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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.”
Luke 11:1-4

C. S. Lewis keenly observed “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) Perhaps that is why in praying the Lord’s Prayer, many hesitate before asking God, “Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us.” Forgiving those who have hurt us sometimes seems something only God is capable of doing. After all, we tell ourselves, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

But last week we saw Jesus commanding sons and daughters of God to forgive when they pray: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you” (Mark 11:25). We called this kind of forgiveness, “vertical forgiveness”, which at the very moment we are praying we forgive the person who has hurt us.

We saw the Greek word translated here as “forgive” is aphiemi that means, “to let go, to release” offender. Vertical forgiveness is a transaction between you and God in which you let go your offender to God. You let go to God any vengeance, any getting even that justice would require. As you vertically forgive you are released from bitterness, resentment and desire to get even. “When we genuinely forgive, we set the prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner set free is us.” (Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving) We see vertical forgiveness in Jesus’ praying on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

But Scripture also speaks of what we could call “horizontal forgiveness”. Horizontal forgiveness is a transaction between the offended and the offender. The purpose of horizontal forgiveness is solely for reconciliation and healing of a relationship. Instead of being accomplished while praying, horizontal forgiveness is initiated by speaking to the offender. Follow Jesus’ teaching on this in Luke 17:3-4:

“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

We see here that horizontal forgiveness depends on “repentance” by the offender. While we can vertically forgive and release a person to God who never admits the wrong, we cannot be reconciled to him without his spoken words of repentance. When our two sons were young we found it important to teach them to say the words: “I was wrong, will you forgive me?”, and to teach them “Yes, I forgive you.” Mature relationships are built on repenting and giving forgiveness. Note that Jesus does not say that we ask for “proof” of repentance. Rather, Jesus simply teaches, if he sins and says, “I repent, you must forgive.

As we our culture becomes increasingly uncivil, you might find helpful Lewis Smedes’ thoughts about what forgiveness is NOT:

  1. Forgiving is not forgetting. “You do not have to forget after you forgive; you may, but your forgiving can be sincere even if you remember.”
  2. Excusing is not forgiving. “You do not excuse people by forgiving them; you forgive them at all only because you hold them to account and refuse to excuse them.”
  3. Forgiving is not the same as smothering conflict. “You do not forgive people by smothering conflict; if you forever smother people’s differences, you rob them of a chance to forgive.’”
  4. Accepting people is not forgiving them. “You do not forgive people merely by accepting them; you forgive people who have done something to you that is unacceptable.”
  5. Forgiving is not tolerance. “You do not have to tolerate what people do when you forgive them for doing it; you may forgive people, but still refuse to tolerate what they have done.”

And to forgive might not mean being in a close relationship. A sexually abused child might forgive her offender, but never be in relationship with the abuser. Or, you might forgive a difficult neighbor without ever being chummy with that person.

Yes, it’s true, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” So as children of the living God we ask the Father to fill us with His love. And we ask for the grace to learn to say as the offender, “I was wrong, will you forgive me?” And we pray for grace to say as the offended, ‘Yes, I forgive you, as God has so freely forgiven me!” As we do that, we need not hesitate to pray, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

Grace and peace,

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