Q & R: I can't pray the Lord's prayer because ...
Here's the Q:
I became interested in your work when I saw your name listed as a speaker at All Saints Church, Pasadena... Anyway, I bought 4 of your books and have read A New Kind of Christian and The Secret Message of Jesus, and I'm currently reading a New Kind of Christianity.
I have not been able to say the Lord's Prayer with integrity for several years, and that bother's me, as everyone else around me recites it every week. Your comments about it in The Secret Messaged of Jesus have helped me a lot, but I still have one hang up. Maybe you can help me with it. I can't ask to be forgiven my debts as I forgive others because sometimes I'm not very forgiving--sometimes downright angry or judgmental, and I don't want God to treat me that way. I believe that God forgives me, and I know I can't expect to be forgiven without making that concession myself, but I still find it hard to forgive sometimes, and so I can't genuinely ask God to treat me in the unChristian attitude that is mine too often. Got any words of advice?
Here's the R:
First, God bless you for taking those lines of the Lord's prayer seriously! I imagine that if more people really pondered what they say, they wouldn't be able to (or want to!) pray them either. Most people either say them without thinking or twist them to say what they wish they said: "Give me unconditional forgiveness and then I'll see about forgiving others, maybe, someday."
But try this. If this prayer is revealing God's heart ... then the point of those lines is that God's will is reconciliation. Existing human conflicts will not be resolved by revenge, by holding grudges, by hate, by genocide, by violent reprisals or threats. They will only be healed when we all seek God's forgiveness for our part in conflict and then extend that forgiveness to others for their part in conflict. So praying this prayer says, "God, I agree. This is the only way to peace. I want to be part of it."
And try this: the Lord's prayer isn't obsessed, as we in Western Roman Christianity typically are, with avoiding hell. The prayer isn't focused on "If you don't forgive others, you'll go to hell." People in Jesus day were more obsessed with missing the messianic moment - falling out of their potential role in God's faithful work in the world. So they point of the prayer isn't, "Get this right or you're damned." It's, "Don't keep praying for forgiveness in an us versus them way. Remember that God cares about them as well as us, and calls us all to reconciliation with God and one another." That's something you clearly believe.
And try this: the prayer isn't individualistic - as we Americans seem to assume about almost everything. Maybe Jesus intends this as a prayer for Jews who are occupied by Romans. So the prayer would be, "Forgive us Jews for our sins, as we forgive the Romans for their sins against us." That understanding would challenge us to think about ourselves as Christians, or as Americans, or as men or women or whatever ... and to say, "I'm part of a group that has lots of faults. We need God's mercy ... just as our enemies do."
The point of this prayer, I think, is to break down the dualism between "them" and "us" - putting us in the position Paul brings us to in Romans (and elsewhere): we are all sinners, all in need of grace. Nobody is superior. As one of my mentors said, "The ground is level at the foot of the cross."
Thanks for this important question that may help people who participate in this prayer today in churches around the world.