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Forgive Us Our Sins: Growing Into the Prayer Jesus Taught Us

A conversation with Mark Charles and John D. Witvliet on the phrase "Forgive Us Our Sins" from the Lord's Prayer, as part of the series "Growing into the Prayer Jesus Taught Us."

John Witvliet [00:00:08] Mark, what about “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”? It surely must be one of the most challenging parts of the prayer to live into for all of us.  

Mark Charles [00:00:20] I’m just going to be honest, John: this part of the prayer terrifies me. I am very, very aware of my sinful nature. I am very aware of the things I do wrong and the way I hurt people, or I don't act the way I want to act. I'm very aware I need forgiveness. I'm also very aware I can hold on to things. I can hold on to hurt. I can hold on to interactions beyond where I should. I don't let things go. And so this prayer terrifies me. And Jesus prayed this. And I know what he says about forgiveness, which is why the way I pray this prayer is, I ask God to forgive me of the things where I've sinned: forgive me of my sins. And then I plead with God to help me to forgive those who sin against me. Part of my sin is I hold on to my hurt. Part of my sin is I can't even forgive perfectly. And so literally I plead with God. I pray to God. I ask God for help to forgive people. And for me, it's a very humbling part of the prayer because it acknowledges that even as I'm asking God to forgive people, the way Jesus frames this, which is “Forgive me the way I forgive others,” . . . I know there's many times I hope God doesn't forgive me the way I've forgiven others. And so to be honest and to have integrity in the prayer, I acknowledge, “God, one of the ways I need your help is to help me to be forgiving when people do things wrong against me,” because I can't even do that part of this prayer perfectly.  

John Witvliet [00:02:38] It strikes me as powerful to think of each of these petitions as a form of promise too. I mean, we pray them, and we're promising or signaling our intent to be a part of them. So “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is partly a recommitment to being a part of the process of forgiveness. And that combination is powerful. Also, as I hear you talk, I think of the words of Psalm 19 when it says “Who can perceive their own errors?”, that there are all these hidden faults. And then the psalmist goes on to pray. To me, one of the most beautiful parts of the gospel of Jesus is that we receive forgiveness for hidden faults too. And then that becomes really part of the scope of this prayer. Say a little bit about that dynamic of those things that we're very aware of and then those things that we're not aware of.  

Mark Charles [00:03:43] This part of the prayer for me is very humbling, especially as I have more of a public persona and I have a bit more of a public platform. I'm aware there are things I say that may come off as offensive, or I say something publicly that that may cause hurt for people. And I may never know how that happened or how that came across or what that did for people. Or as you gain responsibility and you make choices, and choices will have an impact on people. This is where this part of the prayer is humbling, because it acknowledges I do things I don't want to do. I even do things, intentions, that I do intend to do but come from a place of greed or selfishness or other sinful nature. And so asking God to forgive all of those things and then acknowledging at the end of that that I can't even forgive perfectly. If I'm honest, I cannot pray this prayer as Jesus prayed it, which is why it's so humbling. If I'm going to have integrity in laying out this prayer, I have to turn this into a petition because I can't even do what Jesus says you have to do here. And I need help even to get that piece accomplished.  

John Witvliet [00:05:36] And it's something we're invited to grow in lifelong. As I think about a lot of your work, Mark, speaking of hidden faults, it does occur to me a lot of your work is really inviting people to reflect on their lives and the culture and community of which they're a part and to discover that there's a lot more complicity there. And so a lot of what had been hidden to people becomes more perceivable through your work. So a lot of your work really is an invitation for people to pray this petition with more awareness. And so that that point of humility that you just described is a point of great tenderness, but also a great opportunity. I mean, it's all what we need. And the more we can pour into our prayers, “Forgive us our debts” even when they're astronomically large, generation after generation, center after century, acts of aggression and acts of complicit silence. In a way, your ministry is to invite us to inhabit this prayer.  

Mark Charles [00:06:55] Yes. And one of the interesting things about this and I actually get reminded of this frequently. I think because I ran a political campaign, whenever I make a choice about something—for example, I'm often reminded, as I talk about the need to protect the environment, protect the marginalized, that the batteries in our cell phones and the resources, what’s made to build these batteries frequently comes from horrific circumstances where the mining is not regulated. And that's just one example. And that's where it's almost impossible to live in this modern world without being complicit in something. And when you start thinking about that, it's like, well, how do you address all of those things, and how do you draw the line there? Not that I would say you use this type of prayer as an excuse or justification. I pray about that. But I think it can be a reminder of how, especially when you live in an industrial nation like the United States, where our government has oppressed people beyond belief and has done incredibly unjust actions on our behalf and does them . . . Guantanamo, with the torture of people there and all the things going on there, and just the fact that we're Americans and these things have been done on our behalf. And I think for me, when I allow myself to really think about this . . . if you think about this just individually, it can lead you to either be hyperparanoid or to freeze. But when you think about these things systemically, and to think about these things not as an individual, but as a plural, as a community, I may not be able to change this individual thing that's happening there, but I think this is why we are called to work toward systemic change. If you keep it solely individually, then it's just, well, I can't control that, so therefore I'm just going to do whatever I want to do. I mean, it can lead you to that. But if we're reminded of how just our existence makes us complicit in evil and in sinful behavior around the globe, for me to pray that prayer with integrity, “Forgive me of these sins”—not just the sins that I'm explicitly enacting and hurting people with in front of my very own eyes, but the sins I'm complicit in just because I'm an American and I have a cellphone and I drive a car—to pray that prayer with integrity we need to be invested in systemic change so that we can actually say . . . If you pray for forgiveness, you're implying repentance. You're implying I don't want to do this behavior anymore. And so if we're going to pray a prayer and expect and assume . . . or ask God to cover and forgive the sin we are complicit in because of who we are and where we live, then I think we have an obligation, even, to be invested in changing the system, to be investing in systemic change.