Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.
God puts a huge priority on our ability to share his grace with others.
Mark 11.25 • Matthew 6.14-15
In the Lord’s Prayer we have these two lines,
Matthew 6.12 BCP
- And forgive us our trespasses,
- as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Jesus briefly elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount:
Mark 11.25 KWL
- “Whenever you stand up to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone.
- Thus your Father, who’s in heaven, can forgive you your misdeeds.”
Matthew 6.14-15 KWL
- 14 “When you forgive people their misdeeds, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
- 15 When you can’t forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your misdeeds either.”
Elaborated on it even more in his story of the unforgiving slave.
Matthew 18.21-35 KWL
- 21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus, “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me,
- and I’ll have to forgive them? As much as sevenfold?”
- 22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as much as sevenfold.’
- Instead as much as seven seventyfolds.
- 23 For this reason, heaven’s kingdom is like a king’s employee,
- who wanted to settle a matter with his slaves.
- 24 Beginning the settlement, one debtor was brought to him who owed 260 million grams silver.
- 25 Having nothing to pay with, the master commanded him to be sold
- —and his woman and children and as much as he had, and to pay with that.
- 26 Falling on his face, the slave worshiped his master, saying,
- ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
- 27 Compassionately, that slave’s master freed him and forgave him the debt.
- 28 Exiting, that slave found his coworker, who owed him 390 grams silver.
- Grabbing him, he choked him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’
- 29 Falling on his face, the coworker offered to work it out with him, saying,
- ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
- 30 The slave didn’t want to, but went to throw him in debtor’s prison,
- until he could pay back what he owed.
- 31 Seeing this, the slave’s coworkers became outraged,
- and went to explain to their master everything that happened.
- 32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘Evil slave:
- I forgave you all that debt, because you offered to work it out with me!
- 33 Ought you not have mercy on your coworker, like I had mercy on you?
- 34 Furious, his master delivered him to torturers till he could pay back all he owed.
- 35 Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you—
- when you don’t forgive your every fellow Christian from your hearts.”
The “delivered him to torturers” bit
Trespasses. Not just sins.
In both gospels, Jesus instructs us to forgive people their paraptómata/“false walking.” Properly it’s “trespasses,” like the
See, sins are defiant violations of God’s will. You break God’s commands; that’s sin.
Matthew 5.23-24 KWL
- 23 So when you bring your gift to God’s altar,
- when you remember your sibling has anything against you,
- 24 leave your gift there, in front of God’s altar.
- First go make up with your sibling. Then come back and bring your gift.”
Our popular excuse, “Well, that’s their problem,” doesn’t mean a thing to Jesus. We’re to make peace with people as best we can.
And if people offend us, we gotta forgive them. Fr’instance say the neighbors play their music too loud. I’m trying to get the kids to go to sleep, but not only can’t they sleep, apparently the musician insists on using colorful language to describe all the things he wishes to inflict upon his lady friend (which if she is a lady, she’ll shut down immediately). In any case not only are the kids still awake; they have all sorts of confused questions about why this foul-mouthed man wants to do such things to his girlfriend’s cat. Oh yes, I’m offended.
I could try to argue the neighbors sinned, but ain’t no law in the bible against any such behavior. Seriously. Even the naughty lyrics, although you might try to stretch a few verses to include them, and try to convert those verses into commands. Many Christians do. But really the issue is the neighbors violated my personal boundaries. They trespassed.
Maybe intentionally, ’cause they’re jerks. Maybe not. Either way, I gotta forgive them.
I’m not saying this is easy. When people hurt our feelings, we get irrational. People can forgive anything when they feel no emotion about it: Murder someone I don’t know, whom I feel no sympathy for, and it’s really easy to push this sin aside. Murder one of my loved ones, and I’m gonna want you dead. Preferably executed painfully. Bring back crucifixion!
