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We have relationships that are reciprocal–those  “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of relationships. Perhaps at work, in school, or even in the family, we can find relationships that work on this kind of bartering.

When we don’t hold up our end of the bargain, we anticipate not getting reciprocated. And, when the other is not scratching our back, we are not likely to scratch theirs.

When we first hear Jesus’ words about forgiving in the “Lord’s prayer,” we might think that he is describing something akin to this reciprocal kind of relationship. But as we look a little deeper, it will be clear such is not the case.

Jesus said, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-12)

When Jesus tells us to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” we might first think, “Oh, so in order to get forgiven I must forgive.” In other words, we are bartering with God for forgiveness and will only get forgiven by him when we extend forgiveness to others.

If this were the case, then it is a remarkable out-of-place request. All the rest of the petitions in this prayer are invitations for God to take initiative, for God to be the primary actor. We are asking to be the beneficiaries of his good grace. It is unlikely that Jesus makes an abrupt shift in thinking and tucks into the middle of this model prayer a call for us to barter with God for forgiveness.

The language Jesus uses does not have to mean “God, you owe us forgiveness because we have extended forgiveness to others.” Although there must be some relationship between our forgiving others and God’s forgiving us, the relationship might not be causal (as if our forgiving others is the cause of God extending us forgiveness) but the relationship might still be vital.

In another place, Jesus says that the one who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47). Someone living in the richness of God’s love and forgiveness lives that out in a certain way–in the Luke passage, through the expression of love. The reality of the one (forgiveness from God) is reflected in the reality of the other (loving).

In praying “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” it may be that the idea is more “continue to let us live in this forgiveness we experience from you, O Lord, for we long to live in that reality in all our relationships.” It would not be that our forgiving others merits our being forgiven by God, but that our living in forgiveness with others is the way to express our delight and our longing for a continual life of forgiveness with God. The reality of the one (forgiveness from God) is reflected in the reality of the other (forgiving others).

In other words, to request forgiveness from God without desiring to live in forgiveness with others suggests that we do not really want to live in an atmosphere of forgiveness. It is not so much bartering for blessings, but sincerity in longing to live there–in forgiveness–that may well be in view.

I see a similar kind of relationship between us and the Lord reflected in the Psalms.

Let your lovingkindness, O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in you. (Psalm 33:22)

God’s “lovingkindness” is his free and gracious disposition to do good to those who are the objects of his love. We neither merit nor deserve to be the objects of his lovingkindness. So when the psalmist asks for God’s lovingkindness to be upon him “according as we have hoped in you,” he is not saying “You have to treat us with lovingkindness because of what we have done in hoping in you, God!” The psalmist is asking God to continue to treat them the way he has because that is the psalmist sincere desire–to live there in God’s lovingkindness. And that desire is reflected in the ongoing hope he has in God. There is a relationship between the “as we have hoped in you” and “let your lovingkindness by upon us,” but it is not causal. The hoping does not cause God to extend lovingkindness. But the way to live in the lovingkindness of God is to continue to hope in him.

In similar fashion, our forgiving others does not mandate or place a requirement upon God that he now must forgive us, but the way to continue to live in the experience of God’s forgiveness is to continue to extend forgiveness to others. Trusting, believing, that he forgives us, we cannot but live in that forgiveness.


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