This is part of a series on the Lord’s prayer, culture and spiritual warfare in which we look at the subversive prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples and how that prayer engages in the war of ideas with the philosophies that pervade our age.
Part 6 – Shame Culture and ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ‘
In his book, ‘So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,’ Jon Ronson tells the story of Justine Sacco, a PR consultant who in 2013 posted an ill-advised tweet to her 170 followers before boarding a flight to South Africa. Whilst in the air, Sacco’s tweet blew up and she became the number one trend on Twitter and received many thousands of retweets and replies, often angry and abusive in nature. On landing, people were waiting at the airport and photographed her to add to the Twitter storm. Before this tweet her name was searched for around 30 times a month on Google. After the tweet this exploded to over a million monthly searches. In the end, she was fired from her job as a result of the public outcry her tweet had caused.
I mention this not to defend her tweet (she herself would readily admit that it was a bad tweet) but to reflect on the culture of shame that the incident highlights. It is often taught in seminars that western culture is based on guilt/law (with the threat of punishment) rather than shame/honour (with the threat of ostracism), but this is changing. Shame may not operate exactly the same in Justine Sacco’s story than it does in some eastern contexts, yet the threat of being ‘cancelled’ and cut off for making a social mis-step is something that man find paralysing.
In a world where one transgression can mean a person becomes a non-entity, there is a need for something person. Can a person make a mistake and it not be the ned for them?
In the next line of the Lord’s prayer we find our answer to that question.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
This petition speaks of two realities that go hand-in-hand: being forgiven and being a forgiver.
In praying this prayer, we are recognising that forgiveness is needed. We know that the world isn’t right, and we are confessing that we are on the wrong side of this divide. G.K. Chesterton responded to a newspaper that asked what was wrong with the world by saying, ‘Dear Sirs, I am. Yours Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.’ We have sinned and so we need forgiveness. As we pray for forgiveness it is good to confess both our general sinfulness and whatever specific sins come to mind.
Moreover, we are not just recognising the need for forgiveness, but specifically asking God to forgive. Because of the cross we know that this is a prayer God will answer. Christ took that sin upon himself and died in our place. Because of him we can be totally forgiven and are gifted his righteousness as a free gift. In the words of Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
In contrast to shame culture, forgiveness culture means that our sin is not carried but is gone, we are not stained but are cleansed, and our wrongdoings do not need to be wallowed in but moved on from
Being a Forgiver
It is at this point that we can really deal the death-blow to the shame culture. Jesus ties together our being forgiven with our own willingness to extend forgiveness to other people.
In practice, this can be a difficult thing to do. Instinctively we want our own wrongs to be gone but to hold onto the wrongs of others and make them pay for what they have done. We become bitter and resentful, without realising that the bitterness does far more damage to ourselves than to others. We want to be proved right in the court of public opinion, and often the way we go about doing this is by shaming the individual in question.
Forgiving the wrongs done to us doesn’t trivialise those things, but it does hand them to God. We were no more made to carry the wrongs of another than to carry our own wrongs. Through the cross, both the wrongs we have committed and the wrongs that have been done to us can be cleansed.
Jesus taught us a subversive prayer. We pray it in a shame culture that revels in holding every mis-step and wrong publicly to destroy the person. As we pray this prayer, we declare that forgiveness is possible, that our sins and mistakes aren’t what defines us and that there is a grace and forgiveness to be found that can right every wrong that we have committed and release every wrong committed against us.
Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name.
Your kingdom come; Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us