Perfect Prayer, by Chauncey Giles

from Chauncey Giles Perfect Prayer. How Offered: How Answered  (Philadelphia: Lippincott 1903)

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Perfect Prayer.
How Offered: How Answered

by Chauncey Giles

X. The Forgiveness of Sin

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.

“But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” — Matthew vi. 12, 14, 15

In these words our Lord brings us face to face with the only obstacles which oppose our complete and eternal happiness. The Lord created all worlds, all living beings, and all material things to minister to human good; and He gave to man capacities to receive good in some form and measure from everything He has made. He created man in a Divine order; made all his faculties both physical and spiritual, to harmonize with all substances and forces, so that they can act upon him and flow through him, become component parts of his own nature, call all his faculties into harmonious play, and by their own action enlarge their capacities and perfect their qualities for the reception of more exquisite happiness.

Sin has disturbed this order, changed these harmonies into discords, arrayed force against force, and brought man into conflict with nature and the Lord. It has induced weakness, paralysis of his spiritual faculties, disease, pain, misery, and death. Sin has inverted the whole order of his nature, and perverted the essential form and substance of his being. As man stood in the heavenly order of his creation he was endowed with a keen and delicate perception, a kind of spiritual instinct, by which he gained intuitive knowledge of the relations of all things to himself and the service they were created to render him. The hot breath of sin has withered and destroyed that faculty. In his normal condition man's heart was full of love to the Lord and man, and all his faculties were vivified, made fresh and sweet, and filled with a serene and joyful activity; sin has changed that love into enmity, poisoned the currents of that “river of life,” and turned it into an instrument of torment and death. Man was made to be a help, a comfort, and a joy to man; sin has made him an Ishmaelite, a tyrant, and a curse. Every evil which human beings suffer is caused by sin; every good from the immeasurable fountain of life which man fails to obtain is withheld by sin. Sin opens the gates of hell, sin shuts the gates of heaven, sin is the only bar between man and the Lord.

Such being the hostile and deadly nature of sin, there is no question of so vital interest to every human being as how to escape its power and destroy this deadly enemy. Our Lord directs us to the only sufficient Helper, and He gives us the only conditions on which that help can be obtained, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Let us try to understand what this prayer is; what desires, what knowledge, what action it implies; what we ask of the Lord, and what it demands of us.

Sin is called by different names to designate the different points of view from which it is regarded. It is called a debt because we are all the subjects of immutable law. We are a part of the order of the universe, and only by acting in obedience to the laws of this order can we obtain happiness. These laws have their origin in the Divine nature; they are the order and methods according to which the purposes of the Divine love and wisdom are carried into effect. Man is folded in their arms; they are the paths of the Lord, in which He comes to man and sends him life and good. Man owes them obedience because he can only gain the true end of his being by living according to them. So far as he fails in obedience he becomes a debtor to the law and the Lawgiver. He does not give what he owes to them. This relation of debtor to the law is generally acknowledged, and is familiar to every one. We say a man owes his success to his industry, to his talents, to his skill, or he owes his failure to the want of these qualities or to some mistakes he has made. Health is due to obedience to the laws of man's physical nature. Disease and pain are due to violations of those laws. Thus the idea of debt runs through all human relations. But we must guard against the fatal error of taking commercial indebtedness as the measure and form of all debt. When we violate a law of the Divine order embodied in our natures, or in human society, we do not owe the penalty to the law or the lawgiver in any other sense than we owe the good we receive to the same cause when we obey a law. The penalty is not inflicted for violating it, nor is the reward conferred for obedience. Each follows as a necessary consequence. What every human being really owes to the Lord, and consequently to all the laws of His order, is obedience. It is not penalty or reward. We owe allegiance to the Lord because that is the only way in which He can bestow upon us the blessings He created us to receive. When our Lord teaches us to ask Him to forgive our debts, then, He does not instruct us to ask for the remission of the penalties of sin, but for the remission of the sin itself.

