For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

What does it mean to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Or, in other translations, “forgive us our debts,” or “forgive us our sins”

This piece of the Lord’s prayers reminds us that all of the Bible is translation. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray in English, so we are always using translations of what he said. There is a good explanation of the history behind the translations of this particular verse at Desiring God, so I won’t go into that here. You can find it here:

The most important word in this petition, when you think about it, is always translated the same way: Forgive. In this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is teaching us to ask for forgiveness. Something that we all need, because we all sin. Right after we pray that our heavenly Father would give us our daily bread, we ask God to forgive us our sins.

Forgiveness is one of our deepest needs. It is at the heart of scripture, and at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to offer us forgiveness and to reconcile us to God. And he encourages us in this prayer to ask for forgiveness, every time we pray. There are so many things I could say about forgiveness and this petition, it is really quite overwhelming. But for this meditation, I will stick with just three. 

Recognizing Our Need for Forgiveness

First, an important aspect of forgiveness is that it is very difficult to give it to someone who doesn’t want it. A person has to want to be forgiven in order to receive our forgiveness, and we have to want forgiveness from God in order to receive it, too. 

Think of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The prodigal son surely needed forgiveness, but he didn’t know it. He was squandering his father’s money in a far country, and didn’t care about forgiveness. Until he got so desperate that he “came to himself,” as Jesus puts it in this parable. When he came to himself, he realized his need to be forgiven and reconciled to his father. Or, at least he recognized that he could go home and be fed. And so he returned home. And his father embraced him, forgave him, and threw him a party. That’s the forgiveness that God longs to give to each of us.

So, how do we “come to ourselves”? How do we recognize our need for this forgiveness? One way is through this wonderful prayer. Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminding ourselves of our sin and our need for forgiveness. And we are reminding ourselves of God’s endless willingness to forgive us our sins. That is the first part of what Jesus is teaching us here, in this first part of this petition. 

As We Forgive

But what about the next part of this petition? “As we forgive those who trespass against us”? This is, to me, the easiest part of this prayer to understand, but the hardest to actually pray. Because this part of the prayer calls on us to do something, and to do something that is not easy. We are agreeing to forgive those who sin against us. And Jesus teaches us to pray in such a way that whenever we ask God to forgive us, we challenge ourselves to do the same for others. And forgiving someone who has hurt us in one of the most difficult things that we will ever do. 

But Jesus definitely teaches us, even commands us, to forgive one another. In Matthew’s Gospel, after he concludes his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he goes on to say more about this particular part of the prayer. He says: 

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

There’s not much wiggle room here, is there? Jesus expects us to forgive others. And if we refuse, we cannot rightfully expect God to forgive us.

Forgive and Forget?

But let me pause to say a word about forgiving and forgetting. Because we often hear that we should “forgive and forget.” But that is not what Jesus is saying. Thankfully, because it is impossible to force ourselves to forget something. We can forgive someone without forgetting. We can forgive someone while protecting ourselves from it happening again. We can forgive someone while agreeing that there should be consequences, often quite severe, for their actions. There are appropriate consequences to our actions, and forgiveness doesn’t simply erase those consequences. So let’s remove the phrase “forgive and forget” from use, and simply focus on forgiving.

Forgiveness Is a Process

But, still, forgiveness is hard. So, the third thing that I want to say about forgiveness right now is that forgiveness is a process, not a one-time act. This prayer begins the process, but it can be a very long process. It is something like grief in that way – a long process that looks different for everyone, and that can’t simply be rushed through. 

One of the most remarkable stories of forgiveness in the Bible is the story told in Genesis, of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers, you might remember, were jealous of Joseph, and angry about his dreams, so they threw him into a pit and sold him to a caravan headed toward Egypt. That story is in Genesis 37. The next several chapters detail Joseph’s time in Egypt, including his rise to power. But the last nine chapters of Genesis are really the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers, and being reconciled with his family. Nine chapters that describe events that took place over an extended period of time. It didn’t happen overnight, in other words. It was a process. And forgiveness usually is.

But, still, even though it’s a process, what if there is someone that you find it difficult, if not impossible, to forgive? Does this mean that God won’t forgive you? My personal view is that if you are one of those currently wrestling with this issue, but unable to forgive someone at this time, you are not who Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking about someone who sees no need to wrestle with this; someone who sees no need to forgive others at all.

Someone like the person in the parable that Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:23-35, The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This person received forgiveness, but isn’t grateful for that gift, and sees no need to pass it on. And forgiveness that is received, but never given, is what Jesus is warning about. Forgiveness should be paid forward, you might say. 


So, to wrap this up, every time we pray this prayer, we are reminding ourselves that God forgives us despite our many sins, including our difficulty in forgiving others. But we are also reminding ourselves to stick with it, and to keep at it, and not to give up on a relationship that needs forgiveness just because we’re not able to forgive them today.

This prayer, in a beautiful way, both comforts us when we are struggling with sin, or with a need to forgive another, and challenges us to show forgiveness to those around us more and more. And the more we do that, the more joyful this part of the Lord’s Prayer becomes: 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen

Here are links to all of the devotions and sermons that I have shared on the Lord’s Prayer:

Why Pray the Lord’s Prayer?

Why We Pray “Our Father”

What Does It Mean to Hallow God’s Name?

What Does It Mean to Pray “Thy Kingdom Come”?

What Does It Mean to Pray “Thy Will Be Done”?

What Does It Mean to Pray “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”?

What Does It Mean to Pray “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”?

What Does It Mean to Pray “Lead Us Not into Temptation”?

What Does It Mean to Pray, “Deliver Us from Evil”?

Why Pray “For Thine Is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory”?

10 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Pray “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”?

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