Forgiving Sins

Forgiving Sins

An Iranian woman, Samereh Alinejad, says “retribution had been her only thought” after her teenage son was murdered. But in a dramatic turn at the gallows, literally moments before the killer was to be executed, Alinejad made a last-minute decision to pardon the man.

Domestic violence survivor Pascale Kavanagh said that she never thought she would reconnect with her mother—her abuser—during her adult life. However, in 2010, her mother suffered several strokes that left her unable to communicate or take care of herself. With no one else to help, Kavanagh began to sit by her mother’s bedside and read to her. Through this, Kavanagh says the hate she had for her mother dissipated into forgiveness and love.

Steven McDonald was a young police officer in 1986 when he was shot by a teenager in New York’s Central Park, an incident that left him paralyzed.  He wrote later that he forgave the shooter because “I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart,” McDonald wrote. While the younger man was serving his prison sentence, McDonald corresponded with him, hoping that one day the two could work together to demonstrate forgiveness and nonviolence.

These are just three stories of extreme forgiveness from a collection published recently in Readers’ Digest.  They are called “extreme” because they involve forgiveness of crimes and injuries that go far beyond the slights and hurts that often we cannot seem to get over – and which derail our relationships.

Something which should never happen in the family of God.  And so, as Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said they should ask God the Father to forgive them as they forgive others – to preserve unity among His followers.

The problem is, this line interferes with Christian unity more than any other issue.  It is not a serious threat to unity – but it sure messes us up when we’re together at weddings, funerals, and other events where we pray together.

Most Christians say “trespasses.”  This comes from William Tyndale’s erroneous translation of this word in Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer.  Thomas Cranmer used Tyndale’s translation in his Book of Common Prayer, which has been used for centuries by the Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Methodists.  And even though Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English, the Roman Catholics chose to use his version after they started celebrating the Mass in English.

The word was correctly translated as “debts” in the King James Version – which is the one originally used by Presbyterians and many in the Evangelical tradition.

You may have noticed, however, that Luke used the word “sins” in his account.  Do not be alarmed – this is not a contradiction in God’s Word.  The context is different – Jesus is responding here to His disciple’s request that He teach them how to pray.  Matthew’s account is of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Besides, In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, the word debt was a synonym for sin.  To sin is to incur a penalty, a debt that can only be paid by punishment.  So we’re not so much asking that our sins be forgiveness, but that we be released from the debt we owe because of them – the punishment we deserve.

And Jesus would be the answer to His own prayer – in that he would pay the debt for us.  Or as the gospel song goes: “I owed a debt I could not pay.  He paid a debt He did not owe.”  And that leaves us with a different kind of debt.  As Oswald Hoffman put it, “We are debtors to the goodness and grace of God.”

So – in spite of the very public nature of the debts-trespasses-sins debate – which becomes obvious every time Christians of different flavors get together – it all means essentially the same thing. (KPC?)

The bigger issue – the more important question – is the relationship between being forgiven and forgiving others.  “Forgive us our sins in the same way as we forgive those who sin against us” seems to imply that forgiving others is the key to our being forgiven.  Many Christians believe they won’t be forgiven if they don’t forgive others.

The parable of the two men who owed debts that we find in Matthew 18 only reinforces this fear.  A king forgives his servant a debt of ten thousand talents.  A talent was 20 year’s wages for a typical worker.  Since the average individual income in this town is $25,000 a year, that makes ten thousand talents the equivalent of five billion dollars.  Billion – with a Big B.  But that same man had a servant who owed him 83-hundred dollars – and the man who had been forgiven so much showed no mercy to his servant.  In turn, the king threw the unforgiving servant into prison, where he would stay until he had paid the last penny – in other words, for the rest of his life.

Makes you wonder about banks that were bailed out for hundreds of billions, but show no mercy when you get a few months behind on your mortgage …

So many Christians believe they won’t be forgiven if they don’t forgive others.  Maybe you are one of them.

First, we need to remember that this is a prayer for believers to pray.  Only someone whose heart has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and who has been given the gift of faith could call God “Father.”  The title implies a relationship already exists between God and the one praying this prayer.

And if someone is already a believer, then that person is already justified by the blood of Jesus and is Not Guilty in the sight of God.  So a believer is already forgiven – not just for sins committed before coming to faith, but for all sin – past, present, and future.

So we forgive as a response to God’s mercy toward us – not in order to be forgiven.  And we do it because unforgiveness gets in the way of our fellowship with others and with God.  Extending forgiveness gives us a sense of release so that we may move forward.

Something Michael Corleone had trouble with.  In The Godfather II, Michael is betrayed by his older brother Fredo – and Michael instructs one of his hitmen not to hurt Fredo as long as their mother is alive.  This is not forgiveness – it’s deferred revenge.  Shortly after mama Corleone’s funeral, Fredo goes out on the lake to go fishing and winds up sleeping with the fishes.

Contrast that story with the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50.  He was reconciled with his brothers when they came to Egypt to get food during the famine – forgiving them for selling him into slavery.  They and Joseph and their father Jacob lived harmoniously for a good while in Egypt.  Then Jacob died – and the brothers expect Joseph will finally get his revenge.  Listen to how the story ends:

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Jacob was a believer.  Michael Corleone was not.  And these stories show us that forgiving others is not a prerequisite for being forgiven – it’s a sign that we have been forgiven.

Another way of looking at it is that forgiveness of others is a sign of our repentance – and repentance is a sign that we have been forgiven.  That we have been given the gift of salvation.

The Greek word we translate as “salvation” is a lot broader, meaning deliverance, release, and preservation.  And isn’t forgiving others a way of delivering ourselves from the anger and stress and anxiety that go with holding onto a hurt?  Doesn’t it bring a sense of release?  Doesn’t it preserve us from the physical effects of stress and anger?

So in forgiving others, we experience salvation more fully.  Not that we can be forgiven more fully or have more eternal life – but that we enjoy more of the benefits of our salvation.

What gets in the way of enjoying our salvation?  What makes so many Christians so dour and joyless?  We probably don’t think we deserve God’s mercy.

If we think that, we’re right: we don’t deserve God’s mercy.  No one does.  But that’s what mercy is – giving or forgiving when it’s not deserved.  And that’s what God does so well – giving people what they don’t deserve, and not giving them what they do deserve.

And it is infinitely easier for God to forgive us than it is for us to forgive ourselves.  In fact, the hardest person for us to forgive is usually ourselves.

So maybe – just maybe – if we got good at forgiving others – then we could forgive ourselves and wholeheartedly embrace God’s forgiveness.

William Carl – the former president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary – wrote, “If we refuse to forgive others, we will never truly experience the grace of God ourselves.”

Forgiveness is the ultimate act of love.

Forgiving others is evidence that the love of God is in us –

God’s extravagant love, which has no limits.

If we have the love of God in us, then we can forgive without limits.

So forgive others – in the same way that God has forgiven you.

Amen.