The “Forgive me” prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 May

Part of the Lord’s Prayer is the line, “Forgive us our sins.” Or “Forgive us our debts,” or “Forgive us our trespasses”; it all depends on the translation. Jesus goes on: “As we forgive those who sin against/trespass against/are indebted to us.” It’s one line in the whole of the prayer.

But there’s a whole category of prayer which consists of begging God’s forgiveness for sins. Sometimes it’s a part of a bargain with God—we wanna ask him for stuff, and we wanna first make sure we have a clean slate with him before we start negotiating. But most of the time it’s because we’ve sinned, we know it, we feel bad or guilty about it, and we wanna repent and get right with God.

Emotions vary. Some of us get mighty weepy. Lying on the floor, mascara running, blubbering, sobbing, snot pouring out of our noses, and so forth.

I’m not one of those. I’m the type which is really annoyed with myself for repeating the same stupid sins. Far less weeping; far more angry self-recrimination. Still others are upset, frustrated, embarrassed, exasperated, resigned, furious, woebegone… There’s no one way people feel, and they won’t always feel the same way every single time. But the one thing we have in common isn’t emotion, but unhappiness. We fell short of God’s glory. So we repent.

(Well… some of us don’t repent. We don’t like being on the wrong side of God, and wanna rectify that. But we don’t really have any plan to change our behavior any. I’ll discuss that rotten attitude another time.)

There are two ways Christians approach the “Forgive me” prayer. Some of us are just crushed by it. Others of us are blasé: “Hey, sin’s a part of life, and God knows I’m not perfect.” There are attitudes in between, but these are the main two extremes I find in Christians: Those who worry we’re taxing the limits of God’s grace, and those who take this grace way too much for granted. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere. That’s what we should seek. Sin should bother us… but God has us covered! 1Jn 2.1 So repentance shouldn’t be a regular meltdown. Grace should take away all the extremes, and leave us feeling sorry, but not bothered.

The bothered Christian.

Still, I’ve met those Christians where they’re very bothered about being sinners. They pray “Forgive me” all the time—and it never seems to entirely take away the ever-present guilty feeling they struggle with. They apologize to God for everything. They confess their sins to everyone. They still feel horribly unworthy of God’s love.

No, don’t give ’em the old platitude, “Well technically you’re not worthy of God’s love—but that’s why God’s grace is so awesome, ’cause your worthiness doesn’t matter!” I warn you in advance, ’cause I learned from experience: This doesn’t make ’em feel any better. The reason their unworthiness constantly bugs ’em is they have insufficient faith. They have some faith; it’s why they keep apologizing to God! But they need more faith, and that only comes with time.

Part of their insecurity comes from, of course, other guilty Christians. Plus all the dirty legalists in Christendom, who wanna keep their fellow Christians feeling guilty so they can manipulate us into doing all sorts of acts of penance. Free labor for them! Or just evil fun, as they make us jump through hoops for their amusement. Makes ’em feel powerful.

Then there are bad Christian teachers. They claim (’cause they heard it from other bad Christian teachers), “Every time you sin, it’s just one more burden added to Jesus’s back on that cross.” As if you weren’t feeling guilty enough about sin: Now you gotta imagine—as I did when I was a child—your sins traveling back thorough time, piling onto Jesus, making him way a thousand pounds on that cross, making the nails drag into him that much more. In trying to discourage me from sin, my children’s pastor simply gave me nightmarish visions.

You wanna know the unintended, regular side effect of this overemphasis on our sins? We don’t sin any less; we pray less.

Y’see, humans sin. Before you became Christian, you sinned all the time. (Usually you didn’t know any better!) Then you became Christian, realized how much you sinned… and in some cases even sinned more. ’Cause newbies aren’t spiritually mature, and haven’t yet developed patience and self-control. They will—but making ’em feel more guilty about sin doesn’t grow this spiritual fruit any faster. On the contrary: They start looking for quick fixes. “How can I stop feeling so guilty?”

