A Sermon by Rev. Frederick M. ChapinPreached in Phoenix, Arizona July 29, 1990
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
The words of our text are familiar to nearly every member of the New Church. For the Lord’s Prayer is recited in nearly all formal gatherings, and the words “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is a plea central to the Lord’s Prayer. Now in order to appreciate this prayer and every plea that it contains, it is important to note that it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount sets the tone for the rest of the New Testament; it is providentially set at the beginning of it, which provides for us the basis to read and study the Word in the New Testament. This famous sermon is full of wonderful teachings concerning what a life of charity is and how we may receive it.
One of the essentials of charity that we are to practice, that is taught in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer, is forgiveness. Indeed, our text showed that as we pray to the Lord to forgive our sins or debts, we at the same time must be willing to forgive others who may have hurt us in some way. Now the word “debts” in the Greek has the idea to be under obligation, or to be bound. It is our evils which we choose to delight in that bind us or make us spiritual slaves. Therefore, as we pray to the Lord to release us from our debts or bonds, we should at the same time be willing to release others from their bonds toward us. We should never seek retribution on another who has offended us with the idea of revenge or to get even. Rather, we should try to help the wrongdoer to enter into a higher state of love and wisdom. For after the Lord’s Prayer the Lord said, “If you forgive men their trespasses [which means errors or transgressions], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14,15). Therefore, the Lord teaches us that we are forgiven by the Lord only to the degree that we are willing to forgive others.
We can see the vital importance of forgiving others in the powerful parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matt. 18:21-35). Peter asked the Lord how often he should forgive his brother (expecting a definite number). In answer the Lord told a parable of a servant who owed his master ten thousand talents. A talent weighed about ninety-four pounds. From this we can see the enormous debt this servant owed his master. In fact, he probably could not pay it off within his lifetime. Nevertheless, the master was prepared to mercifully wipe the debt clean so that the servant would owe him nothing. But when the servant departed, he immediately demanded that another servant pay his debt of one hundred denarii, which probably could have been paid in three months’ time. But the servant wanted the money immediately, and he threw his fellow servant into prison. Of course, when the master heard of this, he was very angry and demanded payment of the original debt of ten thousand talents from the unforgiving servant. From this we can see the powerful lesson for us that the Lord is ever willing to forgive far more in us than what we are called to forgive in others. However, it is only by our forgiving others that the Lord can forgive our myriads of evils.
The Writings certainly confirm this teaching that we must seek to forgive if we are to have genuine charity in us. For they beautifully define forgiveness as “not to regard anyone from evil but from good” (AC 7697). Thus the Writings urge us not to concentrate on the bad things or the weaknesses of others, but to look for their good points. Even if it seems as if we can see no good in the person, we are still reminded that the Lord is with everyone, striving for his salvation. Therefore, we can still be of help to him by doing what we can to put him in situations where the Lord can stir up his remains. If we look at others in this way, then it will be a great deal easier to tolerate their flaws and forgive their errors or wrongdoings.
But can we really look for the good in others while we remain in our hereditary or actual evils? Can we look beyond the disorders of another and look at him as one who is infinitely loved by the Lord and might be saved, while we have hatred, contempt, and selfishness in our hearts? Can we truly love our enemies while we seek to do good only to those who honor us? The Writings emphatically say no! For they clearly teach that we can truly forgive only when our internals are opened to the Lord (see AC 6561). The only way we can have a spirit of forgiveness is from the Lord. For what is from ourselves is entirely incapable of genuine forgiveness. It can come only when we are willing to allow the Lord’s love and wisdom to enter into our internals and therefrom into our externals. Only if we shun evils as sins against God can the Lord replace our evil and selfish loves with the genuine love of charity and forgiveness. Let us always be careful not to believe that the ability to look for the good in others is from ourselves. It is only from the Lord’s inflowing into us, and is received only in the measure that its hellish opposite is shunned by us.
However, when we seek to apply the spirit of forgiveness in our everyday lives, must we ignore or excuse the evils of others? Should we pretend the evils are not there as we look for the person’s good? Certainly not! We must fight the evils that are both within and outside of us, but we should approach the person with a spirit of reconciliation. We should urge and help our brother to put away his evil practices, yet without interfering with his internal freedom. The Lord certainly did not ignore the deceit and hypocrisy of the Pharisees while He was on the earth, yet He loved them and desired that they would change their ways so that they could find eternal happiness and peace. So too must we be willing to stand up firmly against the evils of others. But let us judge the evils, not the person. Let us desire that the evils will be put away, but not the man with them. If we have this love and attitude in our hearts and minds, then we can have sympathy toward evil men and not hate them. For angels have sympathy even toward those who are in hell (see CL 415).
