His Prayer, Our Prayer: To Forgive And Forget
We call it “The Lord’s Prayer.”
But that is not really accurate. You see, Jesus could not pray this prayer, or at least He could not pray one line of the prayer. Jesus could not pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus was without sin. He was not indebted to God or to anyone else. So He could not pray this prayer. However, it is quite clear that Jesus regarded this particular phrase in the prayer as being vitally important. In fact, this is the only part of the prayer on which Jesus felt the need to comment. Having given the prayer to His disciples, Jesus then added these words: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” It is on that basis that I would suggest to you that this phrase “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” is the most important and the most powerful phrase in the whole prayer. We shall look at it more closely in a moment, after we have prayed…
We are living in a world that desperately needs to be changed. I know that you have heard that sentiment expressed again and again, but that in no way alters its truth. We live in a world that desperately needs to be changed. And, of course, there are many people in the world who believe that they have the theory or the program or the strategy which can accomplish that change. However, all such people make a fundamental mistake. Their plans or programs or proposals are designed to repair or remake or reform the world. But the world does not need to be repaired or remade or reformed—the world needs to be reborn. And I believe that you can sum up what being reborn means in a single sentence, in a single phrase, in a single word. What the world needs is forgiveness. The people of this world need to accept the forgiveness of God and to demonstrate forgiveness toward one another.
Now what does the word “forgiveness” mean? It means to allow no barrier to be built between us and God and between us and others. It means to deny the right of anything or anyone to open a chasm which will separate us from God or from each other. This is not to deny the reality of difficulty and hardship and hatred and violence. This does not suggest for a moment that those things do not exist, but it does say that those things will not be permitted to create between us and God a wall of separation, and they will not be permitted to create between us and others a gulf of bitterness. That’s what Jesus is speaking about in the fifth phrase of the prayer He gave us: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And let me tell you that forgiveness is a very costly proposition.
First, forgiveness is costly for God.
C. S. Lewis, during the Second World War, frequently urged his fellow Englishmen to be forgiving of the German people. He was severely criticized for that. Someone, for example, wrote to him: “I wonder how you would feel if you were a Pole or a Jew.” And Lewis replied: “So do I. I wonder very much how I’d feel. But I am not trying to tell you what I would do. I can do precious little. I am just trying to say what Christianity is. I didn’t invent it, but right in the middle of it, I find these words: ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'”
And that’s the truth of the matter, isn’t it? At the very heart of our faith is forgiveness. A moment ago, I read those words from Jeremiah: “The Lord says I will forgive your iniquity and I will remember your sin no more.” That says it. God has established a new covenant with His people and in that covenant He promises to forgive our sin—and not only does He forgive our sin, but He chooses to forget our sin as well. That promise of the new covenant has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Interestingly enough, the present Roman Catholic Cardinal of the Philippines is named Cardinal Sin. On one occasion, a young woman came to him claiming to have seen a vision of Jesus. The Cardinal was somewhat skeptical but he did not wish to be harsh. So he said to her: “Daughter, the next time you see Jesus, ask Him what sin your bishop committed as a young priest and then come tell me about it.” The Cardinal knew that only he and his confessor knew of that sin, so he felt this would be a good test of her vision. Sure enough, sometime later she returned saying that she had seen Jesus again. The Cardinal said: “Did you ask Him about my sin?” She replied “Yes, I did.” He then asked: “What did He say?” Her reply is priceless: “Jesus said, ‘I’ve forgotten it!” That’s it. God not only forgives our sin, but He remembers them against us no more.
But that’s a costly thing for God to do. Clarence Macartney once said that “forgiveness is the most beautiful word in the English language.” I don’t know about that. Frankly, I think the most beautiful word is the word “Jesus”—”How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear.” But I do know this. Forgiveness is the most expensive word in the English language. Think of what it cost God.
There is a legend which says that when the Prodigal Son came home it was evening. His father met him after the sun had gone down. And in all of the swirl and excitement of greeting friends at the party, he didn’t really see his father. It wasn’t until the next morning, when he got up, that he went out onto the porch to see his father. The sun was up. The light was bright. He looked at his father and discovered for the very first time that every hair on his father’s head was now snow white.
Well, that’s what forgiveness costs. It cost God laying aside eternity and taking up the mantle of his life. It cost laying aside peace and taking up pain. It cost laying aside all the splendor and glory of heaven and taking up a cross that was rough wood and blood and sweat and tears and flies. That’s what it cost God to say: “I will forgive your iniquity and I will remember your sin no more.”
But secondly, forgiveness is also costly for us.
Some years ago now, I worked for a while as a part-time chaplain in a home for unwed mothers. I remember particularly one young lady in that home. Through the course of several months, I had watched her grow and mature in her faith and in her devotion to God. But as we talked one day, she said that something was troubling her. She had brought her child into the world; she had given it up for adoption; she was now ready to leave the protection and anonymity of that home and she was worried. She said that by faith she believed that God had forgiven and forgotten her sins, but she was afraid other people would not so forgive and forget. Somehow I knew that she was right. She would leave that home a Christian, but the stain of her wrong-doing would remain in the minds of those around her.