Sin is also called a trespass. To trespass a rule or law is to go beyond it, to do what it does not allow. Transgression has the same meaning. But the word which our Lord used means stumbling. It does not seem to be so much a direct and positive determination to live contrary to the Divine laws, as ignorance of their nature and requirements, and a lack of spiritual power to walk erect and with a firm step, without any deviation or stumbling in the paths of the Lord. We are drawn aside by the illusions of the senses, we have never been taught what these laws are, we have become cramped by evil habits, we are weighted with many cares under whose burden we bend and fall. There are many obstacles in the way over which we stumble. How often those who are trying to live a good life stumble and fall, like little children who are learning to walk. How many are groping around in the dark! They stumble over unseen obstacles, they are led astray by others. We all have to learn to walk twice, first naturally, then spiritually, and the second lesson is by far the most difficult. But the difficulties consist wholly in our sins. They are the only stumbling-blocks. If man had never sinned it would have been as easy for him to live a heavenly life as it is for flowers to blossom and birds to sing. He would have been led on in the paths of the Divine truth, he would have been borne along in the currents of the Divine forces. All his faculties would have unfolded in a natural order by processes of delight. Sin is the only hindrance.

We must distinguish between sin and sinful acts. Sin is a disease of man’s moral nature; it is derangement and perversion of the faculties of his spiritual organism, producing the same relative effects upon them that natural diseases cause in our physical organs. The real, essential prayer, then, must be that Our Father will restore us to spiritual health. The remission of the penalty is not the forgiveness of sin; it has no relation to it. The penalty of sin cannot be remitted while the sin remains, because it is inseparably connected with it. The penalty cannot be borne by another. That is as impossible as it would be for one man to be afflicted with disease and another to bear the pain and suffer the weakness. It is true that the sins of one man will bring suffering upon many others. It is true that we may undergo many hardships, endure severe labor and suffer pain of body and agony of mind in our efforts to relieve others from the penalties of their sins both physical and spiritual, but our sufferings do not help them. It is what we do for them, and not what we suffer. Society is organic. Individuals are members of the same body, and if one member is diseased, every member suffers but the suffering does not cure the disease.

Our Lord suffered and died for us but not in our stead. He took upon Himself our diseased and perverted nature. He went from village to village, from city to city, healing diseases, instructing the ignorant, and comforting the sorrowful. He wrestled in agony with man's spiritual enemies in Gethsemane, was crucified on Calvary, died, and rose again. It was necessary that He should assume our nature, for in no other way could He come into the material world, gain access to human beings, and bring His Divine and saving power to bear upon them. Only through this perverted organism could He come in conflict with the hosts of man’s spiritual enemies and overcome them. The conflict and the agony were in the plane of the imperfect nature He assumed from Mary. That conflict was waged during His whole life upon the earth, and was attended with the most acute and awful agonies, agonies which forced the blood from His veins and wrung from Him the despairing cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” By these conflicts He glorified the nature He assumed, and made it the perfect medium of communicating His Divine power and life to men. The suffering did no more effect the work than the pain of a surgical operation contributes to its success. The suffering was caused by the work; it was itself an effect of it. Suffering has no saving efficacy; but the conflict with sin cannot be waged and the victory won, without exhausting labor and intense pain. The Lord’s sufferings and death were not vicarious in the sense of being a substitute for the penalties which man brings upon himself by violating the laws of his nature.

What, then, is the forgiveness of sin? The answer to this question will depend upon what we understand by sin and its forgiveness. If we regarded sin simply in a commercial way, payment of the debt would be forgiveness, and this could be done by any one as well as by the debtor. If the penalty of sin is arbitrarily affixed by the lawgiver, like that which is attached to an act of the Legislature, it can be remitted by the same authority that enacted it, and on any conditions the legislator may determine. If a man commits murder and the law condemns him to death, the executive in whom is invested the pardoning power may remit the penalty. But the effect upon the man's character, the moral penalty, cannot be remitted by the mere good pleasure of man or the Lord. If one man assaults another, and in the conflict loses one of his eyes, he might be imprisoned, and afterwards pardoned; but no executive clemency or power could restore his eye. That is a penalty of the conflict which cannot be forgiven. A legal penalty may be forgiven, but those penalties which follow as the effects of violating an organic law of man's nature cannot be borne or remitted by others.

