A River Runs Through It & The Lord’s Prayer

by Bobby Gilles

in Liturgy & Sermons

Preached at the New Albany campus of Sojourn Community Church, July 26, 2015 (Sojourn New Albany iTunes podcast here).

Good morning. My name is Bobby Gilles; I’m on staff here. For the past few weeks we’ve been preaching through the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Today we arrive at the final two verses:

“Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”
Matthew 6:12-13

Years ago, I read about two brothers out West named Norman and Paul Maclean, sons of a Presbyterian minister. Some of you may know about them, too. Two young men who love their parents, love their hometown, love to go fly fishing, and love each other. But the younger brother Paul starts drinking too much. He becomes an alcoholic. Then he starts gambling at a backwoods casino. He falls deeply into debt.

One night his big brother Norman gets a call from the police: “We’ve arrested your brother for being drunk and disorderly.”

Norman picks his brother Paul up at the station, and the police chief says, “We’re picking your brother up too often. And he’s fallen deeply in debt at the big card game in Hot Springs. That’s not safe.”

Later, Norman offers to help Paul with his debt but Paul brushes him off. He refuses to talk about it. He’s willing to go fishing with Norman and their father, and he remains a loving son to their mother. But why won’t he take their help?

This question haunts Norman as he stands with Paul outside Lolo’s, the casino, and pleads with him not to go in. Norman shouts, “You’re in debt up to your neck!”

Paul stiffs up, squares his jaw, and says, “It’s my debt, Norman. My debt.”

And so, not long after that, Norman gets a call to come to the police station. His brother Paul has been beaten to death with the butt end of a revolver. He owed too much money to the wrong sort of people, and finally they killed him.

Norman and his parents spend the rest of their lives struggling to understand. Eventually Norman writes a book about it called A River Runs Through It, which is later turned into a film.


Debt traps us in a life of despair, with an ending that’s worse than the butt end of a revolver. And it goes much deeper than financial debt, as we’ll see in a minute. You may be financially free this morning, and just as unaware as Paul Maclean seemed to be of the deeper, darker debt that is propelling you forward to a day of reckoning. This is the reality Jesus is speaking to in these final verses of the Lord’s prayer.

Jesus says when we pray, we should ask God,

“Forgive us our debts,”
Matthew 6:12a

The Old Testament regarded sins as debts before God – Jesus backs up this point later on, right here in chapter 6. So Jesus is using a familiar illustration to say, “You must confess your sins to God and ask his forgiveness.”

Why? Because by the time we’re old enough to understand this statement, we’ve already committed more sin that we could count. We’re already so far in debt that we could never pay it off.

The life and teaching of Jesus shows us that each of us is living like Paul Maclean, racking up unimaginable debt with little concern for the consequences. Here in our time and place, there are two kinds of people who have a problem with this teaching: people who aren’t Christians and people who are.

Non-Christians, say, “I’m a good person. I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes. But the good outweighs the bad. I try to do the right thing. Most people would say I’m a nice guy.”

If you know Jesus, you hear that and think, “Man, he’s way off base.” But it shouldn’t surprise us when people who don’t know Jesus say things like that, because Jesus is the one who shows us what makes someone good or bad. He sets the standard.
The Lord’s Prayer is one small part right in the middle of a famous sermon Jesus preached, beginning in the previous chapter, called the Sermon On The Mount. Large crowds from all across the country had been flocking to see him, so he went up on a mountainside and began to teach them.

Today when many people think of the Sermon On The Mount, they think, “How beautiful, how wonderful, how inspirational.” But his original listeners must have been horrified as he revealed a standard of holiness that even their best, brightest and purest – the Pharisees – couldn’t keep. And to leave no doubt, he said, “You have to be more righteous than the Pharisees.”

So by the time Jesus teaches them how to pray, he’s already said things like, “If you call your brother a fool, you’re just as guilty as a murderer.”

“If you see someone who looks sexy to you at Kroger, and you think a lustful thought, you’re just as guilty as someone who cheats on their spouse.”

“If someone smacks you in the face, don’t retaliate. Let them smack you again.”

This is the standard. And if you haven’t been living like this all your life, you’re in the exact same spot as Paul Maclean. And the debt will be called up one day soon.

If you’re not a Christian and you think, “That’s ridiculous; that’s not my standard,” then that’s fine as long as you’re in charge. It doesn’t matter what you think is fair unless you’re the one who gets to decide your fate. If you get to choose whether you live or die, and you get to choose where you go if you die, then you can set the standard anywhere you want. But if God gets to decide your fate, then he gets to set the standard.

But I said there was another group who has trouble praying, “Forgive my debt” – Christians. A lot of Christians get the idea that repentance is a one-time thing that happens when you ask Jesus into your heart, or you get baptized. After all, it’s true that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross covers all of your sins: past, present and future. If you’re truly saved, you can never lose your place as God’s child. So why keep asking for forgiveness?

