March 28. 2004

Forgive Us Our Debts as We Also Have
Forgiven Our Debtors
Matthew 6:12

In her book entitled Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean describes a moving exchange between Lloyd LeBlanc and Patrick Sonnier, the man who murdered his son, David. Just prior to sitting in the electric chair, Sonnier turned and said, “Mr. LeBlanc, I want to ask you for your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done.” In response, Lloyd LeBlanc nodded his head, informing the killer that forgiveness had already been given.

LeBlanc later told Prejean that when he arrived with the sheriff’s deputies at the cane field to identify his son, he knelt by the body—“layng down there with his two little eyes sticking out like bullets”—and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. As he finished the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” LeBlanc cried, “Whoever did this, I forgive them.” And though he found it difficult at times to set aside the nagging feelings of bitterness and revenge, particularly when David’s birthday rolled around each year, Lloyd LeBlanc meant what he said. “Forgiveness is never going to be easy,” Prejean concludes as she writes the account. “Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won.”

Forgiveness is never easy, and offering forgiveness is an unnatural act. The law of nature, Philip Yancey writes, “admits no forgiveness.” “You don’t find dolphins forgiving sharks for eating their playmates,” Yancey continues. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, not dog-forgive-dog.” Yet as unnatural as it is, forgiveness is important. So important, in fact, that when Jesus shifts in this prayer from our physical needs—“Give us our daily bread”—to our spiritual needs, he begins right there with forgiveness.

In reflecting on these few lines from the Lord’s prayer, we first notice the common ground established by the opening phrase: “And forgive us our debts.” Luke, in his account, speaks more specifically of “sins”, whereas various English renderings read “trespasses.” The central meaning, however, is clear enough. Jesus refers to the various failures that plague all of us as we kneel before God. No qualifiers are added. This is not a prayer spoken only by adulterers or thieves or murderers. It is a prayer for all of us. We, too, are in need of God’s forgiveness. We ourselves—not just the person to our right or to our left—stand in need of God’s mercy and grace. As Tertullian commented centuries ago, “A petition for pardon is itself a full confession, because he who begs for pardon fully admits his guilt.”

The Bible, of course, makes this shared need uncommonly clear, doesn’t it? “All have sinned,” Paul writes to the Romans, “and fall short of the glory of God (3:23).” “If we say that we have not sinned,” John reminds us, “we make him (Jesus) a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:10). And it is helpful to note throughout Scripture the willingness of many characters, including so-called “giants” of the faith, to acknowledge their need for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God,” the Psalmist cried, “for I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (51:1, 3).” “… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know,” Job answered. “… therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (42:3, 6).” Or consider Paul’s remarkable admission: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost (1 Tim. 1:15).”

I don’t often read the seemingly endless number of e-mails that I receive through the college’s COENET—the community of educator’s discussion list. I read a few this past week, however, and one in particular caught my eye. One faculty member apparently used disparaging language in a public meeting to refer to a colleague, and he felt led to post the following message a short time later:
I am sorry for using that term and have apologized to the person. I should have seen the speck in my own eye, or in this case the broad plank.
None of us is exempt. Not the Psalmist. Not Job. Not Paul. Not you. Not me. None of us, regardless of how righteous we might be, has moved beyond our need for God’s forgiveness. “Our Father, … forgive us our debts.”

This particular petition, however, unlike the request for daily bread, comes with an attachment: “…as we also have forgiven our debtors.” What is at issue here in this second phrase is not, as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) makes clear, the earning of forgiveness—as though we could ever deserve or earn God’s mercy—but rather the vital connection between our receiving forgiveness and our extending it. While our experiencing God’s forgiveness does not grow directly or proportionately out of our ability to forgive others, it is clear that our relationship with others does impact and potentially endanger our ongoing relationship with God. If we have genuinely experienced God’s forgiveness, then we should be transformed into forgiving people ourselves. Paul phrased it this way:
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another,
forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also
must forgive. (Col. 3:13)
If we who ask for God’s forgiveness refuse to forgive others, then we mock the very grace that God freely extends to us.

But why is it so important to forgive others? While there might be any number of reasons, I would offer these. Forgiveness, first of all, provides a way of breaking vicious and increasingly destructive cycles. I remember a particular situation when I was in seminary. One of the couples living nearby was experiencing considerable difficulty. Stan had been raised in a home in which the mother did everything imaginable for everybody. She picked up after her kids and catered to her husband’s every wish. Michelle, however, grew up in a family where the mother acted quite differently. She emphasized responsibility, and she taught her children—and her husband!—to be increasingly independent.

Well, you can imagine what happened when Stan and Michelle got married. No, you probably can’t! Stan—this is true—dropped his socks at the foot of the bed, expecting Michelle to pick them up and place them in the wash basket. That is the kind of treatment he was accustomed to. Michelle did not pick them up. The next day, Stan dropped another pair of dirty socks on top of the previous day’s pair, and again Michelle left them right where they were. This went on and on, and one day segued into the next. Eventually, Stan ran out of socks, so he went to the store and bought more! As the pile of socks began to rise near the foot of the bed, both Stan and Michelle smoldered inside. Neither offered an apology. Neither extended grace. Neither spoke of forgiveness. They actually needed counseling to resolve the matter.

