I have a confession to make.

For some time, whenever I’ve really seriously prayed the Lord’s Prayer and sat down with it, it’s rubbed a little wrong.

Not because I think it’s corrupted, or difficult to understand, or male-centric, or anything else I have heard people level complaints at.

No, it’s because of this one line: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone who sins against us.”

Really, the mental conversation goes, I have to forgive everyone who sins against me in order to get forgiveness myself? Even the counselor who encouraged me to destroy my marriage? Even the manager who completely disregarded how her actions affect other people?

Is that really grace? Did Jesus die for that? Because, not to say it wouldn’t still be really amazing or anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make that cut. And I thought God had a little more grand style than that anyway…

So, it was a little ironic, but good, that I ended up teaching on this one half-verse out of any in the entire Lord’s Prayer. Not only because I finally had an excuse to dig in and really sort through what’s going on here, but also because I discovered that this isn’t so much a word of judgment or anything else as it is a confirmation of God’s love for all of people and creation.

To start to understand this, we’ve got to go back a little earlier to Luke 7:26-50. In response to questions about a sinful woman (a prostitute, perhaps) who was kissing Jesus’ feet. Jesus told a parable about a banker forgiving two debts, one small and one large. Each of those who had been unable to pay was grateful, but the one who was forgiven more loved more.

We are forgiven. That is the unconditional good news. Jesus didn’t have to go around saying “I forgive you” when he worked miracles– he always said it this way: “Your sins are forgiven” and sent them on their way forgiven, loved, and healed. Do you hear the difference?

“I forgive you” is a statement that right now, because I happen to be close to you and see what’s happening, I forgive you. We can and should do that.

But “your sins are forgiven” is a statement of eternal fact, something that exists regardless of the present situation, but something that can create powerful change in a person’s life right now. “Your sins are forgiven” is only God’s prerogative. We can declare it, but we cannot create the forgiveness of sins because they’re not against us in the end; they’re against God.

Which brings us back to the Lord’s Prayer itself. Because after all, the Lord’s Prayer is about… the Lord.

Most of us (self included) if we’re honest have a tendency to pray it more like this most of the time:
Hey God, you’re great. Say, could you help me out here? I’m trying to put together a comfortable middle class life so I can do what I want without having to worry about anything. I know how awesome you are, so of course you’ll help us out. And I really need you to tell me everything’s going to be ok, too, even if I was a little hard on my friend the other day. Thanks, dad, you’re great. Oh, and can I borrow the car tonight?”

The New Zealand Lord’s Prayer shows much better the true purpose. Why do we pray it, so we can be a part of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done, God providing bread and forgiveness. We pray it because “the kingdom, the power, and the glory are God’s now and forever.”

So then “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” is not about us; it’s about God, just like the rest of the prayer.

God has forgiven us already apart from anything we’ve done. That’s the good news. That’s what we are reminded of when we come to the communion table together.

But Jesus’ parable and how he treated the woman at the party show us that the more we are forgiven, the more we love. The more we see that our best is not enough for God but His best is exceedingly sufficient for us, the more we can feel secure in God’s love and share that love with others, just as the woman did.

The 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous recognize this in a powerful way. Step 8 is to “Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all” and step 9 is the actual making of amends where possible. They are seriously hard but transformative. In the words of one recovering alcoholic:

It’s as if God were saying, “Okay, now you want me to take all of your character defects, fine. Then you can be free and serene and the person I want you to be. But first you must see that almost all your troubles involve other people. You’ve tried to control them one way or the other or fix them; you have guilty or resentful feelings about them; or you have been so preoccupied with yourself and your feelings, dreams, and plans that you have ignored them emotionally and caused them to experience some of their worst fears of being deserted. Now I want you to face what you have done and own your part in hurting each person in your life so you can move into the future I have for you unencumbered by the past and beginning to understand how not to keep repeating the mistakes of that past.[1]

But this only happens at steps 8 and 9. The very first two steps are to recognize the problem and recognize that only a higher power can help. God wants us to be free from our past and for him.

Yes, there’s a sizable challenge in the words “as we forgive those who sin against us,” but there’s promise, because we know that we already have the most important forgiveness.

We pray for forgiveness again because we see our own need, the need that we will never outgrow.

And we pray for forgiveness again because we see God’s kingdom coming on earth, a kingdom of peace, of reconciliation, and of love, and because we long to be a part of that.

Even though we must not become proud and lose sight of our failed nature, we can keep asking God in prayer to remind us of his love, and we can spread that love by forgiving others and being open about the change God makes in our lives.

I still need to forgive the destructive counselor and the inconsiderate boss, and maybe even try to make amends, but I can and we all can pray with confidence and not guilt: Forgive us our sins, for we also [when we are forgiven by you] forgive everyone who sins against us.

You see, I was chafing at the Lord’s Prayer because I was worried about me. When we see God’s forgiveness in the bread, in the wine, and in our neighbors, we can stop worrying about us and discover the freedom inherent in the Lord’s Prayer, the freedom to worship and glorify God regardless of anything we do or have done, the freedom to Love.

[1]A Hunger for Healing, 135-136. Cited on http://www.12step.org/the-12-steps/step-8.html.