Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.

Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.14-15, 18.21-35.

Jesus told us in the Lord’s Prayer we gotta pray,

Matthew 6.12 BCP
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

He elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount:

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.”

And in Mark’s variant of the same teaching:

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.”

And he elaborated on it even more in his Unforgiving Slave story.

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 many as seven times?”
22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as many as seven times,’ but as many as seven by seventy times.
23 This is why 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, 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 down, 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 down, the coworker offered to work 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 till 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 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 Mt 18.34 makes various Christians nervous, and gets ’em to invent all sorts of iffy teachings about devils and curses and hell. And misses the point: God shows us infinite mercy. What kind of ingrates are we when we don’t pay that mercy forward?

Trespasses. Not just sins.

In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for our ὀφειλήματα/ofeilímata, debts, forgiven. Mt 6.12 In Luke’s version, it’s our ἁμαρτίας/amartías, sins. Lk 10.4 The Book of Common Prayer version goes with “trespasses,” which comes from the Mark 11 and Matthew 6 quote above: People’s παραπτώματα/paraptómata, misdeeds. Literally “false walking.”

Other bible translations, like the NIV or NLT, try to turn the Mark 11 and Matthew 6 verses back into “sins.” That’d be inaccurate. See, sins are defiant violations of God’s will. We break God’s commands; that’s sin. 1Jn 3.4 We follow customs we’re not wholly sure God endorses; that’s sin too. Ro 14.23 We do what we know better than to do; that’s also sin. Jm 4.17 But if we do none of these things, yet harm someone anyway: We might be guiltless of sin, but they still have something against us, because we harmed them, intentionally or not. We went too far with them; we trespassed against them.

And we’re therefore duty-bound to resolve this problem. Jesus taught that too.

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. Ro 12.18 Don’t be a dick.

When people offend us, ’cause they will, 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 things to his girlfriend’s cat. Heck yes I’m offended.

I could try to argue the neighbors sinned, but believe it or don’t, ain’t no law in the bible against any such behavior. Even the naughty lyrics. Yeah, Christians might try to stretch the meaning of a few verses and claim they’re commands, ’cause they don’t care what God means by them; they want their will, not his. But really the issue is the neighbors violated my personal boundaries. They trespassed against me. Sometimes ’cause they’re jerks; sometimes ’cause they’re just being inattentive.

But either way, I gotta forgive them.

No I’m not saying this is easy. When people hurt our feelings, we get irrational. People can forgive anything when we feel no emotion about it: Murder someone I don’t know, whom I feel no sympathy for, and it’s really easy for me to push this egregious 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, Ac 8.13 who was nonetheless warned by Simon Peter lest his bitterness ruin him. Ac 8.20-23 Simon’s issues didn’t drive God away. Simon was still new at this Christianity stuff. He needed work. Don’t we all?

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, Jm 4.6, 1Pe 5.5 but as he’s curing us of pride, he’s not gonna quarantine his patients from himself. He’s come to help, not judge and condemn.

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?

Bitter Christians.

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. 1Jn 4.16 Anyone who can’t and won’t, isn’t. 1Jn 4.8 Or, to be gracious, they’re new. ’Cause they’ve got no valid excuse if they’re a longtime Christian.

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.

Prayer.

Christ Almighty!