Think of it this way: Paul Maclean had parents who loved him. He had a brother who loved him. They all knew he was not living the way he’d been raised to live. The son of a preacher — now a drunk, a gambler, in and out of jail.

They never stopped loving him, even decades after he was gone. He was still their son. He was still Norman’s brother. But the things he did grieved them deeply. See, there are legal consequences of sin and relational consequences. Christ’s death paid our debt; he took care of the legal consequences. We’re not in trouble anymore.

When we sin as Christians, we don’t lose our place as sons and daughters of God. But we grieve him. We can never become un-adopted, but our experience of our father can be diminished because to sin is to run away from the relationship. So we repent, not in the sense that we just say, “sorry,” but we turn back to God.

Some of you can’t make it this far, because you think your debt is too great. You don’t ask for forgiveness because you think you are unforgiveable. Maybe you’re thinking, “Even if God forgave me, I can’t forgive myself. What I’ve done is too bad. I’ve let myself down and I’ve hurt people I love.”

I wonder if what kept Paul drinking and gambling was a fear of facing all the hurt he’d caused his family. Or maybe it was because Paul grew up in a home that demanded he performed, expected results — even in fly-fishing. Maybe he looked at his brother and thought, “I don’t want your charity. I want to earn it.”

Which one is it for you? Is it the deep shame you feel over your mistakes, what you’ve done and what’s been done to you? Maybe it’s your pride that keeps you from acknowledging your great need for help. Maybe, like Paul, you look to God, set your chin, and say “It’s my debt.”

As we continue with today’s reading, we find another reason to think we may be deeper in debt than we thought. Jesus says,

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Matthew 6:12

These two things – the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we extend – are so entwined that Jesus asks us to verbalize that connection every time we pray.

Jesus is saying that an unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart, and he backs this up just a few verses later in your Bible, after concluding this prayer. This is tough to hear, because few things in life are as hard as forgiving those who hurt us.

Again, pride is often our enemy here. When we’re bitter against someone, it’s usually because we assume an air of superiority, an “I would never do that …” mentality. As Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of his Sermon On The Mount, his listeners know they can’t get away with that kind of thinking. He’s already exposed it.

For instance, someone says, “I could never forgive my wife’s affair, because I would never have cheated on her.”

Really? Have you ever looked at a coworker with lust in your heart?

Or the girl at the gym?

Or Kim Kardashian on TV?

Because if you have, according to Jesus you’ve committed adultery in your heart.

God’s plan for us to live a debt free life is always the same – to lean on him instead of trudging through on our own. We don’t say, “It’s my debt,” nor do we say, “It’s their debt to me,” when talking about those who hurt us.

Just as we lean on God for the forgiveness of our debt, we lean on him to heal us and enable us to forgive. Forgiving someone’s sin-debt to us is like telling someone they don’t owe you money anymore. Our relationship with God assures us of all he’s done for us and all he will do, for eternity. It’s like being given trillions of dollars. Being given trillions makes it possible to tell someone else, “You don’t have to return that $1000 you owe me.”

Often you’ll hear people say, “Just remember the cross. That’s how you can forgive.” Don’t just remember the cross; cultivate your relationship with the one who died on the cross and rose from the grave.

Outside of a relationship, thinking of the cross will never bring long term change, just short term change that is based on shame or guilt: A preacher, like me, shames you into saying that you should forgive, you should change, because of all that Jesus did for you. But the change doesn’t stick.

But when you’re in a satisfying relationship with someone you love dearly, it changes your very desires over time. Your deepest desire becomes to please the one you love. You don’t need to be shamed into it; you want to do it. And over time, you even become like this person you love.

So how do we deepen our relationship with God?

First, examine your heart for any signs of unforgiveness. Maybe there’s someone in particular who has hurt you so badly that you’ve not been able to forgive them. This might be something you have to pray about a lot. Maybe you need to ask your community group to pray with you, and to help you process your emotions and your journey towards forgiveness.

Next, we delight in his Word – not just reading for information (though there’s nothing wrong with that) but reading it as a love letter from God. And we don’t just delight in it when we’re reading, but in the quiet times and in the hustle and bustle of our days.

Next, we cultivate our relationship with God together here each Sunday. That’s why it’s so important to come every time you can. Something powerful happens when hundreds of people, each filled with the Spirit of God, come together to worship him, to declare,

“Oh praise the one who paid my debt
And raises life up from the dead!”

God meets us in a unique, special way.

And then, we cultivate our relationship through prayer. Maybe the most important thing to remember from this whole sermon series on The Lord’s Prayer is that Jesus says we can talk to God anytime, as dearly loved children talking to a perfect, loving father.