God forgives and forgets, but can we? It is easy for us to say: “Forgive us, Lord,” but we so easily forget the last part of the phrase, “as we forgive.” We are all sinful people. We hurt and wrong each other in the course of our family relationships or our business dealings or our social encounters or even our church work. And God says to us: “I forgive and I forget. I wipe the slate clean. Can you not do the same thing?” I wonder if we can.
Jubal Early was a confederate general in the War Between the States. He was from Virginia and he was opposed to Virginia seceding from the Union—but when Virginia left, he went with it. And he went on to become a key leader in the Battles of Bull Run and Manassas. But in the course of the war, he became a bitter and vindictive man, with a burning hatred for the north. There was no room in his heart for forgiveness and reconciliation. Then, a couple of years after the war, he had to go to Washington, D. C. on business. Several friends, aware of his deep and bitter feelings, decided to accompany him to keep him out of trouble. When they got off the train in Washington, there on the platform was a young Yankee soldier still wearing his uniform. The boy had no legs, one arm was gone, his face was hideously scarred. With his one hand he was holding a cup, begging for money. Jubal Early walked over and dropped a sizable gift of money into the cup. His friends were amazed. They said: “Given your hatred of the north, we never thought you would do anything like that.” Jubal Early replied with a hard edge of bitterness in his voice: “I gave him the money because that’s the first Yankee I’ve seen who was shot up to my satisfaction.” How savage|
Contrast that with the example of Robert E. Lee, also a Virginian opposed to secession, but when Virginia left, he went with it. But when the war was over, Robert E. Lee gave himself to securing forgiveness from both sides in order to heal the wounds of the nation. On one occasion, he met Jubal Early and he said: “General Early, do you still hold fast to this unforgiving spirit toward the north?” Early replied: “I most certainly do. I will never forgive.” To which Robert E. Lee responded: “Then I hope that you will never need forgiveness yourself, for he who cannot forgive destroys the bridge over which he himself must pass.”
My friends, forgiveness is not easy. The most perfect definition of forgiveness I have ever encountered was written by a deaf mute. This is what he wrote: “Forgiveness is the lovely scent the violet leaves on the heel that crushes it.” Forgiveness is not easy. But Jesus is saying to us in The Lord’s Prayer, that like God, we must forgive and forget. So how do we do that? By observing the law of echo.
Luke tells of the time when Jesus was having dinner at the home of a Pharisee when suddenly a woman of the streets interrupted the meal by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing His feet, and anointing them with precious oil. The Pharisee thought to himself: “If Jesus were truly a prophet, He would know who this woman is and have nothing to do with her.” And Jesus, who sees into every heart, saw into his, and said: “Sir, it is the custom when a guest comes to a home that the host gives him a kiss of welcome. You did not kiss me, but she has kissed My feet. It is customary for the guest to have his feet washed. You did not wash my feet, but she has washed them with her tears. It is customary for the guest to be anointed with oil. You offered me no oil, but she has poured out for Me the most precious oil she has. Therefore, she is forgiven. Why? Because she cried or kissed or poured out oil? No. It is because she loves me so much.”
There it is. Because she loved Jesus, she could receive His love. That’s the law of echo. We see it in the world. I’m hit, so I hit back. I’m lied about, so I lie. I’m wounded, so I wound. But there are some people who do not try to echo the world. They seek to echo God. As God loves, they love. As God forgives, they forgive. As God forgets, they forget. And these people are called “Christians.” That’s what this part of The Lord’s Prayer demands of us in our lives.
Let me tell you the story of Edith Taylor. It’s a true story. Edith and her husband, Karl, lived in Waltham, Massachusetts. They had been happily married for 23 years. On his frequent business trips, Karl never failed to write daily to his wife. But then the government sent Karl to Okinawa for a few months. The months dragged into a years, with letters coming at longer intervals. Finally, a letter came which read: “Dear Edith, I have obtained a Mexican divorce so that I would be free to marry my Japanese servant-girl, Aiko.” Edith was crushed. Her hurt soon turned to anger and a desire for revenge upon those who had shattered her life.
Then one night, as Edith said The Lord’s Prayer before going to bed, she stopped in the middle of it. She repeated the phrase, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Tears burst into her eyes. She then wrote Karl a letter telling him that she believed that she could forgive and forget and as proof of that, she asked Karl to write occasionally and let her know what was happening in his life. In this way, Edith learned of two daughters born to Karl and Aiko. Edith sent them presents.
Several years later, word came that Karl was dying of cancer. He mentioned that he was worried about what would happen to Aiko and the girls after he was gone. Edith knew immediately what she would have to do. She told Karl that she would care for his family. She got a job and saved a little money. When Karl died, Edith used her money to fly Aiko and the two girls to America. When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport in New York, Edith had a moment of fear, but fear turned to compassion when she saw Aiko, so young and so frightened, clutching those two little girls. Edith whispered a prayer and then wrapped Aiko and the little girls in her arms. Today this strange little family lives together in Waltham, and they are happy. The children are close to finishing school. Aiko has become a nurse. And Edith Taylor tells her friends that she feels like she has a whole new life. She says: “I’m the luckiest woman in the world.”
That’s what Jesus means when He says: “Pray ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'” And my friends, if we prayed that prayer and meant it and lived it, it would change us. And it would change the world.