PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS
Matthew 6:11-15 NET
11 Give us today our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. 14 “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.
When our Lord taught his disciples to pray, he packed his instructions with information about forgiveness. He knows that for us, the two ideas are inseparable. Maybe that is why people nowadays have such a hard time maintaining a consistent prayer life. Maybe it is not that we don’t know how to pray. Maybe our problem is that lack of forgiveness is keeping us from praying.
Today I want to look at this text to see if we can get a better grip on the relationship between prayer and forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something every Christian regularly needs (11-12a)
The Lord told his apostles to ask for two things on a regular daily basis: food to sustain them physically and forgiveness to revive them spiritually. Now, this is odd, because most of us are used to thinking about forgiveness as something that we got when we first came to Christ. In fact, our testimony is that we were sinners, and we repented, and God forgave us of all our sins. All our sins were nailed on the cross with Jesus. God has separated us from those sins as far as the east is from the west.
So, why does Jesus tell his apostles to come to their heavenly Father and ask for forgiveness every day? That is not a mistake. Jesus knows that each of us is going to fail in our attempt to walk the straight and narrow. We are going to need forgiveness therapy on a regular basis.
The cross has made it possible for us to enter the narrow way and guarantees us an inheritance of eternal life when Jesus returns. But God does not want to leave us to figure out the Christian walk all by ourselves. He wants to stand by us as we take our baby steps. He wants to be there for us every time we fall. He’s not going to make us fall, but he’s going to be there to pick us up every time we do fall. That is why he commands us to pray for forgiveness regularly.
N.T. Wright says that this verse “assumes that we will need to ask for forgiveness not on one or two rare occasions but very regularly. This is a sobering thought, but it is matched by the comforting news that forgiveness is freely available as often as we need it” (60).
David Turner says that the word ἐπιούσιος in 6:11 refers to “immediate day-to-day necessities rather than long-term luxuries” (188).
Jesus also knows that we will be tempted to try to live the Christian life without the Father’s help. We think that Jesus went to the cross for our salvation, but that he has left Christian living up to us. That is wrong thinking and trying to live the Christian life without regular forgiveness therapy leads to disaster.
Part of our problem is that we do not like to be reminded of our failures. It is much easier to ignore the things that we have done that need forgiveness. We don’t want to dwell on our mistakes. So, we tell ourselves that it is all covered in the blood and just try to forget it. But if we fail to deal with today’s mistakes, we are going to repeat those mistakes tomorrow. Jesus does not want us to get caught up in a cycle of failure. He has opened a window in heaven for us, so that we have access to the Father’s forgiveness, as often as we need it.
We need that regular forgiveness because every time we stumble, we are not just hurting ourselves, or other people. The most important relationship we all have is with our creator. He is our heavenly Father. The relationship we have with him is the most important relationship we will ever have. Reconciliation with him is not something we can do just once.
When I go to the grocery store and buy bread, I usually buy enough for the whole week. But I cannot wait a whole week to reconcile with God. I can survive a week between meetings of congregational worship. But I cannot put off my time at the throne room. That has to be regular.
Prayer can also keep us from failing others (13).
Prayer therapy is not only necessary to heal our damaged relationship with God. It is also necessary to prevent us from falling as we go about the day’s walk. Prayer can strengthen us. Some of that strength will be given to us so that we can have a more appropriate relationship with others.
I think this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his apostles to pray for God to protect them from temptation. We have been studying the book of James in our Sunday evening Bible study times. Last Sunday we read that “each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). James taught that temptation happens when desires inside us are allowed to lure us away from healthy actions and produce unhealthy actions. We need guidance from God so that we can stay away from temptation.
Warren Wiersbe says that “In this petition, we are asking God to guide us so that we will not get out of His will and get involved in a situation of temptation”(44).
If we don’t regularly go to God in prayer for that guidance, we will not only make mistakes that hurt others, we will keep making those same mistakes over and over again. A prayer is a tool for us to repair the damage that we have done, and to prevent us from making things worse and worse.
Turner says that “When disciples pray for protection from temptation to sin, they pray for God to break the cycle that so often plagues them (cf. Josh. 7:20-21; James 1:13-15). Temptation leads to sin, and sin leads to the necessity of praying for forgiveness. Prayer for protection from temptation and deliverance from the evil one’s strategies breaks the cycle (cf. Matt. 4:1-11)” (189).
There is also a third relationship that we have to keep in mind. Jesus instructed his apostles to pray for deliverance from the evil one. The devil wants to ruin our lives. He wants us to keep failing God and each other. He is going to bring trials and temptations and stumbling blocks into our lives because he wants to prevent us from having victory.
