When I was a kid, my brother and I used to trespass all over the neighborhood. It was a rural area, and there was always somebody’s patch of woods to explore, or a neighbor’s pond to skip rocks into, or an abandoned house to investigate. We thought of it as archaeology when we discovered what was inside those collapsing homes. Trespassing would have been a harsh word in our minds, but that’s exactly what it was. If our mother had only known! First, trespassing is dangerous—you could get yourself hurt. Second, trespassing is rude—even though it’s not your place, you don’t have permission, and what if you break something. Third, trespassing is illegal—what if you get arrested? (Almost happened to me, once, but that’s another story.) The fact is, I certainly have a past (and might have gotten a record) of trespassing—and if you’re honest with yourself, you do too.
This is why, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Since my childhood, I now realize just how many trespasses I need to have forgiven! And if God has forgiven me, then I’m under obligation to forgive those who have trespassed against me.
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the story of an employee who owes his employer an astronomical amount of money that he could never repay—but in his mercy, the boss forgives the debt. Then the employee turns on his friend who owes him a small sum, choking him and demanding repayment. When the friend can’t pay, the employee has him thrown into prison. The employer hears of this and says, “You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”[i] As a harsh lesson, he has the employee thrown into debtor’s prison until he could pay this unpayable debt.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says to forgive others AS we have been forgiven. This little word “as” means at the same time, in the same way, and to the same degree. In Luke 6:37-38[ii], Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This means if you want to use a tiny amount of grace, you can expect a tiny amount of grace. If you give a heavy helping of judgment, God will give you the same. So we pray that God will forgive us AS we forgive others. For our sake and theirs, that needs to be a lot.
In Luke 6:39, Jesus asks, “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Picture this ridiculous image of a blind man reaching out for someone to lead him—yet the person who offers guidance can’t see, himself! “Sure, follow me!” says the blind guide, as he leads them both to destruction. That’s the way religious people are when they think they can lead other people spiritually, but they themselves are so blinded by unforgiveness that they can’t see two feet in front of them. Jesus continues with the blindness analogy by saying:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (verses 41-42).”
Now, nothing is funny about blindness—and nothing’s funny about spiritual blindness, either. Though Jesus might make His audience chuckle with this outrageous picture, unforgiveness and judgment are no laughing matter. They blind us from our own condition, causing us to focus on other people’s faults instead of our own. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to give grace at the same time, the same way, and the same degree that we’ve received grace. Any less, and we’re not loving people the way that Jesus loved us. This is the only way we can relate to God honestly in prayer—if we’re also relating to people honestly, recognizing that “all have sinned (Romans 3:23),” including ourselves.
When I was a teenager, one night I sneaked out of the house with a friend and climbed one of those old fire observation towers—just to say we’d done it. Whenever cars drove by, we flattened our bodies out on the platform we were on, so nobody would see us. One of those times, the car slowed down and came to a stop just beneath the tower. Our breath came heavy as we waited to see what would happen. Then we heard the squawk of a police siren, and saw the blue light rotate just once, before the gravel crunched again and the car drove away. In one squawk, that unseen officer spoke volumes to us. He said, “Ok, boys—I was a teenager too, and I did things I could have gotten in trouble for, myself. So instead of getting in trouble, why don’t you just come down before somebody gets hurt?” And that’s all he needed to do—we scrambled down, and never climbed that tower again. The officer had the power to bring judgment down on us, but chose grace instead. He embodied Colossians 3:13, which says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
So the next time you’re tempted to judge someone, choose grace instead. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s more than just a line in a prayer. It’s the only way we can relate to a God of grace—by also being gracious to others.