He concludes this model prayer in verse 13:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
Matthew 6:13

So what’s the relation between this verse and the previous one, about debt forgiveness? When we see that debt is a metaphor for sin, we could sum up both of these verses like this:

“Father, forgive my debt, and keep me from taking on any more debt.”


“Father, forgive my sin and keep me from sinning in the future.”

But there’s more. Notice how Jesus’ begins this sentence with “lead us,” then says, “deliver us.” These words assume the nearness of God — that he is with us now.

“Forgive us our debts” could be the language of customers to a banker. “Lead us” and “deliver us” is the language of children to a father. So we can look at this as,

“Father, stay close to us and guide us into the good, debt-free life you made us for.”

In A River Runs Through It, by the time we discover Paul Maclean’s plight, his problem is two-fold:

First, he’s falling further and further into debt, far beyond what he could ever hope to repay, as he continues to give in to temptation.

Second, he doesn’t believe his family knows what’s best and is deeply for him.

We don’t press into trusting God because a part of us refuses to believe he loves us. That he’s for us. That his way leads to life. We believe in God but we don’t believe God.

But the cross and empty tomb of Christ give us proof that God loves us and that he is deeply for us, and he can lead and deliver us. If he would be crucified for you, what wouldn’t he do for you? And if he could rise from his own grave, what couldn’t he do for you?

Finally, this word “temptation” can mean a lure that entices us to sin, but it can also mean, “test.”

We know from the book of James that God doesn’t tempt us to sin. But he does allow us to be tested from time to time, to grow our faith and make us more like Jesus. So why ask God to lead us away from testing?

It’s about our heart posture. God, in his perfect wisdom, may allow us to be tested from time to time. But our attitude should never be, “Bring it on. I’ll show you how tough I am. I’ll show you what a great Christian I am.”

Rather, we humbly ask him, “Keep me from anything that would hurt our relationship.

And “deliver us from the evil one” refers to Satan’s role as tempter. He’s been tempting us since the Garden of Eden, when he came in the form of a snake.

Unlike Paul McClain, we’re not running away from family. We’re like a little child who sees a poisonous snake, lifts up her arms and shouts, “Daddy! Pick me up! Get me out of here!”

A River Runs Through It is one of my favorite books, and films. Every time I get close to the end, and I know Paul is about to die, I wonder what might have been going through his mind as life drained out of his body.

Some people say that, in the second before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true but we should never underestimate what God, in his mercy, can do, and how he might choose to deal with someone at the end, and give them space to repent before it’s too late.

If Paul had that chance, I wonder if, finally, his spirit shouted, “God, help me!” or if, one final time, he said, “Its my debt.”

For those who humble themselves to ask this prayer, God answers, “Amen.”

Christ nailed the record of our debt on his cross, canceling all we owed and bringing us into God’s family. Then he gave us his Spirit so we can forgive, and so we can follow his lead away from the path of temptation. He has made a way for us to enjoy debt-free living.


On the night when you finally realize the debt you owe is greater than you could ever repay, lean on the one who paid your debt and bought your life.

On the night when you’re devastated by the pain someone has caused, and you don’t know how you can forgive, lean on the one who was nailed to a cross and yet cried, “Father, forgive them.”

On the night of your greatest temptation, lean on the one who was tempted in every way and yet never sinned.

On the night when the evil one has shattered your world, remember that a new world of love, joy and peace awaits …

Because on the night that He was betrayed, after giving thanks, Jesus broke a loaf of bread like this one (hold communion bread up before the people), saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Then he took a cup of wine like this one, and said, “This is my blood, shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me until I come again.”

Jesus sets a standard for us that can be even more crushing than the Law of the Old Testament. This is what makes Jesus beautiful, though: he doesn’t just set the standard; he is the standard.

One day you’ll stand before God’s judgment seat, and the evil one will bring a record of debt against you. But because of this body and blood, broken and shed for you, God will look at Christ’s record and treat it as if it were yours. He’ll look at you and see the one who always forgave, who never needed forgiveness, who turned back temptation and faced down the devil. Then he’ll say to your accuser, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.

“This record is clean.

“He’s perfect.

“She’s spotless.”

Then he’ll say to you, “Well done. Enter into the world I made for you – a world with new adventures around every turn, and a river of life runs through it.”

Remember this, as you come forward, tearing off a piece of bread and dipping it into either wine or juice as your conscience permits. The cups with wine will have twine tied around them. And we have a gluten-free station right over here in the far corner.

If you’re not a Christian, we ask that you don’t come forward to take this symbolic meal, because it symbolizes the forgiveness of a debt that you’re still claiming as your own. Instead, I invite you to pray at your seat or walk up to someone with a lanyard that says “Pray,” in the back of this room. Ask them to pray with you as you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior.

Stop saying, “It’s my debt.” You don’t need to carry it anymore. Then we can prepare you to be baptized and join us in this feast in the weeks to come.

Let’s pray.

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