Conclude your prayer by ‘breathing in’ God’s forgiveness of you, as you ‘breathe out’ forgiveness for others.
“Forgiveness is more like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If I can’t breathe out forgiveness upon the one who has hurt me, then I can’t breathe in the forgiveness that God would have me take in.”
N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Vol. 2