Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
The most frequent conversation I have around this petition is which word people prefer: some like trespasses, some like sins, and some like debts. Let’s think about them for a minute.
Trespass… a trespass is occupying a space that one does not have the right to be. A person who abuses another person physically or emotionally is clearly trespassing… using and misusing space that is not theirs.
Sin… a sin is an attempt at power, an effort to control a situation or another person. Sinning might happen through trying to manipulate with words or power or it might be a sneaky way of cutting corners or even gossiping. A shared conversation about a person who is not in the room, which is not positive or uplifting, is about feeling more powerful than them in the moment. That’s an example of sin.
The language of debts and debtors is clearly about a gap in a relationship. One person owes the other person something or a group owes another group. It might be reparations for past actions, it might be financial, or it might be an effort to make up for a failure to act. A community’s efforts to exclude a certain group of people or a city’s neglect of certain areas or locations might be considered establishing a debt.
So those are examples of how sins, trespasses, and debts works between people. How do those things work between people and God? What are examples of how we trespass, sin, or are indebted to God?
Trespass: How do we occupy a space that only God has a right to be? Where to we trample in a space that should belong to God?
Sin: What are our attempts at power that should belong to God? How do we attempt to usurp authority that should only belong to God?
Debts: What do we owe God? What debt is there between God and us that we cannot cover?
When we talk about forgiveness, we tend to either discuss how grateful we are for God’s forgiveness or we talk about how other people need to forgive or what we might not be able to forgive. We rarely talk about how hard it is to actually forgive someone. We rarely talk about the effects of not forgiving. We hardly mention the mental and emotional and physical toll of holding onto how we have been trespassed, sinned against, and the debts that others have incurred.
What can sin do? Sin can affect our self-perception. It can make us feel ashamed and insecure. We feel uncertain. We are assured of God’s love, but our ability to experience it seems dampened and frustrated.
Sin builds barriers. Even if we are in a safe place, holding on to the sins that have been committed to us keeps us from being able to fully engage with and experience relationships with other people around us. We cannot trust them- because if we do… they might hurt us in the same way.
Sin makes us feel weak. When we are angry, it’s not actually a powerful feeling. We feel frustrated and powerless. We feel ineffective and hurt. We might like a good rant or vent, but ultimately, as long as we focus on what’s been done to us, we have no power. In fact, we are giving the power to the person or group that has hurt us.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, centers us in who God is, breaks down barriers, and empowers. When God forgives, it is the essence of who God is. God’s self is revealed to be merciful and loving. When God forgives, barrier- real and perceived, come down. We are reminded that nothing can come between God and God’s love for all creation through Jesus Christ. That love is made real through grace and through the Spirit- gifts and manifestations of forgiveness.
God is in control and forgiveness is the revelation of that control. God is not momentarily distracted by anger or revenge. God laments, but brings things around to growth and renewal through forgiving sins, trespasses, and debts. Our attempts at control, our efforts to play God, the obligations we cannot cover… God’s forgiveness heals these things.
When we forgive, healing occurs as well. We can be centered in who God has made us to be. We are able to be in relationship with others. You feel empowered. If I don’t forgive the person who hurts me… they can continue to hurt me. They have the power, even if they are miles away… by not forgiving them… the trespass or sin or debt… I am controlled by an event and a person who is not myself and is not my God. I have no freedom. I am managed by something outside myself… and that spirals out quickly, as most of us know.
Forgiveness is hard, but if we don’t do it… if we don’t actually do the work of letting go, of mending where possible, of distancing if necessary, of regaining our center in Christ, of being led by the Holy Spirit instead of a spirit of anger or revenge or victimization… if we don’t do the work of forgiveness, how can we truly begin to trust and rejoice in God’s forgiveness of our sins? If we are holding onto to slights and blows, historical sins and anticipated future trespasses… how can we faithfully live in the hope that God can bring good out of all things. If we do not do the work of forgiveness, what is the framework we have for doing anything else that God has called us to do?
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, said:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.The skeleton at the feast is you.
There is a feast to which we are called… not just invited, but called… a feast that is the food of forgiveness of ourselves and others. To taste of that feast is to taste of God… not a foretaste of the feast to come… but of meal that already is… juicy, abundant, sweet, filling, comforting, and nourishing… forgiveness.