“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There’s a reason those two phrases are next to each other in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people. We shouldn’t idealize the Kingdom as a place where we don’t hurt one another. What characterizes the Kingdom of God from this evil age, as Jesus calls it, is not the absence conflict but rather the absence of revenge and violence as means of dealing with it.
Violence does not preserve community, it destroys it. Vengeance does not bring people together, but drives them apart. Justice is not served by either, but by looking sin dead in the eye and then working toward reconciliation. But we have gotten so good at both that we don’t even have to think, we just act. They have become second-nature to us. How many times have you found yourself “flying off the handle” about something, and then afterward you think, “I wasn’t thinking, I was just reacting.” Almost as if something took over. Well, when we’ve gotten so good at something that we don’t even have to think about it, that we just enter “the zone”, that is usually because something is instinctual, or because we’ve practiced it enough and gotten so good that we don’t have to think about it when we do it. Like walking. Nobody thinks about walking while they do it. It’s both instinctual and well-practiced. Well, reacting to conflict is both as well. It’s instinctual—the fight or flight response is a survival mechanism built into just about ever living being’s DNA; but it’s also well-practiced, something that has become second nature because we’ve done it so much.
It’s forgiveness that seems foreign. And we must practice it so that it becomes second-nature. Learning to dance, for instance, is awkward, and anything but graceful. But when you watch people who have practiced the dance, it is beautiful, graceful, and flowing. It seems effortless, because they are no longer having to think about where to put their hands and feet, they just move together.
The Western Church, of which we are a part, coming as all Protestant Churches out of the Roman Catholic tradition, has always described the Trinity in very clinical terms. “Jesus is God of Very God, being of the same substance, distinct from the Father and Spirit yet the same, neither superior to nor subordinate to the others.” Exciting stuff, that.
The Eastern Church, what is called the Orthodox Church, describes the Trinity as a dance involving three persons, always giving themselves to one another in perfect love, at the same time three and one. And grace is when we are invited into the divine dance. We join this dance by being forgiven so that we can forgive.
But learning the dance of forgiveness is not easy. Our heart, souls, minds and bodies are deeply formed by the habits of sin and evil. We all too often attempt to secure our lives at the expense of others. We are well practiced in the steps that lead to mutual destruction and death while we know precious little of the steps that make up the divine dance of forgiveness. But we must learn, because forgiveness is at the heart of the Kingdom of God, which means it is at the heart of God. But just as the Trinity is a dance involving three persons, we must be careful not to reduce forgiveness to a two-person waltz involving just myself and God. That is the mistake that the Western church has made, in my opinion. All our formulations of salvation are about how God forgives us, forgetting (or ignoring) that “forgive us our trespasses” is a conditional statement, followed by the condition, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But forgiveness is a three-person dance involving God and our sins and others and their sins against us. We forgive as we have been forgiven, moving gracefully upon this earth in perfect harmony.
We are—I am—still very clumsy with these steps. They aren’t yet natural. But they are necessary to life in the Kingdom.