As We Forgive Our Debtors

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Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

That famous question presents what is called a causality dilemma.  We know that all chickens are hatched from eggs, and that all chicken eggs are laid by chickens.  So which is the cause and which is the effect?

Aristotle, writing four centuries before Christ, admitted he was stumped.  He concluded that the chicken-and-egg dilemma suggests an infinite regress.  We can never really know how everything started.

His fellow Greek philosopher Plutarch, writing about the time of Jesus, believed that our answer will be closely connected to the issue of cosmic origins.  Has everything always just “been here,” or did something or Someone start a chain reaction that has been proceeding ever since? 

Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages felt comfortable turning to the book of Genesis.  Which came first?  The chicken, of course.  God created chickens ex nihilo (from nothing) and they soon began laying eggs.  Twentieth century Darwinists have flipped the script.  Evolution suggests that new species emerge from genetic mutations (reproduction malfunctions that produce desirable outcomes).  As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  The egg – laid by a bird that was not a chicken.”

Then there’s the six-year-old who said, “That’s easy.  Eggs come first.  We have eggs for breakfast and chicken for dinner!” 

The chicken-and-egg dilemma may be a stimulating topic for a late night bull session.  But things get downright serious when we start wrestling with Jesus’ words about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer:  And forgive us our sins [or debts or trespasses], as we forgive those who have sinned against us. 

A great deal hinges on the word “as.”  Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is usually translated, “as we also” or “in proportion to” how we forgive others (Luke 11:4). 

Our Master teaches us to ask God to forgive our sins – to restore the blankness of the blank page in our relationship with our heavenly Father.  This phrase rolls easily off our lips.  But then we get to the second phrase: as we also or in proportion to our willingness to offer the gift of that same blank page to all the jerks, ingrates, and monsters in our lives. 

Want to be scared this Halloween?  Consider the challenge of trying to pull that off. 

Is Jesus really telling us that our experience of God’s forgiveness hinges on whether or not we are able or willing to forgive others?

Let’s give these two phrases a chicken-and-egg analysis.  Phrase A states, “Forgive us our sins.”  Phrase B declares, “As we forgive those who sin against us.”  So which comes first?  Which is the cause and which is the effect?

If Phrase B comes first, we’re all sunk. 

If Jesus is saying, “God will forgive you only if you forgive others,” then our own sins, realistically, will never be forgiven.  That’s because most of us are lousy forgivers.  We are crippled by selective memories.  We nurse grudges and cling to wounded spirits.  In the ancient world, people who forgave others were considered fools.  Why not get even instead? 

If Phrase A (God’s forgiveness) is something we have to earn by successfully pulling off Phrase B (forgiving others), we will always live in fear of falling short.  We will quickly come to the end of our own resources.   

But if Phrase A comes first, there is hope.

That would mean Jesus is saying, “Ask God to forgive you – and he will – and you’ll quickly discover a proportional ability to provide the gift of forgiveness to others.”    

The psychological reality is that we cannot experience God’s grace and mercy and remain hard-hearted toward others.  If we seriously open ourselves to God’s love, we will no longer be the same person.

For that reason, unforgiveness becomes a kind of spiritual red flag.  Are you struggling with tearing up the “debt sheets” of those who have hurt you?  Have you found yourself clenching your fists and grinding your teeth, saying, “I can never forgive what she did,” or “It’s impossible for me not to seek payback for the way he treated me”?  Be careful.  That’s the danger zone.  You may need to seek the help of a pastor, counselor, or friend to deal with such deep-seated feelings.

And such feelings may represent something else: evidence that you yourself are struggling to receive God’s forgiveness.  Maybe you think it’s too good to be true.  Or it’s reserved for other people – people who haven’t screwed up their life the way you have.  Or you just can’t shake the feeling that there’s no free lunch, even in heaven: God can’t possibly forgive you unless you get your act together first.

But that’s why Jesus’ message is called the Good News. 

In the Bible’s chicken-and-egg scenario, which comes first: God’s freely-shared grace, or our ability to share grace with others? 

God and his grace come first.