Nevertheless, the spirit of forgiveness is not fully ultimated until there is a reciprocal (see AC 9014:2,3). This applies both in our relationship with the Lord and with others. It applies in our relationship with the Lord in that the Lord is willing to forgive all of our evils. He never desires that we suffer because of our evils. However, His mercy and forgiveness are not manifested or perceived in us until we repent. Until we shun evils as sins against the Lord and obey His Word in our daily lives, the Lord will always appear to be a God of wrath and judgment. But in reality He punishes no one; we punish ourselves by choosing to turn away from the Lord. We refuse to allow His forgiveness to be effective in us.
It is the same in our relationship with others. We may have the spirit of forgiveness toward another and truly desire that he genuinely be happy. But if he does not affirmatively respond to our love from the Lord, then we may appear to him to be angry and harsh. For example, a child may do something wrong for which the parent will punish him. Hopefully the parent has already forgiven him in his heart, but outwardly he may appear to be angry toward the child. It is similar with the Lord’s love and forgiveness. It will not be made effective and made known to us until we affirmatively respond to His Word. And it is the same with our dealings with others in that we may not be regarded as a forgiving person until they provide the reciprocal by turning away from evil and turning toward the Lord.
However, must we be constantly in the company of the evil to demonstrate a forgiving spirit? The answer is no! For the Lord taught in the New Testament that if one refuses to be reconciled with us, then we may externally regard him as an adversary (see Matt. 18:17). As long as the man continues in his evil ways, we must disassociate ourselves from his evil acts. This does not mean that we are to be unconcerned about his spiritual welfare, but it does mean that we are not able to be as close to him as if he had changed his ways. This is both for his sake (by not encouraging or excusing his evils) and for our sake (by not being influenced to indulge his evils). Nevertheless, the Lord also taught that we are to agree with our adversary quickly (see Matt. 5:24). We should always be ready to forgive so that once our adversary does mend his ways, we will be able to receive him with open arms.
Not only should we want reconciliation, we should also strive to be reconciled to our brother. For we cannot be in a true state of charity until we take some action to try to clear up the ill feelings we may have toward another. If this means that we must go through the difficult process of apologizing to another, or accepting his apology, we should still pursue it, so that the obstacles to a genuine state of charity and friendship are removed. For the act of forgiving is really an act of purifying (see AC 8393, 10042:5). When we repent and so accept the Lord’s forgiveness in our hearts, He mercifully removes our evils to the outermost regions of our spirit and replaces them with good loves. Likewise, when we forgive another for an evil act and he repents, our relationship is also purified by removing or forgetting that evil and no longer making our brother responsible for it. And just as the Lord forgives us and forgets our shortcomings and disorders over and over again without number, so too must we be willing to forgive our brother’s shortcomings over and over again, without number (see Matt. 18:22). Once again, this does not mean that we need to be naive toward evil, but we should never reach a state where we are unwilling to take another back if there is sincere repentance. Instead, we should be continually ready, when there is repentance, to receive back into the fold a brother who has gone astray.
Therefore, if we do not strive to develop a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, how can we find delight in being of use to others? Will we not despise them if they stand in the way of what we want? How can we be willing to forgive another and take him back if we inwardly hold him in contempt? It is only by allowing the Lord to change our lives that we are able to forgive. It is only by the Lord that we can look for the good in another and not concentrate or delight in his evils. Unless we are first willing to love our neighbor and forgive his faults, and be willing to take him back after genuine repentance, the Lord cannot make known His love toward us and forgive us our sins.
Instead, let us follow the wonderful examples of forgiveness that the Lord gave us while He was on the earth. Let us respond to a brother who has done wrong but who desires to return to us as the Lord said to a woman taken in adultery. “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Let us always look to the Lord to implant in us a love for the eternal welfare of those who do not wish to come back. Let us pray for them as the Lord prayed for those who crucified Him when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And when the Lord removes our hatred and our delight in revenge and gives us a genuine love of forgiving others, and the wisdom to recognize when we should forgive and in what manner, then we can have the confidence and joy that the Lord is forgiving our sins and preparing us for His kingdom. It is while we are in this state that we can pray with sincerity, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Amen.
Lessons: Genesis 50:15-21; Matt. 18:21-35; AC 9014:3
Arcana Coelestia 9014:3
It is believed by many within the church that the forgiveness of sins is the wiping out and washing away thereof, as of filth by water; and that after forgiveness they go on their way clean and pure. Such an opinion prevails especially with those who ascribe everything of salvation to faith alone. But be it known that the case with the forgiveness of sins is quite different. The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself. Nevertheless, they are not thereby forgiven unless the man performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, the man receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life the man views the evils of his former life and turns away from them and regards them with horror, then for the first time are the evils forgiven, for then the man is held in truths and goods by the Lord, and is withheld from evils. From this it is plain what is the forgiveness of sins, and that it cannot be granted within an hour, nor within a year. That this is so the church knows, for it is said to those who come to the Holy Supper that their sins are forgiven if they begin a new life by abstaining from evils and abhorring them.