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Along with daily food comes daily forgiveness – “And forgive us our debts…” (vs 12) If this part of the model is prayed every day, it would mean that we have missed the mark, in one way or another, every day. “Give us”, petition, now becomes “forgive us”, penitence. In simple childhood terms there are “please” prayers then “sorry” prayers. You didn’t think we were going to get all the way through this prayer without the Father dealing with sin, did you? He doesn’t wink at sin (Acts 17:30). Though, “forgive us” is not the first request, it certainly is not of lesser importance. Each clause in this prayer is equally vital.
The fifth lap then on the Lord’s track of prayer addresses our need for daily correction. All fathers have to wear the hat of a disciplinarian. To pray to “Our Father” is to approach pure love but also pure holiness. Prayer means coming to the light, which by default reveals some ugly truths about us. To say “hallowed be Your name” is inspection, saying “forgive us” is correction. It is hard for people who always think they are right to own up to their mistakes or admit any need for correction. But look who taught this prayer, Jesus. He never once sinned yet He sanctified Himself (John 17:19) and led the way in praying, “forgive us…”
Which strikes a blow to pride and impenitence. No man is so good that he doesn’t need forgiveness, but this prayer also offers hope to those lacking in pride or self worth, for no man is so bad that he can’t be forgiven. If God will forgive “our” debts then your debts and mine are included as well. We are not beyond the reach of grace.
We ask the Father to “forgive” which is to “fore”-give, to remit the debt while the petitioner has no means of payment. The old chorus exulted, “He paid a debt He did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay”. Only a creditor can forgive a debt. The debt-holder can’t forgive his or her self. This portion of the model does not ignore the debt but faces it in contrition and confession. It is not merely a generalization of need, but rather the naming and specifying of sins committed. Conversion may be a blanket absolving of “our debts”, plural and anonymous, but true repentance gets specific about individual sins and debts, confessing them one by one as they are exposed by the convicting Holy Spirit.
In the sister text, Jesus taught, “And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4), making sins and debts of equal weight. So we are dealing with sin as standing between us and God, and debt as standing between us and others. If the prayer asked, “forgive me”, alone, I might despair that I was the only sinner. But it asks, “forgive us”, corporately, so we can quit kicking ourselves as being the worst person on earth because what you or I struggle with most everyone else struggles with as well.
Morrison comments, “When we sin there is something in our act for which we become liable to God. Formerly He had a claim upon us; now He has a claim against us”. Jesus addressed the Ephesians, “I have this against you…” (Rev 2:4) Financial debts are normally loathed of the debtor for they have placed him in bondage, “…the borrower is servant to the lender” (Prov 22:7), and the first of each month the debtor feels the yank of the installment chain. We should view our sins with the same loathing. Being forgiven of sin lifts a load off the shoulders just as would the clearing of some heavy debt.
That they are defined as “our” debts instructs that we are inter-connected in our failures as much as in our successes. When I say “our” daily bread, I have made myself partner in your need. Adding to that, “our” debts, means that your loss also becomes my loss. We are a family, what hurts you, hurts me. If I sin, I do not sin to myself. No man is an island. The whole family suffers just as all Israel bore responsibility and paid a price for Achan’s sin. When I adopt “our debts” as my debt, I number myself with the transgressors as did Christ the Intercessor, taking your burden on as my own.
If we would fully appreciate the power of the small word “our” it would revolutionize the church. Instead of “our” debts, we withdraw from our brother or sister, pointing judgmental fingers at “their” debts. How can a church be quick to dis-fellowship or excommunicate a member when we all come from the same fallen race? Though a debt or sin may not particularly be “mine” at the moment, it is “ours”, because, the next time it might be me who is in need. “Our debts” means that I’m making your problem my problem. Or to say it another way, if YOU have a problem, WE have a problem, because what affects you affects me (and everyone else) in a unified body.
We are justified by faith (Rom 5:1). That we pray “forgive us our debts” with confidence before the throne means we are sure as to the heart and purpose of the Father. It acknowledges that Christ has already prepaid the account; that we are not trying to persuade the Father into acting against His nature, for He wouldn’t have sent His Son to die for our sins had He not wanted them removed.
IN DEBT TO MY EYEBALLS
The Greek word for “debts”, opheilema, used here and in Romans 4:4, “Now to him who works is the reward not reckoned of grace but of debt”, means something owed or the obligation that accompanies what is owed. The obligation is motivation – “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go…” But working can never pay the debt of sin, for salvation is “reckoned of grace”.
The self-made man feels no debt to anyone but himself. After all, to what deity would he offer thanks-giving at mealtime since he butchered the hog, provided the milk and bread and did all the work that made dinner possible? The independent spirit boasts of having no need for this part of the prayer model.
But the rest of us are in debt to our eyeballs. I may have my charge cards paid in full and am closing in on my last mortgage payment but still I have debts . . . to the mother who nursed and diapered me, to pastors who have visited in sickness and fed the good word of God in health, to soldiers who paid the ultimate price to purchase our freedom, to Reformers and apostles who brought us the Bible and to ten-thousand other school teachers, doctors, coaches, grandparents and other angels unaware who helped us along the road, not to mention our ultimate debt to the One who took our place on the cross. Lord, forgive us our “debts”, plural, multiplied and compounded, a stack of I.O.U.s laid one on top another, reaching half way to the moon!
