Most of us have probably prayed the Lord’s Prayer at one time or another. Seriously now, did you really mean what you were praying?
. . . and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors. . . For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.” Matthew 6:12, 14 (NET)
Hold the train! This seems rather severe. Perhaps Jesus didn’t really mean it the way it sounds. Shouldn’t forgiving others be optional for us as Christians, like ordering a side of fries with a cheeseburger?
Thankfully He clarified Himself at another point with the parable of the unforgiving slave who was unwilling to forgive the small debt of another slave even though his master had forgiven his huge debt.
Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:33-35 (NET)
Ugh! I guess Jesus did mean what He said. He tends to have that habit.
I admit that I wrestle with all of this. After all, isn’t God full of love and compassion? Shouldn’t He forgive me simply because I ask (and even if I don’t)? I mean, I’ve never done anything really bad—and for God to put conditions on my forgiveness—well, that just doesn’t seem fair.
A major part of the problem with this line of thinking is the starting point. When it comes to comprehending God and His motives we tend to think that qualities such as love and compassion should define the sum total of our Creator. And while these virtues are integral to our understanding of God, the Bible states more than once that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10; Psalm 111:10).
We’re not talking about some overwhelming terror incited by an abusive drill sergeant, but rather a deep sense of reverence and respect toward the righteous and just Judge who is sovereign over all things. God’s position as the Judge of the universe is not to be taken lightly as our self-justifying minds so often conclude.
From Christ’s perspective it is unjust for us not to forgive the lesser debts of others in light of the insurmountable debt that we owe(d) to God. Jesus wasn’t mincing words and so it is wise to take His admonitions quite seriously.
If we forgive others out of a sense of obligation, however, we completely miss the point. Our willingness to forgive isn’t so much about another rule to follow as it is a litmus test (I did a few of those in my chemistry classes!) of our faith. If our faith in God is genuine, if we truly comprehend the depth of our sin and the extent of His graciousness, if we love Him with all of our hearts, then we will freely forgive those who hurt us no matter what the circumstances. In the end love boldly proclaims that forgiveness is not simply a side dish for the Christian faith.