FORGIVENESS HUMAN AND DIVINE
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors … For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you too; but, if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Before a man can honestly pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer he must realize that he needs to pray it. That is to say, before a man can pray this petition he must have a sense of sin. Sin is not nowadays a popular word. Men and women rather resent being called, or treated as, hell-deserving sinners.
The trouble is that most people have a wrong conception of sin. They would readily agree that the burglar, the drunkard, the murderer, the adulterer, the foul-mouthed person is a sinner. But they are guilty of none of these sins; they live decent, ordinary, respectable lives, and have never even been in danger of appearing in court, or going to prison, or getting some notoriety in the newspapers. They therefore feel that sin has nothing to do with them.
The New Testament uses five different words for sin.
(i) The commonest word is hamartia (GSN0266). This was originally a shooting word and means a missing of the target. To fail to hit the target was hamartia. Therefore sin is the failure to be what we might have been and could have been.
Charles Lamb has a picture of a man named Samuel le Grice. Le Grice was a brilliant youth who never fulfilled his promise. Lamb says that there were three stages in his career. There was a time when people said, “He will do something.” There was a time when people said, “He could do something if he would.” There was a time when people said, “He might have done something, if he had liked.” Edwin Muir writes in his Autobiography: “After a certain age all of us, good and bad, are grief stricken because of powers within us which have never been realized: because, in other words, we are not what we should be.”
That precisely is hamartia (GSN0266); and that is precisely the situation in which we are all involved. Are we as good husbands or wives as we could be? Are we as good sons or daughters as we could be? Are we as good workmen or employers as we could be? Is there anyone who will dare to claim that he is all he might have been, and has done all he could have done? When we realise that sin means the failure to hit the target, the failure to be all that we might have been and could have been, then it is clear that every one of us is a sinner.
(ii) The second word for sin is parabasis (GSN3847), which literally means a stepping across. Sin is the stepping across the line which is drawn between right and wrong.
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides honesty and dishonesty? Is there never any such thing as a petty dishonesty in our lives?
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides truth and falsehood? Do we never, by word or by silence, twist or evade or distort the truth?
Do we always stay on the right side of the line which divides kindness and courtesy from selfishness and harshness? Is there never an unkind action or a discourteous word in our lives?
When we think of it in this way, there can be none who can claim always to have remained on the right side of the dividing line.
(iii) The third word for sin is paraptoma (GSN3900), which means a slipping across. It is the kind of slip which a man might make on a slippery or an icy road. It is not so deliberate as parabasis (GSN3847). Again and again we speak of words slipping out; again and again we are swept away by some impulse or passion, which has momentarily gained control of us, and which has made us lose our self-control. The best of us can slip into sin when for the moment we are off our guard.
(iv) The fourth word for sin is anomia (GSN0458), which means lawlessness. Anomia is the sin of the man who knows the right, and who yet does the wrong; the sin of the man who knows the law, and who yet breaks the law. The first of all the human instincts is the instinct to do what we like; and therefore there come into any man’s life times when he wishes to kick over the traces, and to defy the law, and to do or to take the forbidden thing. In Mandalay, Kipling makes the old soldier say:
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments, an’ a man can raise a thirst’
Even if there are some who can say that they have never broken any of the Ten Commandments, there are none who can say that they have never wished to break any of them.
(v) The fifth word for sin is the word opheilema (GSN3783) which is the word used in the body of the Lord’s Prayer; and opheilema means a debt. It means a failure to pay that which is due, a failure in duty. There can be no man who will ever dare to claim that he has perfectly fulfilled his duty to man and to God: Such perfection does not exist among men.
So, then, when we come to see what sin really is, we come to see that it is a universal disease in which every man is involved. Outward respectability in the sight of man, and inward sinfulness in the sight of God may well go hand in hand. This, in fact, is a petition of the Lord’s Prayer which every man needs to pray.
FORGIVENESS HUMAN AND DIVINE
Matt. 6:12,14,15 (continued)
Not only does a man need to realize that he needs to pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer; he also needs to realize what he is doing when he prays it. Of all petitions of the Lord’s Prayer this is the most frightening.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The literal meaning is : “Forgive us our sins in proportion as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” In Matt. 6:14-15 Jesus says in the plainest possible language that if we forgive others, God will forgive us; but if we refuse to forgive others, God will refuse to forgive us. It is, therefore, quite clear that, if we pray this petition with an unhealed breach, an unsettled quarrel in our lives, we are asking God not to forgive us.
If we say, “I will never forgive so-and-so for what he or she has done to me,” if we say, “I will never forget what so-and-so did to me,” and then go and take this petition on our lips, we are quite deliberately asking God not to forgive us. As someone has put it: “Forgiveness, like peace, is one and indivisible.” Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are inextricably intercombined. Our forgiveness of our fellow-men and God’s forgiveness of us cannot be separated; they are interlinked and interdependent. If we remembered what we are doing when we take this petition on our lips, there would be times when we would not dare to pray it.
When Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the South Sea Islands he used always to conduct family worship in the mornings for his household. It always concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. One morning in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer he rose from his knees and left the room. His health was always precarious, and his wife followed him thinking that he was ill. “Is there anything wrong?” she said. “Only this,” said Stevenson, “I am not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer today.” No one is fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer so long as the unforgiving spirit holds sway within his heart. If a man has not put things right with his fellow-men, he cannot put things right with God.
If we are to have this Christian forgiveness in our lives, three things are necessary.
(i) We must learn to understand. There is always a reason why a person does something. If he is boorish and impolite and cross-tempered, maybe he is worried or in pain. If he treats us with suspicion and dislike, maybe he has misunderstood, or has been misinformed about something we have said or done. Maybe the man is the victim of his own environment or his own heredity. Maybe his temperament is such that life is difficult and human relations a problem for him. Forgiveness would be very much easier for us, if we tried to understand before we allowed ourselves to condemn.
(ii) We must learn to forget. So long as we brood upon a slight or an injury, there is no hope that we will forgive. We so often say, “I can’t forget what so-and-so did to me,” or “I will never forget how I was treated by such-and-such a person or in such-and-such a place.” These are dangerous sayings, because we can in the end make it humanly impossible for us to forget. We can print the memory indelibly upon our minds.
Once the famous Scottish man of letters, Andrew Lang, wrote and published a very kind review of a book by a young man. The young man repaid him with a bitter and insulting attack. About three years later Andrew Lang was staying with Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate. Bridges saw Lang reading a certain book. “Why,” he said, “that’s another book by that ungrateful young cub who behaved so shamefully to you.” To his astonishment he found that Andrew Lang’s mind was a blank on the whole affair. He had completely forgotten the bitter and insulting attack. To forgive, said Bridges, was the sign of a great man, but to forget was sublime. Nothing but the cleansing spirit of Christ can take from these memories of ours the old bitterness that we must forget.
(iii) We must learn to love. We have already seen that Christian love, agape (GSN0026), is that unconquerable benevolence, that undefeatable good-will, which will never seek anything but the highest good of others, no matter what they do to us, and no matter how they treat us. That love can come to us only when Christ, who is that love, comes to dwell within our hearts–and he cannot come unless we invite him.
To be forgiven we must forgive, and that is a condition of forgiveness which only the power of Christ can enable us to fulfil.
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