If we regard sin as a spiritual disease, as corruption in the will, blindness and disorder in the understanding, derangement and perversion of man’s moral nature, then the forgiveness of sin consists in curing him of his spiritual diseases. It is the purification of his affections, it is the restoration of the understanding to its original order and normal condition, it is curing his spiritual blindness, giving him ears to hear the words of the Lord, and eyes to perceive the delicate and exquisite harmonies of the Divine order; it is putting all his faculties into right relations to each other and to the source of life. When this is done, and so far as it is done, the penalty also is remitted, for the penalty goes with the disease. When a musical instrument is out of tune the penalty is discord. Tune it and the penalty disappears. The Lord came into the world to restore our disorderly faculties to their normal condition, to bring them into harmony with the order of His own nature, to conjoin them to Him, as the branch to the vine, that the life-giving forces of His own nature might flow into them, cleanse them of their impurities, vivify them with His love, and cause them to bear fruit abundantly. When, therefore, we pray to the Lord to forgive us our debts, we must think of our own sinful natures, our diseased and dying condition, and the burden and purpose of our prayer must be that the Lord will heal our diseases, save us from the death they threaten, and conjoin us to Himself.

We must ask the Lord to forgive our sins, because He is the only Being who can do it. He is the Author of our nature, He organized its faculties and adjusted all their relations to one another, to the outward world, and to Himself. He only has the wisdom and power to restore them to their original soundness and order. He knows the only remedies that are efficacious, and the only conditions in which those remedies can be effectively applied. He is the only Physician who can cure us. We must go to Him in the spirit, with the same directness and urgency that we go to a physician when we are suffering from some severe bodily disease. When a man is filled with pain which has come upon him as the penalty for violating some law of his physical nature, he does not go to his physician as a mere formality, and ask him for help in the lifeless and meaningless way we too often utter the words of our text; he is in earnest. He knows what he wants. When the physician has heard his prayer, and tells him what to do and how to do it, he listens attentively, asks him to repeat the directions if he has any doubt about them, and then obeys them. We should go to the Lord in the same spirit, and be faithful in doing what He tells us to do. Let us take heed to the only conditions on which the Great Physician declares we can be forgiven. He does not ask us to pray for unconditional forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” He does not teach us to say, “Forgive us our debts,” because the Saviour has cancelled them. He does not teach us to say, “Forgive us our debts,” because the Lord Jesus Christ has suffered and died for us. There is no intimation of any vicarious work having been performed, no appeal for mercy on the ground of the merits of another person. The only conditions are that we forgive others:

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.”

From this declaration, which is presented in an affirmative and a negative form to make it as clear and strong as possible, we are taught that the Lord will only forgive us as we forgive others. It is of essential importance, therefore, that we understand what is meant by the forgiveness of others. Our salvation depends upon it. We cannot suppose that nothing more than the common idea of forgiveness is implied in these conditions; that the Lord will not punish us for our offences against Him if we do not punish others for their offences against us. There must be some law of the Divine wisdom involved in this condition, some reasons founded in the essential relations between the Lord and man. Let us try to discover what they are. It will help us to come to just conclusions if we keep in mind what forgiveness essentially is not. It is not the remission of the penalty. The Lord does not say to men, If you will not punish others, I will not punish you. The forgiveness of sin has no direct reference to its penalty. The penalty is the effect, the mere shadow of the sin. It does not consist in cherishing a feeling of complacency and friendship for those who have injured us; we cannot do that. We are, indeed, commanded “to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them which despitefully use us and persecute us.” But we may love our enemies without feeling a personal affection for them. We really love others when we desire to restrain them from evil and help them to overcome it. The form our love takes will depend upon the condition of others. We may seek their punishment from the kindest regard to them. To forgive others consists “in regarding them from a principle of good,” that is, from a desire to do them good, and so far as it lies in our power, in doing them good as we have opportunity.