Folks, we need to take the devil seriously. He takes us seriously. He spends a lot of time trying to discourage us and thwart our efforts. He is stronger than we are. But he is not stronger than our heavenly Father is. We need to pray for protection from and deliverance from the devil every day.
Senior says that “Both words, “test” (πειρασμός) and “evil” or “evil one” (πονηρός), have a strong eschatological flavor referring to the ultimate test of the final days and the assault of the demonic, but can also be attached to those incursions of threat and evil in the present age, which are, in a sense, anticipations of the final test” (86).
Forgiving others keeps the prayer channel open (12b, 14-15).
Jesus also commanded his apostles to specifically use their prayer time to declare forgiveness for everyone who has wronged them. In fact, he told them that this kind of forgiveness therapy is absolutely essential if the other kind of forgiveness therapy is going to work.
Remember, our problem is that we fail God and other people all the time. We have to regularly come to God for forgiveness. But Jesus said that there is something that can stop the flow of that healing. If we refuse to forgive others for the wrongs they have committed against us, then when we come to the throne room, we will get a busy signal.
The reason this happens is that one of our primary responsibilities as Christians is to represent God and his kingdom. The minute we stop forgiving those who have wronged us, we stop representing God. It is a sin to fail to forgive. It is a major sin.
It is like a person who was arrested for speeding and who argued that he should be let go because he was not speeding in this county because he was in the neighboring county robbing a bank at the time. They’re not going to let him go. They’re going to send him to that other county to stand trial.
But the good news is, it works the other way, too. When we come to the throne room of God and he forgives us, it makes it easier for us to forgive those who fail us. That is how forgiveness therapy is supposed to work. The purity and healthiness that we feel when we know we have been forgiven by God can empower us to extend that same forgiveness.
But what happens when we refuse to forgive? Jesus told a parable about a slave that had been forgiven a huge debt – ten thousand talents, but then he found someone who owed him a much smaller sum – a hundred silver coins, and he threw him into prison. When the master found out about it, he sent that slave to prison to be tortured. Jesus told his listeners “So also my heavenly Father will do to you if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Leigh Ann Powers writes, “Sometimes people have a false understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat for others’ mistreatment. Forgiveness means relinquishing the right to our own vengeance and leaving justice with God. Forgiveness is a refusal to hold others’ sins against them and coming to that place where we desire God’s will for them — whatever that may be. When we, as God’s people, experience God’s forgiveness, God empowers us through his Spirit to extend forgiveness to others” (Younger,79).
As Turner puts it, “a forgiven person is a forgiving person” (189).
Jesus is telling us something very important here. Forgiveness therapy is available for us. We can come regularly to the throne room of heaven and confess our failures to God, and he will forgive us – clean slate forgiveness. There are some things that we can do that will stop forgiveness therapy from working. We can stop living like our heavenly Father. We can keep a grudge against those who wrong us. We can plot to get even. We can choose to ignore or ostracize those who offend us.
Living a life like that is its own prison. Forget about bringing others to Christ. Forget about having a victorious walk. When you are stuck in a lack of forgiveness, you become a liability to the kingdom. Don’t stay there. Go back to the throne room and confess the sin of failing to forgive. Forgive completely, not because they ask for it, not even because they deserve it, but because you cannot function without it. You have to forgive. Give it over to God. Set yourself free to live a Christian life.
Notice the sequence of Jesus’ commands here. He first tells us to pray for forgiveness of our debts. Within that prayer is a promise that we will reciprocate by forgiving others for what they owe us. If we first come to God praying about our problems with others, we are failing to obey Jesus.
For example, suppose I go to the Lord in prayer tomorrow morning, and say ‘Lord, Joe is a problem for me, I want you to fix him.’ But the Lord responds to my prayer and says, ‘I was just talking to Joe last night. He said ‘Lord, Jeff is a problem for me, I want you to fix him.’ Who should I fix first?
According to today’s text, I should not go to the Lord with my problems until I have already received forgiveness for being someone else’s problem. Then I am free to forgive those who are a problem for me. Every time I go to the throne room, I should leave reconciled with God and my neighbor. Prayer is the place to get free from debt, and it is also the place to set other people free.
Senior, Donald. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011.
Turner, David L. Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Meet Your King. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1980.
Wright, N T. Matthew for Everyone: Chapters 1-15. London: SPCK, 2004.
Younger, Carol D. The Gospel of Matthew: Hope in the Resurrected Christ: Adult Bible Study Guide. Dallas, Tex: BaptistWay Press, 2008.