“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Yesterday we looked at a few verses in which Jesus seems to give us a blank check to essentially demand whatever we want from God and if we believe we’ll receive it strongly enough, we can expect to get it. We talked about the challenges of those verses and how they are all too often used improperly. The other thing I mentioned then was that in those verses there didn’t seem to be any clear “buts” that would lead us away from a straight line Prosperity Gospel. Well, this verse which follows immediately on the heels of what Jesus said about prayer gives us a bit of a “but.” This exception, though, is pretty important to note because it’s something Jesus said several different times. Let’s talk this morning about the relationship between forgiveness and prayer.
At a quick glance, this verse doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the verses that come before it. There Jesus was talking about getting what we want from God by virtue of a sufficient level of belief. Here Jesus is talking about being forgiven of our own wrongdoing by God. Apples and oranges, right? Maybe not. Given the context of having seen the results of Jesus’ cursing the fig tree (namely, it withered from the roots up), and Jesus’ now telling them they can ask God anything in prayer and get it, the disciples’ minds had to be racing and their prayer lips salivating. Why do I say that? Because the disciples were dumb. They always missed Jesus’ point and thought in the same incorrect ways you and I do when given the chance.
Well, Jesus needed to slow them down a bit, so He gave them a bit more perspective on prayer by bringing their attention back to something He had said before. There is a connection between prayer and forgiveness. Specifically, there is a connection between your ability to pray successfully and your forgiveness of someone who has hurt you in any way. Even more specifically than that, if you haven’t forgiven the people who have hurt you, God isn’t going to forgive you for your own sins. And, if you aren’t in a right relationship with God that is cleared of all sin by virtue of His abundant forgiveness, you shouldn’t expect Him to answer your prayers. The reason for this is that when your relationship with God is broken by sin, your requests have a high likelihood of not falling in line with His will. Prayers not in line with God’s will are going to consistently get a, “No,” from Him. No amount of fervent belief on our part will change that. In short, then, if you want your prayers to work, you need to be in a right relationship not only with God, but with the people around you.
This is a perspective on prayer we rarely bring with us to the discipline. Case in point: When was the last time you really thought about your fractured relationship with someone else when you cried out to God in a moment of need? It’s probably been a while, if ever. Why? Because when we are in a moment of need, we’re not focused on how our relationship is with the people around us, we’re focused on ourselves. We’re focused on our misery. We want God to pull us out of our mess and we’ll work out the rest of our issues later. But what Jesus says here makes pretty clear that if our relationship with other people is a mess, no matter how great is the mess we are in, we’re going to have to get that relationship worked out before we can expect God to do much about our situation.
Let me break this down even more painfully than that. If you have someone from whom you are withholding forgiveness for some reason, your own sins will remain unforgiven until you get that worked out. And, if your sins are sitting in the category of “unforgiven,” you do not have a functioning relationship with God. In other words, the status of your relationship with God hinges on your giving forgiveness to the people who have hurt you. The measuring stick of a right relationship with God is the rightness of our relationships with the people around us. Righteousness is not something that only concerns our relationship with God. It is a both-and affair. If one is not in place, the other won’t be; and if the other isn’t, the one can’t be.
I hope the application here is clear. If you have a relationship with someone else that is fractured in some way, you need to get that straightened out. More specifically, if someone else has hurt you such that you need to forgive them, you need to make doing that your absolute highest priority. Your own relationship with God will remain on hold until you do.
And here’s why: In Christ, God has pronounced all sins forgivable. That’s not the same as saying they are all forgiven. His forgiveness has to be received to actually take effect. But in Christ all sins are forgivable. If we go humbly to Him, we can receive God’s forgiveness. Period. If, however, we choose to withhold forgiveness from someone who has hurt us, we are pronouncing their sins to be unforgivable unless and until we decide otherwise. Well, if God says something is forgivable and we say it isn’t, one of us isn’t right. If we insist that we are right, then we are telling God He is wrong. The trouble is, the only person who could tell God He is wrong is someone who outranks Him. In other words, when we are withholding forgiveness from another person, we are harboring the delusion that we are God, not Him. As God, we don’t need to be forgiven anything by anyone. God’s forgiveness of us in that situation is meaningless because we don’t need it; we can’t receive it. This whole thing is a delusion of heart and mind, but as long as we persist in this state by refusing to forgive, we can’t be forgiven of our own sins. God’s offer still stands in Christ, but we can’t receive it. He isn’t being vindictive. We are being foolish and delusional. Either way, our unforgiven status remains and our prayers won’t achieve their aims.
So, let’s say it again: If you have a relationship with another person that is broken because of an offense they have dealt you (whether or not they realize it), you need to offer forgiveness. It may be that this forgiveness can happen solely in your heart without actually expressing it (especially if the other person isn’t even aware of the offense), but you need to extend it. You need to step down from God’s throne and let Him sit on it as is His right. Let go of your delusions of being God and leave the job to Him. He’s better at it anyway. And, before you go proclaiming your inability to forgive, know now that’s a pathetic copout. Jesus forgave the people who were putting Him to death while they were doing it. If you’re still breathing, you haven’t faced that particular kind of challenge of forgiveness. Ask for His help and step off His throne today. Then, do it again tomorrow. A right relationship with God is hanging in the balance. Forgive so you can be forgiven. You’ll be glad you did.