Having just concluded teaching God-glorifying and Christ-characterizing prayer to his disciples, Jesus adds a kind of post-script, reemphasizing forgiveness.
He says “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
It’s important to reemphasize that everything Jesus teaches in this sermon is for shaping his followers into a people whose lives are defined by Christ’s righteous character and his kingdom reality, a reality that is comprehensively redemptive. By God’s grace and through no merit of our own, we have been made residents in the Father’s redemptive reality. However, the forgiveness that brought us there does not then go into storage; forgiveness is not stagnant. It is unrestrained and vibrantly expansive. We received from the Father a forgiveness that is designed to be extended to others that they, too, may share in the Father’s redemptive reality. Forgiveness is a gift that we must keep on giving. Should we withhold forgiveness, we are withholding the very gift that ushered us into God’s kingdom. This creates a stark, illogical irony that is self-disqualifying. If we have undeservingly received forgiveness from the Father on absolutely no merit of our own, for what reason could we justify withholding forgiveness from those who have fallen just as short from God’s glorious worth as we have? It’s a dangerous predicament to put ourselves in. Like Nathan’s parable to David, if we ever find a reason to withhold forgiveness from others we’ve essentially named our own guilt and given God reason to withhold forgiveness from us.
The dynamic Jesus stresses here may initially seem like quid-pro-quo (this for that). In one sense, it is. If we don’t forgive others, how can we claim to be a follower of Jesus, having not understood the generous nature of forgiveness? But in another sense, forgiveness is so much more than quid-pro-quo; it’s not so wooden. Forgiveness is not conceptual. Forgiveness is cultural. Kingdom culture. Christ’s character. Forgiveness (and its twin sister Mercy) is the dynamic that breathes life and creates fluency in kingdom living. Much like dancing, in both steps and freeform, forgiveness keeps us all in play upon this kingdom way. Forgiveness is what we do. It’s how we be. Christ-centered forgiveness is what populates his kingdom community.
Sadly, as so many have seen, the withholding of forgiveness is the dissolution of kingdom community. Unforgiveness has been the undoing of many. When we stop forgiving, we start forgetting. Forgetting the redeemed community. Forgetting the Father. When we stop forgiving, we start forgoing redemptive reality, expelling God’s forgiveness from our lives and embracing a self-devouring bitterness that keeps us living as if on a razor’s edge.
This precarious predicament might help inform our insight concerning Jesus’ choice to reemphasize forgiveness as he concludes his teaching on prayer. Jesus’ connection between prayer and forgiving character is that how we interact with others is a fruition of our interactions with the Father. As prayer forms Christ’s character in us, we are made free to forgive and live as he has enabled us.
I don’t at all mean to imply that forgiveness is easy; forgiveness can be the hardest thing we ever do. It often seems, though, we’re more willing to go through life carrying multiple burdens than to ever forgive a burden someone’s sin has placed on us. But if we can keep at the front of our focus that through Christ on the cross the sins of all the world, yours and mine, are crucified and can be forgiven, we can perceive that the burden someone has weighed heavily upon us is surely nailed up there in Christ, through whom and in whom we witness the redemptive reality that can potentially bring us all together into a oneness and wholeness that heals and makes holy.