“Forgive Us our Trespasses”
The rendering of this phrase could be more accurately and literally rendered, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” It is a brief enough petition, but within it hide two bits of counsel for us as we strive to live the Orthodox life.
Firstly, this petition presupposes that we need forgiveness every day. If the Lord teaches us in this prayer to pray for our daily bread, then arguably we also need to ask for daily forgiveness. And as any Christian knows, forgiveness is only offered to us on the basis of our repentance of the sin for which we ask forgiveness. It is nonsense to say to God, “I refuse to repent of this sin, but please forgive it anyway.” That is not asking for forgiveness of sin (which is always forthcoming from the Lover of Mankind), but for indulgence of sin (which, mercifully, is never forthcoming). If we ask for forgiveness, we must first repent. This is assumed.
That means that repentance is not something we do just once (for example when we become a Christian if converting as an adult), but every single day. It is not an historical event to which we can look back, like our first day of school, but a life-style. And this life-style sets us radically apart from the surrounding world, for in the secular world, constant repentance is excluded.
As disciples of Jesus, we are committed to a living in a different way. We look into our hearts and, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, begin to see ourselves as we really are, and to see in our hearts the mess that is really there. This insight might lead us to despair if it were not the work of the Holy Spirit. The Enemy tells us of our sins to condemn us; the Spirit shows us our sins to heal us. When the Spirit shows us our sins, we may be sad, but it is “a bright sadness” (in Schmemann’s memorable phrase1) because it leads us to forgiveness and healing. In the words of St. Paul, it produces a sorrow leading to repentance, a sorrow without regret, unlike the sorrow of the world, which produces death (2 Cor 7:8f). This sorrow produces hope and joy.
Each day, therefore, we look into our own hearts and make an examination of conscience. When our conscience, enlightened by the Spirit, shows us our sins, we repent and offer our repentance to God, and He responds by forgiving and justifying us (see Luke 18:14). Justification therefore is not a single, once-for-all event. Through God’s grace, we live under a continual outpouring of his justification and forgiveness, because we live in a constant state of repentance.
Secondly, we note that this justification and forgiveness is offered to us only on the basis that we forgive others. I suspect this is why the Lord referred to our misdeed as “debts”, and not as (for example) transgressions or stains. For what is a transgression? It is going too far, going where you should not. If I put a sign on my lawn saying, “NO TRESPASSING,” and you walk on the lawn and through my front door, you are transgressing, going where you should not. The proper response to a transgression or a trespass is to back up and get out. You should not have gone where you went—so go away. And what is a stain? A stain is a blemish, a blot. One removes a stain on a piece of clothing by bleaching it out, by intense washing. But a debt is more simply dealt with. If I have a debt of $100—if I borrow $100 from you and cannot repay you—the debt may be dealt with by a simple act of forgiveness. You may, if you wish, cancel the debt with a mere word, saying, “I forgive you the debt,” so that I no longer owe you anything.
This is why the Lord referred to our sins as debts—because He wanted us to forgive the debts that others have incurred with us. If a person sins against us and hurts us, he or she owes us spiritually. We can, if we wish, cancel the debt with a mere word, saying to them from the heart, “I forgive you.” And this, the Lord says, is what we must do if we would be forgiven ourselves. There is no way around this; the requirement is absolute.
This is not because God is arbitrary or is playing games with us. It would be arbitrary if God made as a requirement for forgiveness that we stand on our heads, for there is nothing about standing on our heads that has anything to do with us being forgiven. It would be arbitrary if God made as a requirement for forgiveness that we paint our faces blue with woad, for the colour of our faces has nothing to do with our being forgiven. But there is everything having to do with our being forgiven in our forgiving others. For if we refuse to forgive others and clench up our hearts against them, our hearts cannot receive God’s forgiveness. A hard and clenched heart is closed, and our hearts must be open in order to receive God’s forgiveness. To forgive and to be forgiven involve adopting the same inner posture of the heart.
This petition for forgiveness reminds us of the constant need to both repent and forgive. God loves us, but He offers salvation and joy on no other basis.
Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 33. ↩