Holding Your Breath


Breathing is a metaphor for praying. You know that kids will purposely hold their breath. Sometimes as a game; sometimes as a tantrum. But who deliberately doesn't pray? The same situations where a person might hold their breath tension, apprehension, fear or to avoid a disagreeable smell can also cause a person not to pray.

You might hold your breath in fear that your trespasses are too great Really? 19th century German Lutheran theologian, Clause Harms, said that at least in the papacy before the Reformation people paid for forgiveness. Now everyone goes around forgiving themselves for nothing. In these Post-modern times, there is nothing that needs forgiving. What we need is the spirit of the 9th century hymn we sang: "And wilt Thou Pardon Lord a sinner such as I although Thy book his crimes record of such a crimson dye?" We need the spirit of the 16th century German Lutheran theologian Abraham Buchholzer who said, "'Would to God, we would be so displeased with ourselves in life as we are in death, we would then pray this petition [forgive us our trespasses] more heartily'" (Narratives on the Catechism, 96). Or, we need the spirit of George Washington who prayed: "'I have called on Thee for pardon and forgiveness but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sins and stand in need of pardon'" (Eidsmoe, Christianity Constitution, 131).

You do realize that the Father can look at everyone of our sins whether they be secret deeds, whispered words, or internal thoughts? That's why David prays in Ps. 19: "Cleanse Thou me from secret or hidden faults." Not hidden or secret to God but to him. We all have laughed at the toddler who believes that when he covers his eyes and can't see you, you can't see him. We laugh because that's silly, so patently false, yet each one of us believes that if he or she can hide their sin from their spouse, their parent, their pastor, that it is hidden from everyone. Not God. Over the decades people have successfully hidden from me their sins, when this becomes known to me, I can't tell you how livid I am. I can tell you if I, sinner that I am, can be that mad at someone hiding their sins, how much more the holy God!

We can't hide sin, sins, or our sinfulness from God. Before Him our mind, heart, and lives stand naked. There is nowhere we can hide. So, we say in our Catechism: God can rightly deny our prayer because of our sins. Doesn't Pv. 1 terrify you? Take your breath away; cause you to hold it in a gasp? God says thus, "Because I called, but you refused to listen, because I stretched out My hand, but no one paid attention, because you ignored all My advice, and you did not accept My warning, therefore I will laugh at your calamity... Then they will call to Me, but I will not answer. They will look for Me, but they will not find Me, because they hated knowledge" (1:24-29). You don't listen to God, He doesn't listen to you. Who among us can claim we always listen to every Word of God? Doesn't that make you gasp? Hold your breath?

Where we're at now is the expression to "wait with bated breath" which we all think has to do with baiting a trap. No, it's b-a-t-e coming from the Middle English 'abate.' It means to restrain your breath; you know to hold it. There is no reason in us not our sorrow, not our repentance, not our faith, not our promises to do better, and not our excuses for what we've done, that moves God to forgive us our trespasses. So, why would He?

What moved God to forgive not only our sins but the sins of the world is what we see in the Passion Reading. Again and again Jesus is declared innocent, but we are most certainly not, so to the cross Jesus will go. You deserve to be handed over to a band of solders, whipped, mocked, and to be struck in the head again and again and to be spit on. Jesus does not, but He stands willingly in your place. You know the illustration where the draw bridge operator kills his only son playing in the gears of the bridge to save the train passengers? Wouldn't you wonder how could that father forgive you? Look what sparing your life cost him. You'd stand before him with bated breath.

Yet, the Son commands you to pray every day Father "forgive us our trespasses". As you grow in Bible knowledge, you will grow in knowing your sins and sinfulness. You'll be Peter with a boatload of fish saying to Jesus, "Depart from me a sinner." You'll be Paul, seeing the ongoing conflict between old and new man blurting out, "O wretched man that I am." But the One who commands you to pray daily for forgiveness isn't surprised that you sin daily. So, He provides daily forgiveness for Jesus' sake. He is guilty; you are Barabbas. You get to go free. That's the last line of the pastor's absolution in one rite of Private Confession: "Go, you are free." Surely Barabbas as he waited to hear whom Pilate would free and whom he would crucify held his breath. This should be how we approach every opportunity for confession and absolution. Not presuming on His grace but hoping for it in Christ. This is why our Large Catechism can call this entire petition an appeal to "grant us a happy and cheerful conscience to stand before God in prayer" (III, 923).

