The Discoverer of Forgiveness
Forgiveness sounds the depths of our humanity.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote that the line between good and evil runs through each human heart. With similar insight, G.K. Chesterton stated that the only self-evident teaching of Christianity is that humans are morally flawed and in need of redemption. Amid the horrific evil of apartheid in South Africa, Desmond Tutu declared, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is the radical act of releasing the other after they have done wrong. It’s undeserved moral generosity grounded in hope for the other’s freedom and flourishing.
Thus, to forgive is to declare that the other person is more important than their failure. We choose to hold onto them rather than the right to repay them for what they did.
As such, forgiveness is the power of new beginning. It unlocks the prison of the past and opens a fresh future. It miraculously interrupts the law of cause (wrongdoing) and effect (retribution) and introduces something completely new in history: grace.
In 1958, Hannah Arendt wrote,
“The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” The Human Condition
Arendt was right. Jesus understood, emphasized, and embodied forgiveness like no one before him. Forgiveness was utterly central to Jesus’s vision of God, humanity, and community. His teachings on forgiveness have reverberated throughout history.
Unsurprisingly, then, Jesus includes forgiveness in the daily prayer he teaches his disciples:
“Forgive us our debts [sins] as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:13
There are several profound layers in this petition. I’ll point to three: radical humility, expanded responsibility, and extravagant mercy. Each promise to change our lives.
- Radical Humility against Pride
First, Jesus teaches us to ask God for forgiveness every day and thus to embrace a posture of radical humility. Notice this petition comes directly after our request for “daily bread.” For Jesus, our need for forgiveness is as basic as our need for food.
Who are we? If we pray with Jesus, we acknowledge that we are fallible and fallen. We are imperfect people with compromised desires, biased judgments, and sinful behavior. We need to be set free by God and others.
Jesus teaches us to name this about ourselves daily. We stand above no one.
Thus for Jesus, requesting forgiveness is not a rare act under extraordinary circumstances. (Recall Donald Trump’s statement that he’s never asked God for forgiveness, because he has “a very great relationship with God.”) Instead, forgiveness is a repeated, regular practice in our lives that banishes pride and any sense of moral superiority over others.
In Luke 18, Jesus describes a respected religious leader who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers.” By contrast, a hated tax collector lowers his head and confesses, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus concludes that the sinner – rather than the religious leader – “went home justified before God.” The reason is simple:
“All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14
Imagine how much arrogance would evaporate if we began each day by humbly asking God to forgive us. Whoever else I am, I’m a sinner. I’m someone who needs help, just like everyone else. I’m a fallible creature dependent on the undeserved generosity of God.
- Expanded Responsibility against Denial
Second, Jesus teaches us ask for “our sins” to be forgiven – not “my sins” – and thus he profoundly expands our sense of responsibility.
By naming “our sins,” Jesus subtly dismisses a privatized, purely individualistic understanding of morality. Instead, Jesus challenges us to wrestle with our place in an “us” that needs God’s forgiveness. We inhabit larger webs of sin that cry out for mercy, even when we don’t realize it (see Luke 23:34).
Do “we” enjoy safety because we remain silent while our neighbors suffer, whether next door, across the border, or on the other side of the world?
Do “we” possess land that was stolen from others years or centuries before?
Do “we” have advantages in society due to a history of oppression?
Do “we” waste food in our refrigerators while others go hungry?
Do “we” buy and wear clothes that were made by exploited children in sweatshops?
When I stop and think about the systems that “we” inhabit, I shudder. Our systems are laced with the rat poison of injustice and evil.
So praying with Jesus radically expands our sense of responsibility, and we are driven to God with the cry, “Forgive us our sins!” How desperately we need forgiveness, especially after we have just prayed, “Your kingdom come on earth.” “We” are so far from God’s kingdom.
What “us” do I inhabit that needs forgiveness for “our sins”? Imagine how much denial and false innocence would be overcome if we learned to pray with Jesus daily.
- Extravagant Mercy against Revenge
Third, Jesus boldly states that we can’t be forgiven without forgiving others.
There’s no just-me-and-God forgiveness in Jesus’s theology. If we want to be forgiven by God, we must forgive others who sin against us. It’s that simple:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:12
For some Christians, this statement makes Jesus a heretic. We have perfected a theological system in which our individual sin is dealt with in a private transaction with God. We categorize our relationships with others under post-salvation “sanctification.”
But Jesus interrupts our system and insists that forgiveness without forgiving isn’t an option that God offers.
In fact, Jesus says that if you’re worshiping or praying and remember that you have a problem with another person, you should stop and “first be reconciled to your brother or sister” (Matthew 5:24; Mark 11:25-26). For Jesus, our devotion to God only has value if it flows in and out of a life of reconciliation with others.
Luke’s version of Jesus’s prayer is even more challenging:
“Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Luke 11:4
“Everyone” is the radical word. Jesus doesn’t leave room for excluding anyone from our forgiveness – people who don’t deserve it, who don’t ask for it, who hate us and we hate. Jesus demands that we forgive “everyone” without limit (see Matthew 18:22).
Jesus practiced what he preached to the end. With his dying breaths as he was horrifically executed, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).
This is one of the most astonishing scenes in world history. Jesus doesn’t invoke God’s judgment. He doesn’t incite revenge. He asks God to forgive his killers. His mercy absorbs and overcomes violence – without violence.
Jesus’s ability to perform this final miracle was surely rooted in his daily prayer life.
It’s fascinating to note these lines in the Jewish daily prayers:
“May no hope be left to the slanderers… may all Your enemies be soon cut off… Blessed be You, O Lord, who strikes down enemies…” Birkat ha-Minim
Jesus’s prayer doesn’t contain a trace of “no hope” or desire for the destruction of “enemies.” When we pray with Jesus, we are sinners who forgive other sinners to the end. Words of wrath and revenge are erased.
I find incredible hope in Jesus’s prayer. If Jesus commands us to forgive “everyone” just like “God is kind to the wicked and ungrateful” (Luke 6:35), perhaps there’s more hope than we think – for our selves and for others too. And thus perhaps practicing Jesus’s radical form of forgiveness isn’t foolish after all. It begins to seem like the only hope for the future, as Desmond Tutu saw.
Praying with Jesus, Healing the World
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This is a prayer that engraves radical humility, expanded responsibility, and extravagant mercy into our consciousness and character.
It liberates us from the poison of pride, denial, and revenge.
And it prepares us to enter into Jesus’s final miracle – to forgive even to the point of death. We learn to hope without exclusion or end.
This is the healing of the world.
Today may we be ambassadors of Jesus’s forgiveness. This is our most important work.
“If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven.” John 20:22