Well, there are four ways to get rid of one’s guilt:

  • DISTRACTIONS. Lots and lots of distractions. Either to keep yourself from thinking about sin… or to keep yourself from thinking about the fact you sinned.
  • CHEAP GRACE. Embrace the attitude that since God forgives all, there’s nothing to feel guilty about! Banish those guilty thoughts altogether. Sin all you like! You got grace. Lots and lots of grace.
  • ANTINOMIANISM. Which is theologian-speak for “No more Law.” Plenty of Christians believe Jesus did away with the Law, and since God’s commands are all void, nothing’s a sin anymore! You can’t sin. You can break human laws though, so no robbing banks… but otherwise, have fun!
  • AVOID GOD. Do you feel bad and guilty when you approach God? Simple solution: Stop doing that. Quit praying. Relax.

At different times, I tried all of ’em.

Probably the most common route is avoiding God. If we never talk to him, we never gotta apologize for sins. And Christians can go big long stretches without prayer. We might only do rote prayers, in church or over meals, but never anything more. We’ll “save it up” for Sunday services—or if we have a regular confession time, we’ll pray then, but not before, and not in the meantime. Or we might go months, years, without talking to God, dodging him when we can, and letting that totally unnecessary guilt trip build up to an insane level.

Cheap grace is the next most common: “God has so much grace, you can do anything. Seriously, anything. You’re forgiven. You’re good!” These Christians as a result are indistinguishable from pagans. Same lifestyle. Same irreligiousness. Only difference is the Christians figure they’re right with God, so it’s okay for them to be jerks. The pagans have no such license. (They’ll try other justifications though.)

When we sin, there’s Jesus.

The fact “Forgive us” is part of the Lord’s Prayer indicates Jesus expects us to ask forgiveness on a regular basis. Maybe just about every prayer. ’Cause humans sin, Christians included. Over time we grow to sin less, but we still slip up. Again and again and again. We’ll spend the rest of our lives offering the “Forgive me” prayer to God.

And that’s fine. It’s a constant, regular reminder we owe God everything. It’s not meant to create, nor trigger, guilt. There might be those days when you didn’t sin, but when you recite the Lord’s Prayer again, there’s that “Forgive us” in it—because it’s a reminder. Not a condemnation. A reminder God forgives us—and that we must forgive others.

The “cheap grace” fans are correct: Jesus did take care of our sins once and for all, long ago. Where they go wrong is they think we should therefore dodge the reminder. “Forgive me” reminds us God’s grace isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. But God nonetheless forgives us, freely—and that’s what’s awesome about it.

Yeah, sometimes we’re gonna forget God is gracious. When we commit a sin we feel especially bad about, we get this deranged mental picture of God as a shocked, disappointed, aggrieved parent. He’ll have to give us a paddling or something. In other words, we overlay our human ideas of human authority figures, upon God. Everybody does that sometimes. Even advanced Christians.

But stop that. That’s not God. Yeah, your sins aren’t nothing, but neither are they infinite. God is infinite. He has no trouble forgiving anything and everything we’ve ever done and ever will. He foresees all the things we’re yet to do—and even though he totally knows how bad we’re gonna be, he’s still eager for a relationship with us now, and forever.

We can’t overwhelm God’s ability to forgive. We’ll never commit a sin that’s the last straw, where God says, “Okay that’s unforgivable; you’re going to hell now.” We’ll never alienate God so bad he’ll never speak to us again—won’t love us anymore, won’t be immediately willing to run down the street to embrace us once we return. Lk 15.20 Yeah, our sins are a big deal. But Jesus conquered sin. We’re square.

From time to time you’ll encounter Christians who teach otherwise. That’s because we humans have a hard time forgiving. Students have asked me, “What about someone who was really bad?” and describe the worst person, with the worst sins, they could imagine. And once or twice I very nearly said, “Well…” ’cause I’m not that gracious. Good thing I’m not God! He is that gracious.

It’ll totally offend plenty of Christians’ sensibilities when people, who totally don’t deserve it, get into God’s kingdom same as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Fact is, God could give a holy crap about our sensibilities. He wants everybody saved. 1Ti 2.4 He’ll take what he can get. He’ll even take us. So rejoice. The “Forgive me” prayer will always be answered yes.