This is the last week to take apart The Lord’s Prayer in our discussion about why we pray. We’re taking the last two lines together this week. They read:
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.
Let’s look at the first line first. But oh, that last one.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
To get to the meaning of this, we need to look at a couple of lines that come after the prayer. Jesus continues with:“In prayer, there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” (Matthew 6.14-15)
This has always been a problematic part of the prayer. Forgive us, God, as we forgive others. Does God’s forgiveness really hinge on our ability to forgive others? Doesn’t that put us in a pretty precarious position with God? I don’t know about you, but I hope that God’s forgiveness of me doesn’t rely on my own ability to do likewise with people. Because sometimes, I am really lousy at forgiving. What could he mean?
This is where, again, I love the Message translation. “Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.” It’s an understanding that forgiveness is a process. It isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s something we need to keep doing as a habit. We remain in a constant state of letting go of grudges.
The translation of “forgive” is pretty awesome. It literally means “to send away. To bid go away—depart!” Don’t you love the idea of God looking at our sins, debts, and mistakes and saying,”Go away! Depart!” When God says something, it happens. They go away.
The consequence of not working at that habit of forgiveness comes in Jesus’ next words: “if you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” It’s not that God refuses to forgive us. It’s that we cut ourselves off from the source of forgiveness.
When we refuse to allow forgiveness to be a regular part of our lives, we demonstrate that we have completely lost the first line of this prayer—“Our Father in heaven, reveal yourself!” We don’t know God’s heart at all. His entire heartbeat is forgiveness and second chances. If that’s not a regular part of how we live, we don’t know God. We can’t. We’ve chosen to move away from his heart and therefore live away from his loving-kindness.
This isn’t to say we let every sin against us slide and allow people to abuse us again and again. Forgiveness is canceling a debt. It’s refusing to take revenge and accepting that those who hurt us don’t owe us anything, just as we could never repay God for his forgiveness. It is not allowing them to continue hurting us.
Canceling a debt does not mean that you give that same person your life savings in the next minute. It means they owe you nothing. You don’t want to get back at them. You don’t wish for them to suffer. You might also not want to continue the relationship, and that’s healthy and good sometimes. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you’re best buddies. It never means that we need to accept abuse, because harming an image of God—you—is certainly against the heart of God.
Forgiveness does mean that we understand how much we have been and constantly are forgiven by God for the things we do that break his heart. It requires that we live with other people in constant recognition of that understanding. It means that we offer second chances to people who earnestly want to change, even when they keep messing up, because that’s how God deals with us.
This whole prayer teaches humility, inside and out.
“Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
Now the words for “lead us not into temptation deliver us from the evil one” or, “keep us safe from ourselves and the devil,” can be a little confusing. It seems like Jesus is saying—Hey God, don’t lead us into trouble. But why would God do that? Temptation is not his game—it’s the Accuser’s.
The word temptation here really means difficult circumstances or hard, laborious times. This is strange because, obviously, Jesus can’t mean for us to say, “God, don’t ever let trouble happen to us.” He’s the one who said, “in this world you will have trouble.” He makes it pretty clear that there will be difficult, times when we struggle, are tempted, and the grief is overwhelming. He can’t be telling us to ask God to spare us from all that. We know from his own mouth that God isn’t going to do that. So what is he saying?
Putting it all together, it seems more something like this:
Help us not to fail when we’re tired. Give us strength, so that when difficult times come, while we may be tempted to do wrong in those times, we don’t fall into that trap. Help us to keep following you and refuse to give in to fear, blame, taking things into our own hands, or any of the other things we’re tempted to do when things are hard. Make our characters so strong we won’t be tempted. And if we are? Deliver us.
Literally, rescue us.
Here’s where I love Peterson’s translation—“Keep us safe from ourselves.” Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that what we’re really asking God a lot of the time? Doesn’t “lead us not into temptation” really mean—keep me safe for myself? I know that’s something I need to pray a lot. God, rescue me from my own foolish thoughts and behavior. Be my savior. Because I most certainly cannot be.
The purpose of prayer here is to help us see ourselves clearly and pray for both strength of character to resist temptation and rescue when we cannot, because, indeed, we do know ourselves.
Finally, we end the prayer kind of where we started. Forgive, help us forgive, keep us safe from temptation—it all adds up to, keep us near you, Father. Help us stay near your heart. Make us people who are attuned to your heartbeat and humble enough to know that your will is better than our will. Amen.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.