And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Number 6 of 8 commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer broadcast on Raido Liberty by Fr. Alexander Schmemann to listeners in the former Soviet Union. (Translated by Alexis Vinogradov)
“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6: 12). Let us notice at the outset that this petition directly unites two acts: the forgiveness of our sins by God is connected to our forgiveness of sins committed against us. Christ says: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15). And, of course, precisely here in this connection, in this relationship lies the profound mystery of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer.
But before we consider this connection, it is essential to look at how one understands sin, for it has become a foreign concept for contemporary man. He knows the idea of crime, which is primarily related to the breaking of a given law. The concept of crime is relative. So, for example, a crime in one country may not be a crime in another. For if there is no law there is no crime. Crime is not only related to the law, but in some measure arises out of the law. But the law, in its turn, arises out of societal needs. It has no connection, and cannot have one, to that which goes on in the depths of man’s consciousness. As long as a person does not violate the peaceful life of society and does not cause any obvious harm to others or to established customs, there is no crime, as there is also no law. Hatred, for example, cannot be the substance of a crime until it has resulted in some action: physical harm, murder, or theft. On the other hand, the law does not know forgiveness, for the very purpose of the law is to defend and maintain order in human society-an order which depends on the functioning of the law.
That is why it is so important to understand that when we speak of sin we are actually dealing with something categorically different by its very nature from the social conception of crime. If we know crime on the basis of the law, then sin is disclosed through conscience. If it is absent in us, if the understanding of conscience in human society diminishes, or better put, if the direct experience of conscience fades, then it follows that the religious conception of sin becomes vague and superfluous as does the related notion of forgiveness.
What is conscience? What is sin, to which our conscience testifies, and which it reveals? This isn’t simply some inner voice, telling us what is good and what is bad. This isn’t simply an innate ability to discern goodfrom evil, it is rather something still deeper and more mystical. A man may find that he hasn’t committed a wrong, has in no way contravened a law, did no harm to anyone, and yet have a troubled conscience.
A clean conscience, a guilty conscience-it is possible that these common expressions best convey the mystical nature of conscience. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov knows that he did not kill his father. And yet he is equally convinced that he is guilty of the murder. Conscience is precisely this deep conviction of guilt, the awareness of one’s implication, not in a crime or in some evil as such, but in that deep inner evil, in that moral depravity, out of which spring all the crimes on earth, before which all laws are helpless. And when Dostoevsky uttered his famous line about how “everybody is guilty before everyone and for all”-this wasn’t simply rhetoric or an exaggeration, but a debilitating intuition of guilt, a truth of conscience. For it is not simply the case that we all to a greater or lesser degree transgress this or that law, that we are guilty of some great, or more often little, crimes; it is rather the case that we have accepted as a fact of life that inner division, that inner conflict among ourselves, that rupture of life, that mistrust, that absence of love and unity in which the world lives-this lie which our conscience discloses.
For the profound law oflife consists not simply in doing no wrong, but in doing good, and this means first of all to accept the other, which means to effect that unity without which even the most law-abiding society still becomes a living hell. This is the essence of sin, and it is for the remission of this sin, the sin of all sins, that we pray in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
But in order to see all this as sin, to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.
For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is of no help.
Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness. This is why the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for forgiveness of sins of those who have sinned against us, and of us and our sins by God, is possibly that very center of moral rebirth before which we stand in this age.