He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
How do you pray the Lord’s Prayer? Do you pray it with “trespasses”, “debts” or “sins.” Any one of those words works. In the Luke 11 recording of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus uses “sins” and “indebted”, while in Matthew 6 He uses “debts” and “debtors.” Then a few verses later in Matthew 6:14 Jesus uses the word “trespasses”: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
So, whether you are praying trespasses, debts, or sins you’re in great company! The particular words we use in asking for and granting forgiveness depends a lot on our church tradition. Presbyterians and other Reformed churches tend to use “debts” and “debtors” based upon John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in 1395. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists, pray “trespasses” and “those who trespass against us.” That is based upon the 1526 translation of Scripture by William Tyndale. It is thought Tyndale was concerned that people might think of “debts” as related to financial matters.
Whatever our preferred wording for asking and granting forgiveness, this fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer might sometimes stop us in our tracks. Are we really ready to ask God to forgive us as we forgive others? I like what N. T. Wright has to say about this petition in his book The Lord and His Prayer:
“Forgiveness is 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 you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly. Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. This is a hard lesson to learn.”
Not forgiving others causes a “blockage” in our circulatory system of forgiveness. When I do not forgive others I do not experience the free flow of God’s generous forgiveness of me! The blockage needs to be dealt with if we are going to experience the Father’s (not Judge’s) forgiveness!
This fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer takes in what I would call “vertical forgiveness” and “horizontal forgiveness.” We see the command to practice “vertical forgiveness” in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 11:25:
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.”
Notice the context in which we are granting vertical forgiveness: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive…” Standing was the customary Jewish posture of prayer; for you it might be kneeling, walking, or lying. But no matter the posture while praying you might realize there is a person you need to forgive. Jesus commands us to forgive that person at that moment. In this act of vertical forgiveness the offender is not present, nor spoken to. Neither his presence nor his repentance is required for you to make the decision to forgive him. Your words of forgiveness are addressed to God, as this forgiveness is something accomplished between you and God; it is “vertical forgiveness.”
The Greek word translated “forgive” is aphiemi that means “to release, to let go, to send away.” When you “forgive” your offender you are releasing him to God. It is God’s and only God’s prerogative to judge, to seek vengeance, not ours, as all sin is ultimately against God (Psalm 51:4). When you vertically forgive you are releasing the offended, i.e. you, from pain, anger and any resentment caused by the offense. Lewis Smedes writes in The Art of Forgiving: “The first and often the only person healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving…When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free is us.”
Having disarmed through the gift of vertical forgiveness you are then free to act in love toward the offender. Jesus gave us a secret for letting go of anger and bitterness towards those we forgive: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:44). That person who has hurt us needs to go right to the top of our prayer list! If not, we are in a spiritually dangerous time. But through our prayers for the person forgiven God can change our hearts!
Of course, Jesus is our supreme example of vertical forgiveness. As Jesus hung on the cross He prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Without any repentance spoken by His tormenters, Jesus forgives, releasing them to the Father. That is freedom! That is taking charge and not silently suffering the hurt, but being a victor rather than victim. (Wording suggested by Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life,)
Next week will look at “horizontal forgiveness” and see what part repentance plays in forgiveness and restoration of a relationship. But it is within our power right now to vertically forgive and release to our Father the one who has hurt us. We can choose to live freely and lightly!
Grace and peace,