This complete petition is not only against despair but also against pride. The first part, "Forgive us our trespasses" is against despairing over the fact that we sin much and far more than we know. The second part, "As we forgive those who trespass against us" is against pride (Acker, 287). The relationship between these can be seen in John Wesley's answer to the 18th century governor of Georgia's remark that he never forgave others. Wesley replied, "'Then, Sir, I hope that you never sin'" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 152). This is why Luther said this petition accuses many people (LW, 42, 62). 4th century church father John Cassian spoke of some dreading this petition so much that when the Lord's prayer was chanted in church, they silently "omit this [as clause], for fear lest they seem by their own utterance to bind themselves rather than to excuse themselves" (NPNF, 2, 11, 396). What John Cassian depicts is holding our breath so we don't breath in something disagreeable. Holding our breath lest we exhale the "as we forgive others."

In dealing with this, what I can't do is make your forgiveness the cause of God's forgiveness. Luther said that God's justice stipulates "that he who refuses to forgive another is more guilty than he who has committed the wrong and inflicted the harm" (LW, 42, 66). True, we cannot gain God's forgiveness by forgiving others but our irreconcilable spirit can forfeit it (Quest for Holiness, 223). Not forgiving others is holding a grudge and holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It only harms you. Luther, in fact, said that by not forgiving you do more injury to yourself than then whole world is able to do (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 165). Right there is why our Large Catechism calls the 'as' clause not only necessary but "comforting" (III, 93).

We further explain in the Large Catechism: "But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven. Not on account of your forgiving, for God does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because He has promised it, as the Gospel teaches. But He has set up this condition for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise which is in agreement with this petition, Luke 6:37, 'Forgive, and you will be forgiven'" (LC, III, 95-96). The mark. the seal, the sign, that we are completely forgiven is that we forgive others.

See the relationship between God's forgiveness and yours. Read Lk. 7. Can you imagine the woman bawling her eyes out in love for the Jesus who forgave her so many sins holding on to anyone else's? Read Lk. 19. Can you imagine the forgiven, joyful Zacchaeus withholding forgiveness from someone? That's unimaginable. Go to the parables. Can you imagine the Publican who considers himself the only sinner in the world holding on to other's sins against him? Or can you imagine the Prodigal Son, forgiven so completely hanging on to anyone else's sins against him? No, that would be as Jesus illustrates in another parable: being forgiven a billion dollar debt but unwilling to forgive a debt of dollars.

The thing to focus on is the largeness of your debt and how freely and totally it has been forgiven by God. Though we sin against God daily and He knows the depth and disgusted-ness of our sins and sinfulness, He sends our sins away, forgives them, forgets them. When God forgives our debts our trespasses, He look not at us but Jesus. C. S. Lewis says that whenever we utter the Our Father, we are putting ourselves in the place of the Son of God. "To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending" (Mere Christianity, 161, italics original). When faced with the debt another owes us, the mistake we make is trying to forgive it ourselves rather than as Jesus. "A man comes to his pastor and says, 'I can never forgive my wife!'" The pastor replies, "'Well of course not. But that is not what matters. What matters is that Jesus has forgiven her, that He went through Calvary for her. And now your struggle is to let His forgiveness for her matter for you'" (Anonymous).

You know not only can't a you hold your breath but once you inhale you must exhale. The moment you take a breath of the first part of this petition you breathe in God's forgiveness of your sins for Jesus' sake. What follows is exhaling forgiveness for others. But we emphasize what Luther did. Before him no exegete of this petition had "pointed to God's continual forgiveness" (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 161). The historic postures for prayer express both parts of this petition. Ancient Christians prayed either standing or kneeling with their eyes, arms, and hands "raised toward heaven and their thoughts to God. They were not introverts probing their inner selves in prayer" (Church from Age to Age, 118). They weren't focused on what they thought, what they felt, what they could forgive, but on what God did.

We don't focus on us but Christ, and not just Him, but Him crucified for the sins of the world. In 3rd century art, Christians are depicted, standing with "arms outstretched when praying. Justin Martyr explainsthat this attitude of outstretched arms represents Christ on the Cross" (Norris, Church Vestments, 45). When God forgives our trespasses, debts, sins, He looks not at us but at Christ crucified. When we forgive others, that's whom we too look at. God pretends we're His only beloved Son; we pretend our neighbor is. So in effect we inhale and then exhale Jesus. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Midweek IV (20220323); Lord's Prayer V, Passion Reading 4