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Forgiveness: Practice, not perfection

Matthew 6:12 reads, “and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Later on, in verses 14-15, Jesus continues by saying, “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."

Wow. That is heavy.

We are going to talk about forgiveness today. Forgiveness from God through confession and

forgiveness extended by us for others. This concept can be really hard for some of us. Many of us have gone through really hard things and been very hurt by people, even sometimes by people who had a responsibility to protect us.

The reality of life is that we sin and we are sinned against. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. And very few of us claim to be "forgiveness experts." But as we will see, forgiveness is more like a practice and less like an event. It’s the same decision made over and over and over and over again, just as God continually offers forgiveness to us. Let's dive in.

Defining "Forgiveness"

Let's look at a few different words that are translated in English as forgive. The Hebrew word for forgive, “salach,” can also be understood as “pardon”, as in pardoning a debt. There is another Hebrew word, “nasa,” which means to take hold up and lift up or remove. It is used in Psalm 25:18 and in other places for the word “forgive.” Finally, the Greek word aphiemi means to release or let go, once again using the language of debt.

So we can see that in the Bible, forgiveness refers to a debt against something for a wrong committed. When this happens, something in owed in return. Either the other person pays and justice is served, or a repayment is not demanded and forgiveness is offered.

In the same way, when we sin, there is a debt owed against others and against God. An offense against us means that we are entitled to go after that person and demand our rightful payment. But Jesus is teaching and modeling something different: forgiveness.

"Forgive us our debts"

Jesus begins by modeling confession. In confession, we remember who we are, who God is, and our need for grace. This requires us to put aside our pride and acknowledge our imperfections, approaching God with humility.

The beginning of this prayer names God as our Father. Beginning with the acknowledgment of who God is sets the tone for the rest of our prayer as well as for our confession. Confessing to someone that you know loves you feels different than confessing to a disinterested third party, because there is an established relationship.

We have previously defined sin as ruptured relationship with God. In confession, we acknowledge that this relationship has been ruptured, and we recognize that there are things we do that contribute to the deepening of that rupture.

Confession might feel shameful to us at first, but it is actually the opposite. When we confess, we lose the need to hide from the Lord, and we learn to accept God's forgiveness and grace, which are abundant and freely given. 1 John 1:9 promises this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Confession makes us into a particular kind of people: a people who do not hide and live in shame, but people who are renewed and lighter. People slowly becoming more and more like the one forgiving us. We do not live under the weight of what we have done, but with the joy of one whose debt has been pardoned.

It is a common thing to assume that the person God wants us to be is some future person that we have not yet achieved. But becoming whole is more like an excavation process to the person that we were always meant to be. Confession is a key part of this process, allowing God to search us and reveal to us what he wants us to be.

"As we also have forgiven our debtors"

Do you notice that Jesus uses the word "as" here? That means that it is assumed that anyone who is following Jesus is actively forgiving others who have wronged them. Jesus is establishing, in this prayer, that the life of a Christian is a life of forgiveness.

Let's notice the importance of the order here, as well. We are first forgiven by God, and we live that forgiveness and grace out by offering forgiveness to others. What we experience in Christ, we extend to others. In doing this, we help to grow the Kingdom. And extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us is an important aspect of this!

What Jesus did on the cross is forgive our debt. But, as Tim Mackie points out, he also forgave the debt of everyone who has ever and will ever wrong us. Asking for forgiveness from God inspires in us humility and repentance. Forgiving others shapes us into people of mercy that incarnationally live out what God has done for us.

In John 5:6, Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years, "Would you be made whole?" Why would Jesus ask that? It feels kind of obvious, right: of course someone who is suffering would want to be healed. But at the same time, holding on to our pain and burden allows us to feel justified in our anger.

Our default setting is to feel angry, to justify our reactions, to experience shame and desire self-preservation. True healing requires us to let go of all of that. This is the heart of human nature; so how do we move beyond this to a place of forgiveness? Practice.

Unforgiveness traps us in pain and torment for a long time. Yet it can be hard to let go of anger and resentment. This is not an easy or natural task; we need supernatural help to truly make it happen. Jesus tells us in Luke 6:27-28 to "pray for those who mistreat us." Praying for people who have hurt us is hard, but it helps to change our hearts and attitudes toward them.

Both confession and forgiveness are difficult things to engage in. They are not always our first nature. But by the spirit’s help, we can practice these things until they do become second nature. And as we do, we become the people God has created us to be.

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