We must forgive their trespasses. By trespasses, as we have seen, are meant stumblings in the way of life, falling into error, wandering from the true path, failure in duty. To forgive others when they stumble consists in removing the cause of stumbling, whether that cause is in ourselves, as is often the case, or in them. This is the essential part of the work, and it should begin with ourselves. We sincerely and effectively offer this petition when we so regulate our actions by the commandments that they will not be the cause of offence or stumbling to those with whom we associate. By our conduct we exercise a much greater power over others to help or hinder them in the way to heaven than we do by our words. A good life is the best sermon; it is a constant influence which tends to restrain, to guide, to cheer; it is generally regarded as the best evidence and test of the truth of the doctrines professed. On the other hand, men and women who do not live up to their profession, or are not in the constant efforts to do so, are a stumbling-block to every one within the circle of their influence. They cause the value of truth to be depreciated, they awaken doubts with regard to the value of a religious life, they cause the simple to err, the irresolute to falter, the weak to fall. Every one who lives a pure, truthful, upright, and useful life is forgiving the trespasses of others, is offering this petition in a sincere and effective manner, and is complying with the only conditions on which his own trespasses can be forgiven.

But we must not only set good examples, we must do all in our power to communicate the truth to others. Genuine truth is the path which leads to heaven. It is a luminous path shining with its own light. Ignorance is darkness, error is a false way, and those who follow it wander in darkness. Trespasses are specifically sins against the truth, they are false principles. The only effective way to forgive men their trespasses is to lead them into the truth. Parents offer this prayer for their children when they instruct them in the doctrines of the church. Every faithful Sunday-school teacher is laboring to forgive the trespasses of the children he teaches. Whenever we converse with others for the purpose of correcting an error by giving the truth, every book we lend, every tract we distribute for the purpose of making known the truth, we are trying to forgive the trespasses of others.

But everything we do or say will be far more efficient in forgiving others when we act from love to them. Love gives warmth, power, life to what we say and do. It gives wings to our words, it endows our example with a winning and attractive power, it disposes the mind to listen to our words, to read attentively what we offer, it gains the listening ear, and tends to soften and open the affections to receive what we have to give. The ways in which we can forgive others are innumerable, and some of these ways are within the reach of every one. As we use the means we have, we are complying with the conditions on which the Lord forgives our trespasses.

Such being the clear and emphatic teachings of the Lord in His Word, every thoughtful and rational mind must desire to know why the Lord makes these conditions? Does He base His action upon ours? Does He make our love for others the measure of His love for us, our action towards others the guide of His action towards us? He is love; we are only the contracted and perverted forms of receiving it. Our love to His is not so much as the drop to the ocean. His wisdom is infinite; our light compared with His is not so much as the faintest ray to the unclouded sun. He possesses infinite power; we are weak and frail, the most helpless of created beings. Why, then, should He condition His action on ours, and measure what He will do for us by what we do for others? A satisfactory answer to this question can only be found in a true knowledge of what we are and of our relations to the Lord and to men.

We are only recipients of life. All our faculties are organic vessels for the reception and transmission of life in the forms of power, wisdom, and love. No vessel can receive more than it can contain. No organ can receive a different quality of life than that which it was formed to receive. The eye cannot hear, the tongue cannot see, the heart cannot admit the atmosphere. The Lord cannot give us any more than we can receive. As He cannot give us any more light than the eye can admit, so He cannot give us any more truth than the understanding can receive. The limit of every material organ to bear the influx of heat is soon reached. If we pass beyond it, the organization is destroyed. So, if the Lord should pour His Divine love, which is substance and power in their very essence, with full intensity into our affections, we should be consumed in a moment. He cannot give us any more love than we can receive. He cannot give it to us in any higher and purer forms than we can receive it. He is, therefore, limited both in the quality and quantity of His gifts or of what He can do for us, by our capacities of reception. Omnipotence cannot give us what we cannot take.