The person who prays with sincere repentance wishes he could pay off the debt and he certainly doesn’t want his obligations heaped upon the next generation. No wonder a baby bawls at birth, being born buck naked and strapped already with an $80,000 share of the national deficit. In praying for revival, America must first pray, “Forgive us our debts”, a whopping $16-trillion in the hole at the time of this writing!
Paul advised, “Owe no one anything except to love one another…” (Rom 13:8) That may be a bit idealistic since our monetary system no longer functions without credit. A credit rating can’t be established without borrowing. Without a credit card it is near impossible to check into a motel, board an airplane or make certain purchases. Jesus is not forbidding debt as per particpating in the economy; however taking on needless debt or debt that one knows can’t be repaid is sin because it defrauds the creditor while destroying the debtor.
Asking the Father to forgive our debts does not absolve our responsibility for those debts. We have legal maneuvers today that seek debt relief, debt cancellation or debt reduction. Over a million bankruptcies are filed every year in America. People walk away from contracts and obligations without conscience or consequence. Husbands and wives are indebted to each other yet many abandon the covenant with little more than a shrug. Loans are secured with fingers crossed behind the back, knowing that bankruptcy is always an option if things don’t go as planned. Such debt gathering reveals a lack of integrity.
But thank God for redemption! He can cancel in a second what took a lifetime to accrue. However, it is presumptuous to sin just because we know He always forgives sin. Likewise, to amass debts under the false premise that all we have to do is pray, “forgive us our debts” and He will cancel them, is just as sinful. The “forgive us” part of the prayer is a remedy for the past, not a permit to play loose with the future.
LET IT GO!
The degree of our forgiveness is contingent on our forgiving others – “…as we forgive our debtors“. To forgive “as” is to forgive in direct accordance to. With the same measure we give it will be measured to us again. I can’t expect God to give to me by the wheelbarrow what I am only willing to give to others with an eyedropper. I can’t expect forgiveness to come my way by the train car if I dole it out to others by the thimbleful. Christ is the measuring stick – “…If anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you. So you also must do” (Col 3:13). Notice the yardstick, “even as”.
Morrison opined, “He who offers up this petition with an unforgiving heart virtually prays against his own forgive-ness”, a thought clearly expressed later in verse fifteen.
Our response to grievances and liabilities owed us by others then must reflect the same grace as is afforded us of the Lord. Forgiveness must be proactive. There is no mention of an apology in this verse or any negotiating of a multi-year payment plan. Before the offending party even thinks to say they’re sorry grace has already made up its mind to forgive and proactively taken steps to loose that with which the debtor is saddled. NIV says “we also have forgiven our debtors”, past tense. There is a thera-peutic quality in this verse – when I forgive, a prisoner is released, and I find the real prisoner was me.
The Amplified Bible says we have “forgiven (left, remitted, and let go of the debts, and have given up resentment against) our debtors”. The idea that I’ll forgive but never forget is proof that the forgiveness is not complete. An omniscient God says, “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Heb 10:17). If you can’t forget it, at least you can quit remembering it, that is, quit nursing, rehearsing and cursing it. The three words used most often in counseling are “let it go”.
The word used here for “forgive” is aphes and “for-given” is aphekamen from aphiemi, meaning “away from” (apo) and “to send” (heimi), to send away, remit, release or discharge. In requesting forgiveness we are asking for acquittal, pardon, release from prison or discharge from an intolerable weight or penalty. Hiemi comes from hi’ao, “to permit or suffer”. Apo is root of our word “opposite”, hence, forgiveness is just the opposite of allowing or permitting something to remain, aphiemi shows the enemy the door – “Now scram!”
According to Bible linguist Joseph Henry Thayer, the word has a plurality of meanings:
- To send away as a husband divorcing his wife
- To bid go away, say goodbye to
- To yield up or to expire
- To disregard which means to pay no attention to
- To not discuss the topic anymore
- To give up a thing as in cancelling a debt
- To leave or walk away from in order to go to another place
- To leave upon dying, i.e., to leave a dead thing behind
- To depart from and leave him to himself so that all mutual claims are abandoned
Those definitions in mind, to be forgiven means we have divorced our old lives, have said goodbye to the past, refusing to pay any more attention to what was, we don’t discuss it anymore, we have walked away from it, forgetting history to go on to destiny, having buried the dead thing and having washed our hands clean of any further obligation or claim – “It’s over!”
Our role is to forgive “as” we have been forgiven, or using the same definitions horizontally against others just as God has done vertically with us.
That does not mean no one has to pay once the debt is cleared, because the universe’s balance sheets will eventually all have to zero out; but grace sees full payment made in the cross. Whatever we have lost God is able to make up to us. The injuries we say goodbye to will be replaced with blessings that far outweigh any indignity suffered. That we are commanded to forgive our debtors assumes that everyone has been wronged. Your hurt is no worse than the next guy’s. Plus, we must remember that we have been guilty of similar offenses and so we should be swift to let the grievance go because we have needed (and do need) mercy ourselves.