When Jesus modeled prayer to His early followers, He included the confession of sin and request for forgiveness in the short recipe we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In doing so, Jesus modeled a daily soul-sweep, one that follows the request for today’s bread with a plea for today’s pardon. It is a kind of clearing of the daily mess we make, a wise preventive measure that keeps us from hoarding sins to our soul’s detriment. It is a daily do-over. A treasure of grace in the single word: forgive.
When Jesus told His followers to pray “Forgive us our sins” in His model prayer, He was prescribing not only a phrase but an attitude—a humble awareness of our need for mercy and grace, and a grateful embrace of forgiveness and soul cleansing.
Some people, however, struggle to receive God’s forgiveness because they cannot forgive themselves. A friend of mine tearfully confessed that he could never forgive himself for something he had done. I listened and then said something without thinking (I hate it when that happens…and I often wish it would happen less frequently than it does):
“Wow,” I said, “you must have really high standards.”
He blinked at me through his tears. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you believe God can and will and does forgive even the worst sinner, right?”
“Right.” The word came out slowly, as though he suspected a trap.
“But you can’t forgive yourself.”
He nodded. “Right.”
“Which seems to indicate that your standards are higher than those of the holy, righteous God of the universe.”
He blinked some more.
“Which maybe—I’m just spit-balling here—says that either you or your sin is bigger in your mind than God is.”
He shook his head. “No, I—I’m not saying that.”
“But if God says you’re forgiven, and you say what you did is unforgivable…you both can’t be right. So it really sounds like you’re saying you know more than God. Or your standards are higher than God’s. Or maybe you are.”
He didn’t answer but continued to shake his head.
I tried again. “I think the issue is whether you can accept what God says instead of what you think—whether you can believe that God’s mercy and grace are bigger than your sin and guilt, whether you can really trust His promise that if you confess your sins He will forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”
It took some more time and discussion, but before we were done talking, his resistance melted away, and he was able to accept God’s forgiveness.
When we pray, “Forgive us,” we can accept the Father’s forgiveness and claim His cleansing work in our hearts. We can leave our past in our past. We can check our baggage and walk away unencumbered. We can experience the blessing expressed by hymn writer Albert Orsborn:
Wash from my hands the dust of earthly striving;
Take from my mind the stress of secret fear;
Cleanse thou the wounds from all but Thee far hidden.
And when the waters flow, let my healing appear.
(Adapted from The Red Letter Prayer Life, by Bob Hostetler)