That Christians are commanded by Christ to forgive their enemies is common knowledge. We often take this at face value – discover immediately that it is very hard (often impossible) and conclude that the commandment is an unachievable ideal. For non-Christians, forgiveness of enemies may, in some cases, be a shared ideal (most people believe in “peace”), but many if not most non-Christians would recognize immediately the dangers involved in forgiving an enemy – after all they are enemies. Why does Christ give us such a commandment?
There are several things that can be stated up front as not being reasons for this commandment.
1. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not part of a global strategy to bring peace to the world. Christ nowhere suggests that obeying His commandments will make the world a better place – indeed He warns his followers that taking the path He has taken will quite possibly mean their death.
2. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given as an ideal for our moral improvement. The impossibility we encounter within this commandment is itself and indication that such behavior is a gift from God. With men, such things are impossible.
3. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given in order to “help us all get along together.” Indeed, He also says that His coming will also bring division, even within families. The forgiveness of enemies is, in practice, far less popular than we might think.
So why the commandment?
The answer to the question is given several places within the gospels – most notably in Matthew 5:43-45 and Luke 6:35-36.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew)
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke)
The passages are certainly parallel and occur in a similar context. In both cases a similar reason is given for the commandment: we are to forgive our enemies “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” and “to be sons of the Most High.” The forgiveness of enemies and the actions associated with it are specifically given that we may be conformed to the image of God. Indeed such forgiveness is a manifestation of that conformity.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos once said: “You only know God to the extent that you love your enemies.”
This conformity is not a moral conformity – we are not struggling to be like sons of the Most High – we are not struggling to be like sons of our Father in heaven. Within the commandment – Christ is also offering true union with God – a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a union, as noted in the saying of St. Silouan. There are many who may point to experiences they have had, and religious choices they have made, etc. But if they do not love their enemies there is still much further to go on the road of salvation.
There are also some who seek to draw a distinction between forgiving our enemies and actually loving them. This is something of a legal distinction in which people imagine themselves to be keeping the commandment while, in fact, not keeping it. This is a spiritual delusion. The commandment not only asks us to forgive our enemies but to love them and to do good things for them. That this is hard (often impossible) simply points to the fact that we are saved by grace – and this, too, is not a legal notion. God does not pretend that we love our enemies and call it “grace.”
In the understanding of the Orthodox faith, grace is not God’s good attitude towards us, but is the life of God, His “Divine Energies” in the language of the Fathers. It is God Himself, working within us that is our salvation: “For it is God who works within you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Thus He who commands is also He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work within us.
In the face of sin, we repent (seek to yield ourselves to God’s grace), confess our sins, make communion, give alms, and make efforts to do good to our enemies. The work of grace sometimes seems glacial in its speed. A glacier moves but a few feet a year, but it changes the face of the earth. And so the Apostle tells us, “Let patience do its complete work” (James 1:4).
I treasure a story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko (and ask forgiveness for any inaccuracies that may have damaged the tale) in which he described someone who did not want to forgive (or repent – my memory grows fuzzy). He asked, “Well then, do you want to want to forgive?” The person thought and said, “I don’t think so.” So Fr. Tom said, “Then do you want to want to want to?” To which the person said, “I can do that.”
It’s a place to start.