In the early 1900s Isabella wrote a regular column for a Christian magazine in which she answered reader letters and offered advice—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of subjects.
The letter below came from a teen in California:
I am in sore need of help. I find that I cannot use the whole of the Lord’s Prayer. Our pastor talked last Sunday about the Lord’s Prayer being a “model,” but I cannot model my praying after it. The words that trouble me are, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Now, there is one person whom I cannot forgive. She has purposely come between me and my best friends. She has said untrue things about me—dozens of them—and she loses no opportunity to be hateful to me.
How can I pretend to forgive such a creature? The last thing she wants is my forgiveness—why, she says that she despises me, and wouldn’t speak to me, nor stay in the same room with me for the world!
I cannot understand why I should be expected to forgive her. Even God doesn’t forgive people unless they ask him to, does he? And yet, the prayer says, “Forgive us our debts AS we forgive.” Doesn’t that mean that if I pray that prayer I am actually asking God to forgive me in the same way that I am forgiving her? That seems to me an awful prayer!
I want God to forgive me: and I want to serve him, yet it seems as though that said I mustn’t ask him, because I cannot forgive her! I don’t understand it, and I don’t know what to do. And there is that verse about “loving your enemies”—that is simply impossible! And yet I do truly love Jesus and want to follow him. What shall I do?
Here’s how Isabella responded to her letter:
Undoubtedly your pastor is right, and the Lord Jesus gave us a “model prayer.” Yet the phrase you quoted has not the exact meaning you give to it. It is not a challenge to God to treat us, in the matter of forgiveness, just as we are treating somebody else; it is rather our acknowledgment to God that we have obeyed his directions.
Do you remember that in the chapter preceding the one with the Lord’s Prayer, the words of Jesus are plainer and stronger than those in the prayer? When you go to pray and remember that your brother has something against you, go first and be reconciled to him, then come and offer your gift of prayer.
The duty of forgiveness is so plainly and repeatedly taught in the Bible that there is no way of escaping it. Nor are we by any means to wait to be asked. Note the language of that direction in Mat. 5:23:
“And there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee.”
Not even necessarily you against him but he against you.
You speak of God having to be asked before he forgives, but you forget what is involved. When God forgives, he absolves from sin, and presents eternal life; and the plan of salvation is, there is no compulsion, the sinner is free, he may accept or refuse, but forgiveness, remember, is offered, and God waits for its acceptance.
If I understand your letter (or, rather, your letters, for the quotation is gathered from several who, with varying surroundings, have much the same problem), your main trouble is, I think, that you do not take in the real meaning of that word “forgiveness,” or that word “love,” as applied to your enemies. It is not that you are directed to have pleasure in the society of the one who has injured you, or to feel the same toward her that you do toward a friend.
It is not that you should trust her, so long as she continues to prove herself unworthy of trust, nor that you should love her in the way that you love those who please you. None of these things would you be able to do. But there is higher ground than this, and the Christian, because of God in his life, can reach it.
You can refrain from talking about this one who has injured you, and making the wounds deeper by spreading them open.
You can be kept from brooding in private over what has been done.
You can be helped to genuinely want good and not evil to come to that one.
You can learn to pray daily for her highest good.
You can grow into an earnest desire to be helpful to her in any way that may open.
All this is possible and reasonable, and his been done by God’s children again and again. It may look impossible to you but it is not, because the impossible is God’s part.
Yield yourself to him, and what he sees that you honestly want he will grant. This is loving our enemies and forgiving them their debts. It is not a love of enjoyment in their society necessarily, until there is a radical change in them—but it is higher than that, because it is divine. It is thinking God’s thoughts after him.
Don’t imagine for a moment that you can run away from the obligation that is upon you to forgive, by skipping the Lord’s Prayer. Remember that its spirit must pervade all real prayer.