Though we routinely say the Lord’s Prayer we may sometimes do so on ‘autopilot’ without really digesting the import of what our mouths are saying. That certainly seems to be the case with the part of the prayer called the fifth petition: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6: 12)
Now the part of that petition that seems to most often receive scrutiny is the choice of how the Greek word opheílō is translated. Though it’s literally a word meaning ‘debts,’ Jesus is clearly not speaking of financial obligations, but moral failings. Thus English translations of the Lord’s prayer also use the words ‘trespasses’ and ‘sins.’ Depending on the tradition that they were brought up in, people often have strong feelings about what is the ‘right’ word to be said, but that’s actually a superficial issue.
But a truly important part of this petition that often seems to escape people’s attention is the last half. At least, based on the kind of unforgiving behaviors commonly observed among Christians, it surely seems that the words “as we also have forgiven our debtors” haven’t really registered. Perhaps one reason is because we are (properly) determined to not suggest that our own forgiveness before God is ‘earned’ by our own ‘good work’ of forgiveness of others – that would suggest the kind of ‘work righteousness’ that the Bible so consistently rejects. And besides, it would be ludicrous to suggest that any human can forgive as completely as God does! So perhaps it is understandable that we tend to gloss over that phrase.
But is it really OK to downplay those words? We might look at the wording of the same petition in the abbreviated version of the prayer that appears in Luke’s Gospel: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4) Now it’s interesting to note that the Greek word translated ‘sins’ here is a different one than the ‘debts’ used in Matthew — it was originally a term used in archery to mean ‘missing the mark,’ which is a very enlightening way to think about the nature of sin! But we also note that the phrase “for we also forgive” sounds more like an affirmation (“this is what we already do”) than a command (“this is what we must do”). Whew!! That’s a relief! Perhaps we’re already doing enough in the forgiving-others department and can just coast on the forgiveness that God grants us?
But not so fast! Returning to Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we find that immediately following the prayer itself, Jesus follows it with this commentary: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) So, after teaching all seven petitions of the prayer, Jesus jumps right back into the middle to emphasize His point about how our willingness to forgive is essential to our own forgiveness – it seems that He knew we would try to wiggle out of the “as we also have forgiven” part as ‘optional.’
So, based on Jesus’ explicit words, there is no ‘wiggle room’ for us to delude ourselves that we can expect God’s forgiveness if our own hearts are unforgiving of those who offend us. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us: Jesus repeatedly stressed the importance of forgiving others (Matthew 5:23-24, 18:21-22, etc.) But sometimes we become so used to the truth that God graciously forgives even our most hideous sins that we may slide over the equally profound truth that our forgiveness is always coupled to our repentance (1 John 1:9). And if we are truly repentant of our own sins, we will forgive others for their offenses against us.
Now it would be a grievous error to suggest that God’s mercy and grace are denied us until we can by ourselves produce a truly forgiving heart. God will never deny our sincere prayer for both help and forgiveness when we are struggling with our own unforgiveness – or any other sinful condition. But it is a different matter when we willfully choose to bear a grudge or to deny another the mercy that God has so freely given us (e.g., the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Matthew 18:23-35). Though it is undeniably true that the God who has forgiven us so much at such high cost has zero tolerance for unforgiving attitudes, His mercy is always available to the one who sincerely seeks it. There is indeed no “wiggle room” to avoid our own responsibility to forgive, but it is God’s freely-granted grace that makes it possible.