You see much the same thing played out again and again within families, among friends, and even between communities and nations. I can’t help but think about the escalating cycle that I’ve watched develop between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the years. Two deeply hurt groups of people hurting each other. Hurt people often hurt other people. Someone needs to break the cycle. Someone needs to swallow their pride, face their pain head on, and offer forgiveness, whether it is deserved or not. “Lord,” Frank Topping once prayed:
Why is it so difficult
to make peace with each other?
No wonder there are wars.
Is it pride that holds my mouth tight shut,
a childish feeling
that I am not the one who should apologize?
It wasn’t my fault?
In these flare-ups
what does it matter whose fault it is?
The only thing that matters is love and harmony.
Lord, turning my back in anger is weakness,
it reduces me as a human being.
Give me the courage,
the stature
to say, ‘I’m sorry.’
Extending forgiveness provides a way to break out of vicious cycles. “Forgiveness,” as Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat suggest, “is an invitation to start over again.”

In addition to breaking vicious cycles, forgiveness offers hope and healing to the one being forgiven. I’ve seen any number of people over the years—people of all ages—struggling under the guilt and shame that often come from something they said or did to someone else. People who labor endlessly under the weight of previous wrongs. I’ve been there myself, and so have many of you.

Just last Saturday, Deb and I took Jordan to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia to see the musical Les Miserables. I know that I have talked about the musical before, but I just can’t get the opening scene out of my mind. Jean Valjean had just spent 19 years in prison for stealing nothing more than a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family, and he now finds himself a roaming convict. No one wants anything to do with him. Finally, Valjean stumbles upon a local bishop, who offers him food and lodging. At some point during the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver—plates and cutlery—and flees. When he is soon captured by the police and brought back to the bishop, Valjean lies defenseless. “This man claims that you gave him the silver,” the policemen mockingly announce to the bishop. “It is quite true,” the bishop responds. “But why,” he then asks Valjean, “did you forget to take the silver candlesticks? I gave them to you as well.”

At that moment, the bishop made what amounted to a life-giving choice. He could have followed his natural instincts for revenge and justice and had Valjean sent off to prison for the rest of his days. Or he could bite his lip and offer forgiveness, even to someone so undeserving, and perhaps—just perhaps—transform a life. “Do not forget,” the bishop said to Valjean after the policemen and crowd had vanished, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.” And that is precisely what the shocked and overjoyed Valjean proceeded to do.

Surely this is what the Psalmist himself sensed in Psalm 32. He is nearly overcome by joy as he basks in the freedom of forgiveness:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered….
I said, ‘I will confess my transgression to the Lord,’
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
It is a new day, he must have thought. Receiving forgiveness puts a new bounce in your step. It alters your perspective and revitalizes your entire view of life. When you forgive someone, you create a context for him to become a whole person once again.

And lastly, extending forgiveness brings renewal and often-profound freedom to the one doing the forgiving. Often times we hold on to hurts and pains. We keep lists of wrongs that have been done to us. By clinging to such wrongs, we no doubt gain a sense of power over the one indebted to us. We don’t want to forgive them, for to forgive is to acknowledge that they no longer owe us anything. And so we maintain the walls and keep strengthening the barriers. And in the process, we become increasingly angry and bitter, dying a slow death inside.

In offering forgiveness, we set that pride and power aside. In giving forgiveness, we discern new possibilities for our own healing. In offering forgiveness, even to the most undeserving, we abandon our thirst for vengeance and learn again what it means to leave such matters in God’s care. As Frederick Buechner writes, “When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.” Is it hard to do? Sometimes. But I think an old Hindu saying is worth our paying attention to: “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive.”

Surely Jesus himself gave us the greatest example of forgiveness. As we reflect on his passion during this Lenten season, we cannot help but see him hanging on the cross. Some years ago, a French physician by the name of Pierre Barbet wrote a book entitled A Doctor at Calvary. In that book, Barbet sought to describe what a victim of crucifixion actually died of. His findings have been corroborated more recently in the research of other doctors, including C. Truman Davis and Cahleen Shrier. According to their findings, death by crucifixion is in reality death by suffocation. When people breathe in, the diaphragm must move down. This enlarges the chest cavity and allows for air to move into the lungs. To exhale, the diaphragm rises up and forces the air out.

Now think of Jesus. As he hangs on the cross, the weight of his body pulls down on the diaphragm and allows air to enter his lungs. But to exhale, he must push up on his feet to raise the diaphragm and expel the air. When he tries to do that, he experiences the sheer agony of the nails piercing his feet. He can’t breathe. And without air, he can’t speak. And yet, when he finally gathers enough air to speak, he cries, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I’m convinced that forgiveness is the language spoken in heaven, the theme running through all of the songs. But if forgiveness is the language spoken in heaven, Jesus invites us to learn to speak it now. “Whoever did this,” Lloyd LeBlanc prayed, “I forgive them.” And when he nodded to Patrick Sonnier, his son’s killer, he meant it. “The practice of forgiveness,” Margaret Williamson reminds us, “is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.” “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”