We are not merely passive recipients of life; if we were, the Lord would fill every vessel full to the extent of its capacity. We are voluntary recipients; we can close our hearts against the currents of the Divine love; we can shut our understandings against the truth, as we can close our eyes against the light. The Lord has endowed us with this power. He has made us free agents. Moral freedom is essential to our humanity. The Lord always respects it. He teaches us the truth, and He tries to lead us to a heavenly life by all the influences He can bring to bear upon us; but He always leaves us in freedom to act of ourselves, for only what we do in freedom is our own act. If we will not live according to the commandments which are laws of life, He cannot compel us. Here again we can see that there is a limit to what the Lord can do for us. He can only give us what we are willing to receive. Let us consider another point and then we may be able to see why the Lord will not, or cannot, which is the same, forgive us our trespasses unless we forgive others. It is evident that, if man receives all his life from the Lord as a constant gift, his faculties must be adjusted to the influent forces of life with the most exquisite precision. Any deviation from their true order would interrupt or derange the currents of these forces and disturb their normal effects. It would destroy their qualities; it would change good to evil, truth to falsity, light to darkness, harmony to discord; it would invert the order of man’s life, bring him into hostile relations to the Lord. This must be so in the nature of things. Man’s spiritual faculties are adjusted to spiritual forces, in the same way that his material faculties are adjusted to material forces. Any derangement or deviation from the order of its forms fills the eye with pain, and if the trespass continues entirely incapacitates it to receive the light. The same law applies to every organ in the body. How can the eye be forgiven its trespasses? Evidently by restoring it to its normal condition and true relations to the light. There is no other way. The same wise and inexorable law of the Divine order applies to the mind, which is a spiritual organism. If its forms are deranged by misuse, its trespass can only be forgiven by restoring them to their true order and tone. The two fundamental laws of spiritual life are love to the Lord and man. This is the true order of his life. Our faculties were made by infinite wisdom to act in that way. And our Lord declares this in the most explicit manner:

“|Jesus said, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

When a man loves himself supremely he sins, he stumbles and falls away from true order; he trespasses against the Lord and his neighbor; he inverts the whole order of his nature, makes that the supreme end of life which was intended, in the constitution of his faculties, to be secondary and instrumental. His affections become corrupted, his understanding darkened. Disorder, confusion, and anarchy are introduced into the mind. The ideas are distorted, and all the criterions of right are destroyed. We become subject to illusions, we wander from the true path, we stumble and fall. This disorderly and evil condition can only be changed by a change in the organization of the mind. These trespasses against perfections of the Divine order embodied in man's nature can only be forgiven by replacing the diseased faculties with new, sound, and orderly ones. We must be born from above, we must be regenerated and made anew.

But this can only be done by our co-operation. We are not in the Lord’s hands like a block of marble in the sculptor’s. Our freedom must be respected; we must be led by sufficient motives “to cease to do evil,” and we must learn to do well. This is the process and condition in all changes in our characters. We must learn the truth, and then we must cease to think and do what it forbids, and we must understand and do what it commands. In this way the old, perverted, corrupt forms of the mind are removed, and new faculties, fashioned according to the laws of the Divine order, take their place. As this work of transformation goes on our iniquities are blotted out, our debts, trespasses, transgressions are forgiven, our sins are remitted. This work of healing and restoration is effected by the Lord, by the forces of life which constantly flow from Him, as light and heat from the sun. But it can only be effected while man cooperates with Him. He cannot forgive our sins while we continue sinning; He cannot fill our hearts with love to Him and the neighbor while we continue to love ourselves and the world supremely. It is evident that He can only forgive—that is, give up and put away—our sins as we turn to Him and try to put ourselves in right relations to Him.

Now we may be able to see why the Lord can only forgive us as we forgive others. When we begin to regard others from love and a sincere desire to help them to overcome their evils, to teach them the truth, to lead them back into the path of life, to remove so far as lies in our power all causes of stumbling, to lift them up when they fall, to strengthen them in their weakness, to encourage them when they despair; when we feel kindly towards others, whatever may be their character and condition, and stand ready to help them according to their needs and our ability; in a word, when it is the purpose and effort of our lives to forgive the trespasses of others, we are coming into true relations to them and the Lord. The currents of the Divine love which, like the blood in the body, contain all cleansing, healing, invigorating, and perfecting substances and forces, begin to flow through us, and forgive our trespasses. They organize a new will, create a new understanding, and restore to us the lost likeness and image of our Heavenly Father. This is the way in which the Lord forgives us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We offer this prayer when, and only when, we forgive the debts of others, and the Lord forgives us our trespasses as much and little as we forgive others. Our forgiveness of others is the measure of His forgiveness of us.

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