That’s the thing: Sins don’t always offend us. I’m not always offended when someone lies. (Like “I’m out the door right now!” when they’re 20 minutes away from really being out the door. Meh; that’s parenthood.) Sins can be easy to forgive. But trespasses always offend us. Even though they often aren’t sin, even though the trespasser didn’t mean anything by it; even though it’s entirely our hangup. Even so: Forgive!
Wait, God stops listening?
In the past I’ve wrongly taught God stops listening to our prayers when we’re not gracious. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
When we first come to Jesus, we might be bitter and full of grudges… and Jesus accepts us anyway. He plans to fix all that. We’re a work in progress. Like Simon Magus, the Samaritan who came to Jesus,
So turning Jesus’s warning into a hard and fast rule—if we can’t yet practice radical forgiveness to every last person we know, including people who seriously wronged us—is the sort of legalism which drives a wedge between us and God. He does oppose pride,
This doesn’t mean we can dismiss Jesus’s warnings. He doesn’t teach these things to be overly harsh, to drive us away from unforgiveness through the power of fear. He teaches ’em because God’s kingdom runs on grace. Like the story of the unforgiving slave, God forgave us a lot. I converted talents to grams in my translation so you get a better idea of just how deep in the hole this slave was: 260 million grams silver. That’s about $153 million. (Or €144 million, for my European readers.) If we experience 153 million dollars’ worth of forgiveness, it should overflow from our lives into every life around us. If it doesn’t—if we lack this kind of fruit—it begs the question whether we’ve legitimately experienced the Holy Spirit at all.
Pay attention to what Jesus says, and what he doesn’t. He never said the Father will stop listening to our prayers if we won’t forgive. He only says the Father won’t forgive us. We still have access to God. What we lose access to… is God’s grace. If we can’t be trusted to pass God’s grace along, why’re we given it anyway?
So if you’re worried about cutting yourself off from God, relax. How’s he otherwise gonna hear us repent our unforgiveness?
There are a lot of bitter Christians out there. A lot of them. Far too many.
I’ve heard loads of testimonies—stories where Christians share all the stuff God’s helped them through. Many of us went through some rough times before we finally made it to Jesus. Some of us (myself included) went through rough stuff even afterward.
But when Christians share these stories, a lot of ’em have a lot of anger in these stories: They wanted God to sort things out faster. They feel life was unfair to them—and still is.
Sometimes they wanna pick out enemies from their past, and assign ’em some of the blame. Like bad parents, awful bosses, difficult spouses, rotten children, jerkish co-workers, false friends. Sometimes they go with political foes—people they don’t even know, but they provide a handy scapegoat for all their woes. So, people in the opposition party, the lazy poor, the greedy rich, the overly-entitled, big business, special interests, illegal immigrants, people who want to ban their favorite things, people who want to legalize their least-favorite things, you name it. And of course there’s Satan.
Thing is, each of these enemies, each of these trespasses against us—whether they’re actual God-defying sins, or things which personally offended us or went beyond our standards—need to be forgiven. Slates wiped clean. As clean as God wipes our slates when he lets us into his kingdom. Yep, that clean.
No, this isn’t just a request on Jesus’s part: “Try to do better.” This is a command. With consequences when we ignore it. Possibly eternal consequences.
No, Jesus didn’t say this’d be easy. Believe you me, it’s not. It’ll take time. Time and prayer. Which is why Jesus made it part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We recite it ’cause it’s part of the process: It chips away at our bitterness, and reminds us God forgave everything, so let’s forgive everyone.
We’re God’s kids. As such, we must reflect God’s character—and God is love. Anyone who claims to be God’s, has gotta love and forgive like he does.
So yeah, the first time we pray, “As we forgive those who trespass against us,” we might not’ve yet done that; we might not mean it in the slightest. Nor the second time. Nor the third, nor the fourth, nor the 77th. We gotta work on meaning it. If we are—if our goal is to mean every last word in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray it—we’ll grow to mean it. God’ll get us there.
So that’s why we should never stop praying, even if we’ve got a bit of unforgiveness in our hearts, even if we’re harboring grudges. Use prayer to get ride of your grudges. God will help.