Our Last Resort
The line of the Lord’s prayer, “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors” presents us with a huge challenge because it is just so tough to receive, give and accept forgiveness. The world around us is overwhelmed by violence, injustice and sin. Sin is a moral debt that can never be repaid. When a murderer repents and turns to the Lord, does this bring back the person(s) he or she murdered? In a sense sin (= any violation of God’s law) is too much to bear for us. This is why when we are confronted with our sinfulness (whether murder or adultery of the heart; see Matthew 5:21-22; Matthew 5:27-28), all we can do is recognize our helpless state.
Psalm 51:1-18, the great psalm of confession, takes on this precise posture. It recounts King David’s confession after an incredible succession of stupid actions (does anyone know of any sinful decisions that were smart moves?). He jumps off the moral cliff so quickly by not only sleeping with another man’s wife, but trying to cover it up by murdering the husband, Uriah the Hittite, the servant of the king (as he is called in 2 Samuel 11:1-27). Sin compounds upon sin, and he’s in it deep.
Once David acknowledges what he has done, “I have sinned against the Lord,” (2 Samuel 12:13) he knows fully that no amount of reparation, or sacrifices in the temple will ever cover for the wrong. In fact in Levitical law, there is no forgiveness possible for the sin with a ‘high hand’ (Numbers 15:30-31) and David sinned with both hands lifted very high. To switch imagery, he jumped in both feet wholeheartedly. Psalm 51:1-2 puts it in perspective for us: To the ‘big three’ (transgression=rebellion; iniquity= guilt/shame; sin =falling short of God’s Law), David appeals to God’s own ‘big three’: His grace/favor, his steadfast love, and his compassion. To counter the wrong, David seeks three actions from God: ‘blot out/cancel my transgression;’ ‘wash away my guilt and shame;’ and ‘purify me from my sin.’ David really has no other recourse. All he can do is appeal to God’s character to save him from certain and deserved death for his premeditated adultery and murder. When we say “forgive our debts” we too appeal to God’s character, because no amount of sacrifice or restitution can repay the wrong we have done.
The second lesson from David’s confession that we can apply to the Lord’s prayer is the condition of David’s heart. Toward the end of the psalm, he makes clear that God is not all like David. Whereas David “despised” the Lord and His Word (2 Samuel 12:9-10), God will not “despise” (same word) a “broken and contrite heart.” In fact, the phrase literally goes something like this: “a broken spirit and a broken [same word] and crushed heart, O Lord, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
This is in essence the only possible way out of our the quagmire sin puts us in. If we dig in our heels, there is no chance to receive forgiveness. But if we truly recognize the evil we have done and feel broken twice over and crushed in our heart, then we are ready to receive the forgiveness God extends to us. No amount of pay back or good deeds on our part will cover for what we have done.
So David, of course the man after God’s own heart, got to survive and continue as king. But what about the victim? Uriah the Hittite, the servant of the king? Uriah is never forgotten, he is known forever as part of the lineage of the King of kings in Matthew’s genealogy (Matthew 1:6). Uriah’s self-sacrifice is remembered forever (it’s almost certain Uriah knew David was up to no good with him)* and he ends up the selfless hero of this sad episode. God never forgets the victim!
What about David’s action? While he is forgiven by God, he will live with the consequences of his foolishness for the rest of his life! (see 2 Samuel 13 and following). We do too. Sometimes the sins of our forefathers carry long-range consequences that we still live with (for example slavery in America). None of us are guilty of the sin of slavery that was abolished long ago. We weren’t participants. As Deuteronomy says, the soul that sins shall die. However, we do identify with the consequences of our forefathers’ wickedness and still see the evil of racism in our day. So just as Nehemiah himself did not participate in the sins that caused the exile of his forefathers, he nevertheless identifies with the consequences (the city is destroyed) and says, “I and my father’s house have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6). So we too identify with the consequences of others’ sins and repent of these consequences.
What David couldn’t possibly understand is the how of his forgiveness. It’s not that he got off free, far from it. It would take his descendant according to the flesh, the Son of God, to pay with His own life for the evil of taking an innocent life away. When Jesus died, the innocent died so that the guilty might live. Paul puts it this way: “he who knew no sin became sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Whenever we sin and repent with a broken and crushed heart, we receive forgiveness but it’s never free. Someone died on our behalf. Just as “Rock of Ages,” by Toplady says, “Wash me Savior or I die!”
Out of this posture of being forgiven, we are then able to forgive others. The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35 provides the perfect illustration of the Lord’s prayer. Jesus in Matthew 6:14-15 doesn’t create an absolute contingency (e.g., only once we have forgiven others can we be forgiven by God) but he does say that forgiven people will be able to forgive others. If they don’t, we should really question whether these people have gone through this breaking and crushing of the heart over their own sin (Matthew 18:35). Once we have faced our own sorrow and crushed spirit over our own sins, then it will be a lot easier to extend the same favor and grace to others.
Questions for the Week:
Are you broken and crushed over your own sins? Allow the Holy Spirit to show you areas of your life that are not aligned with God’s will.
The flip question to help answer the first: Are you able to forgive others? List the people against whom you have held on a grudge. Allow God to minister to you and extend forgiveness to them.
Before any of this can happen, have you experienced God’s character, his mercy, grace, favor and steadfast love in your life? This is the only appeal we have before Him when we are confronted with our own sinfulness. ‘Do you know God as a forgiving God?’ is really the question here
Do you understand how no one gets off free? Jesus, the Son of God, God Himself, took your sin on the cross. He died and paid the penalty for our own stupid and selfish choices. Do you believe in His love shown at the cross?
Finally, what areas of our culture, own family systems, where we feel the consequences of the sins of the past? This is a big one and feels overwhelming, but if each of us ‘own’ our part and become agents of redemption around us, imagine the compounded impact in our families, neighborhoods and beyond.
*He is brought back from battle twice (read the play-by-play account in 2 Samuel 11:1-27. The first time, David encourages Uriah to go and be with his wife. The second time, David gets him drunk in the hope Uriah will now go to his house to be with his wife. Again, Uriah refuses. Finally, Uriah is sent to his death at the base of the defensive wall of Rabbah-Ammon (modern day Amman). He is basically a sitting duck for the archers on the wall.