A few years ago I read the then newly released The Reagan Diaries (HarperCollins, 2007), the edited personal daily entries of President Reagan which he maintained during his eight year presidency. One of the most interesting entries is the one from March 30, 1981 (the day he was shot by would be assassin, John Hinckley):
Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for Gods help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold. (12)
In some sense President Reagan understood that his ability to pray for himself was linked to his forgiveness of others. This is a link which Jesus clearly makes in Matthew 6:14-15. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (ESV)
These verses form an important postscript to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in verses 13 and 14 (the Lord’s Prayer). A postscript is the P. S. placed at the bottom of a letter which adds a note to the end of the letter after the signature. Sometimes these postscripts are trivial in our letters, but not this one. Jesus is adding an important word regarding the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, the petition regarding forgiveness. Jesus had said that we should pray for forgiveness of our debts “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Obviously there is some link between the forgiveness that we wish to experience and the forgiveness which we show to others. Jesus explains further in verses 14 and 15 (see above).
Frankly, Jesus’ explanation does not make the text any easier. In fact, it is now much harder. Jesus says that if we forgive others, we will be forgiven by our heavenly Father. But if we fail to forgive others, we will not be forgiven.
What does this mean? Well, it certainly means no less than to say that forgiving people are forgiven people and unforgiving people are unforgiven people. I believe that Jesus is saying that the one who has truly experienced forgiveness has experienced such a work of God’s grace in their own life that they will be a forgiving person. They will understand that they have been forgiven an infinite debt which they owed to a holy God, and therefore they will be willing to forgive the small debt in comparison which others owe them.
But those who will not forgive others give evidence that they have not truly experienced the forgiveness which God gives. They have never come to understand their sinfulness and need of grace, for if they had they would not be so reluctant to forgive the weaknesses of others.