Summary: In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus connects God's forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others. To forgive is, then, "an act of radical self-interest."
Matthew 6:9-15 (NRSV)
9 "Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and an author, and he has delightful little book called The Alphabet of Grace. It is somewhat like a dictionary of terms that people of faith commonly use, only Mr. Buechner offers some very uncommon reflections on those terms. For example, there is what he says about forgiveness. He describes it as “an act of radical self-interest.” Now, as I look at it, that’s a unique way of thinking about forgiveness.
What usually comes to mind for me, when I hear an injunction to forgive, is that the offended party is not asked to act in his or her own best interest but in the best interest of the offender. He or she gives up something, forgives, with an emphasis on “gives,” foregoes his or her right to a grudge or even to righteous indignation. It seems like the advantage goes to the offender.
But Buechner’s on to something. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.” If we have any notion of our own need of God’s mercy, this is a risk-laden petition. It seems to ask God to treat our offenses against him the same way we treat the offenses of others against us! In fact, Jesus goes on in his follow-up remarks to the prayer, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
So, now you and I can see what Buechner means when he describes forgiveness as “an act of radical self-interest.” If I want God to forgive me, I am going to have to forgive others.
In fact, it’s more than that. The New Revised Standard Version accurately renders the aorist verb, as do most of the other modern translations. “Forgive us...as we have [already] forgiven” others. The principle is soundly established in Scripture. We don’t go to God until we go to others.
Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to us, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23f.).
What’s behind all this? Why is it important to get our relationships with one another right before we consider making things right with God? It is simple, really. A woman by the name of Felicity Modesto has written a beautiful article entitled “The Disadvantages of the Unforgiving Heart,” and in that article she explains: “Choosing to hold on to a grudge works to destroy us from within as time progresses. The more we hold on, the more the weight of the negative memory and feeling bogs us down and prevents us from becoming the” the people we want to be.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory is the recollection of a movie. It’s a Western; I know that much. I can’t remember the title of the movie, but I remember the story line. The hero is a law man, and he is transporting a convicted murderer across the treacherous plains of the Old West to face trial for his crimes back East. The journey takes days, and the hero cannot afford to sleep, lest while he’s unconscious, the murderer may flee or do worse, perhaps even kill him. Of course, the bad guy reminds him of this with frequency, especially one night as they are camped out under some high rocks. As the sheriff fights off sleep, his prisoner taunts him, even threatens him. “Better not fall asleep there, Sheriff; no tellin’ what might happen.” Just watching the scene, I could feel the frustration and fear of the hero. In some ways the prisoner was holding the law man hostage. That’s what an unforgiving spirit does to us. It holds us prisoner. It fuses us with the person who has wronged us and gives us no rest.
When you think about it, there is no logic to the way we hang on to grudges. The obstinacy with which we nurse our bitterness is like sniffing a poisonous gas just to prove it can’t kill us. But, little by little, it does. We die by inches. Our spirit withers. Our heart grows heavy. It is like being tied to the offense we won’t forgive as though to a huge boulder. How free we would be if we simply loosed ourselves from the bindings, but we refuse. We assert our right to be miserable.