Forgive Us Our Trespasses As…

We forgive those who trespass against us, don’t we?  I have been wondering about this as I have discussed the topic of church community life over the past few days with several people with similar frustrations but in different communities.
Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy in his essay, “The Mystery of Forgiveness,” points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father’s forgiving us is contingent on our forgiving those who trespass against us.  However in most of the other passages in the New Testament relating God’s forgiveness to our forgiving, God forgives first, and we forgive as a consequence.  This is not a contradiction; it is a mystery.  St. Paul says, “…forgiving one another just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).  And “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13).  And in Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). 
Similarly, our Lord’s parable of the man who owed his Master 10,000 talents begins with the Master forgiving the servant this huge debt merely because he begged Him.  At the end of the parable, Jesus associates the Master in the parable with “My Heavenly Father,” just in case we don’t get it: Our Heavenly Father first forgives us our great debt.  However, the story is not over.  The experience of forgiveness implies consequences.  The same Grace that forgives also transforms the forgiven one.  But this transformation must be cooperated with.  That is, we must bear the fruit of forgiveness, which is forgiveness.  (What do you get from a pear tree but pears or an apple tree but apples?)
When the servant forgiven of his great debt could not himself bear just a little of the fruit of forgiveness on behalf of his fellow servant who also owned him a debt (a much smaller debt), this stinginess affected his relationship with His Master.  And the remainder of the parable is painful to read:
“Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.  Should you not also have compassion on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?’  And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.  So My Heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, form his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Notice the Father forgives first.  But then we must also participate in perpetuating that forgiveness; otherwise, somehow we are no longer able to participate in the original forgiveness.  Put another way, God graciously and lovingly gives us opportunities to participate in His Life and Grace by giving us fellow servants of Christ who owe us what they cannot pay.  Our fellow servants of our common Lord owe us love, owe us kindness, consideration, friendship, understanding; and very, very often they cannot pay.  
But this is a set up.  God wants so much for us to share in His Life, in His Grace, in His Forgiveness that he sees to it that we are surrounded by men and women as weak as we are.  I think the experience is called Salvation.


  1. For myself, in my better moments I find forgiving my neighbor an almost natural thing if I am remembering that I to am very limited in this fallen world. Like me, my neighbor almost always has good intentions and is "doing their best", given the sin they are currently burdened with. In my worst moments I am of course vengeful and zealous for "my rights".

    Related to this, coming back to the vertical, what do you think of forgiving God? After all, I was not given a choice – I was created into this fallen world. While it is our faith that the God of Love has for us nothing but love, we don't see that yet – it is still a mystery. The trials, sufferings, necessity, danger, all of it point to a state of the downfallen and a God of the fallen (and to modern people, a disinterred God or the lack of a God at all) . I have always thought that this was in something St. Paul has in mind when discussing in Romans our state, such as "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us".

    It seems to me forgiveness of God is something many (including myself) struggle with but is not talked about very much…

  2. Dear Christopher,
    I think we need to distinguish trespass from perceived trespass. While my phenomenology may be the same, the distinction in reality must not be lost sight of. Nevertheless, in our fallen and often confused state, we may perceive even the most (existentially or objectively) loving act of another (of God) as an offence. With the righteous Job and the Psalmist and other righteous ones we may at times ask God why…. We may feel trespassed against. However, I think it is important at such times not to "forgive" God, because that is to accuse God of not being HImself–Love. Nonetheless, there is a place for suspended judgement, for not knowing, for not understanding, even for anger. I think God can handle our anger–actually he did handle it on the Cross, but that's another story. I think it is a dangerous thing to put God in the dock. By "forgiving" God we either redefine "forgiveness" as mere individual psychological exercise unconnected to the actual trespass of another, or accuse God of wrong doing. We might seem to solve our problem only by creating an idol who acts like a demon. I may not be able to mentally resolve the conundrum of theodicy, but thinking to resolve it by creating a god who needs to be forgiven will only make it harder to see and know the God of love and all power and all wisdom, in spite of suffering.

  3. Christ is in our midst!

    Dear Fr Michael;
    I appreciate this post and at least as much your illuminating comment in response to Christopher.

    I have heard rumour of an opinion somthing like, "you dont need to forgive someone if he is not repentant."
    Can you think of the most sympathetic way we might interpret this- and help to correct it for us?
    In its raw state I do not understand it or agree with it- but there may be some truth that can be teased out of it to help me understand why some hold this opinion (or something like it).

    -Mark Basil

  4. I don't know Fr. Michael, some of what you say seems to indicate that all that the necessity and suffering we experience is actually "Love" of God. This seems to collapse the "problem" of good and evil into simply the problem of "good", in that evil really is just an unrecognized (and perhaps unrecognizable) form of good. This is what all theodicy does if I am not mistaken, which is why I don't really consider it a problem – it simply can not be true. It always in the end explains evil by saying it is really a tool of the God of Love.

    I think I have said this before but I don't really see in (scripture anyway) an attempt to justify God, by using a theodicy or some other maneuver to justify evil. Perhaps some of it is the "wrath" of God but this is never really resolved in by the time you get to St. John in the NT (at least I don't see it).

    Still, that leaves us with a problem as you say. How do we reconcile the Love of God with the real existence of evil (without ending up in a theodicy, that is calling evil good).

    Honestly, I rather end up in a position of saying a real forgiveness of God is necessary than saying that all evil is really a form of the good. I don't think you are saying that, that you leave the problem open ended (that neither is a solution) but here I am in very deep sympathy with all sorts of people with all sorts of philosophies whom claim (rightly) that Christianity does not help them reconcile good and evil. It does not, it does not add to the knowledge of mankind on the subject, it simply says "it's a mystery" which is at best unsettling to the soul and mind. That in itself is part of our suffering here in this world…

  5. Christopher,

    Earlier this year, a nun that I went to visit, told me that we often do not have the discernment to tell whether something is good or evil. I think sometimes that the distinction is apparent, but many times in life it is not.

    Sometimes as I watch my children grow, and try to parent them, I see them suffer as I discipline them. They think that I am treating them unfairly, with undue suffering. And yet, I see their beautiful, loving hearts, and who they are and want to be. And I know that if I do not impose limits and if I do not show them the consequences of their behavior, they will suffer in even greater and more devastating ways as they grown into adulthood.

    I think that the same is true with human persons. We are made for love, forgiveness, compassion, grace, but sometimes the only way for these to grow and take root in our lives is through the shock of suffering.

    I do not think that God inflicts evil upon people, and that there is a difference, but I'm beginning to think that all evil can be overcome by good, when we take up the suffering in ourselves and offer it to God. Similarly, the evil that we as mankind have inflicted upon Christ, could be seen as only a brutally, evil murder of the son of God. I think in this situation, it is not God who killed His Son, but in Christ's offering us, as murderers, to God, His very suffering has become our salvation. So what seemed to be the most evil of circumstances has brought life for the whole world.

    Forgive me,


  6. Christopher,
    To say that a loving act may sometimes feel or seem or be experienced as an evil thing is not the same thing as saying evil is good. I am not saying that evil is ultimately good. I am saying that in the context of forgiving God (who is Good), we may experience that which we perceive to be evil but is not evil. This is not to say that there is not real evil. There is real evil, but as Anna says, discerning evil from good is very difficult and requires great spiritual maturity and even divine revelation.
    Also, theodicy cannot be reduced to just calling evil good. There are several ways people have struggled with it (for example, some have argued that God is not really all-powerful). Nevertheless, I somewhat agree with you (but probably for different reasons) that theodicy is more a mind puzzle than it is a reality that has anything at all to do with the Living God.

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