Since Adam passed off the blame to Eve for eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden, self-justification has thoroughly infected us. It rears its head in every aspect of our lives, especially when it comes to accomplishing that which Jesus taught us to do when we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
You can eventually squeeze an apology out of most people. But notice how often what seems to be a humble petition for forgiveness is qualified with something like, "I'm sorry, but..." It's just as likely that when you're supposedly the one doing the forgiving, you'll manage to slip in a remark like, "I would never do what you just did to me." In no time at all, you, the initially wronged, will commit a sin of your own, which you justify with something like, "I just call 'em like I see 'em," as if the scathing remark you just delivered-rather than forgiveness- is the real solution to the problem.
We can't escape self-justification. It's embedded itself not only in our choice of words in our daily bickering, but also in the thoughts behind them, which we usually fool ourselves into masking with seemingly respectable intentions. When you ask somebody else's forgiveness, the reason you qualify your apology with "but the reason I said/did that was because I feel strongly about..." or "I did that because I'm having a bad day..." you want the other person to know that you're no monster. Your sin is not really as bad as they're making it out to be. To be honest, they're not completely innocent themselves, in this or in any of the other thousand situations that have played out like this before. You want to patch things up, but not before the other person comes to appreciate the fact that you haven't struck out as magnificently as they're letting on. Actually, they're blowing things out of proportion. Ultimately, the fault is really theirs.
So goes our day-to-day thinking. That's why withholding forgiveness is so pernicious. Our Lord warns, "If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:15). At first, this saying sends up a red flag for us Lutherans. I thought the forgiveness of our sins was unconditional? If we have to forgive others in order to be forgiven, then doesn't that mean there are strings attached to this whole salvation thing? So much for faith alone!
Well, consider what we're saying when we refuse to forgive others. When you refuse to forgive someone who's wronged you, you have set yourself up as lord over your offender. In your mind, you have the right to withhold forgiveness, as if that person will go unforgiven without your gracious pardon. But the reality is that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (II Cor. 5:19). Essentially, you're appointing yourself the judge who distributes grace as though it belongs to you by right. When you hold court in this way, you-rather than God-are the justifier of the ungodly. This is nothing more than self-justification. At the heart of self-justification is unbelief, the original sin, our mortal affliction, the breaking of every commandment.
Which brings us to what Jesus really cares about when it comes to forgiving others. In one sense, He doesn't really care about other people's sins. You don't have to confess other people's sins for them. No scapegoats need apply when Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He knows the truth about your sins; He knows your thoughts and motives-the inner workings of your deceitful heart-better than you yourself, despite your outward protestations of innocence. Jesus doesn't care about the sins of others. He cares about yours.
If you can't find it in yourself to forgive others, don't be surprised. In those instances, Luther says to pray for the grace to forgive. That grace, incarnate in the Lamb of God, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins, is God's gracious gift to and for you. That grace is for those who debtors Jesus refers to in the Lord's Prayer. We're all debtors, so indebted to the God and His creatures we have violated that we are really worse than debtors-we're beggars. The most desperate beggar isn't the one who's wronged you-it's just you. But in Christ, God in His grace has paid all our debts. His grace is for beggars like you, and it will never fail.
Timothy Sheridan is a member of Our Savior Lutheran in Raleigh, NC.
Created: June 7th, 2015