Forgiveness – The Hardest Love of All

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I cannot think that any of my readers is a stranger to forgiveness, either the need to be forgiven or the need to forgive. The need to forgive, according to the commandment of Christ, extends well beyond those who ask for our forgiveness: we are commanded to forgive our enemies – whom I presume would rarely want to ask for our forgiveness.

Of course, our experience of those who are truly enemies is that we do not want to forgive them. We do not trust them; the wound has been too deep; their offense is not against us but against someone we love who is particularly vulnerable. I could enlarge the list but we are all too familiar with it. The reasons we find it hard to forgive our enemies is endless.

But the commandment remains – not as a counsel of how to live a healthier, happier life – but with the added reminder that we will only find forgiveness as we forgive. Forgiveness is not optional – but a fundamental spiritual action which we must learn to use as though our salvation depended upon it – for it does.

Several times in Scripture forgiveness of others (including enemies) is linked with our becoming like God, being conformed to His image. Thus when I think of forgiveness I think as well of the whole life of salvation – for the path to being restored to the fullness of the image of Christ runs directly through the forgiveness of our enemies. It may indeed be the very key to our salvation (as it is worked out in us) and its most accurate measure.

Having said that, however, is also to say that this commandment to forgive is not of man – we do not have it in us to fullfill this commandment in and of ourselves. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.” Of course it is utterly and completely impossible for mud to do such a thing (unless God make it so).

All that being said, grace is the foundation of forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness to enter our heart. We beg for forgiveness to enter our heart. We importune God for forgiveness to enter our heart.

Even as a product of grace – we do not begin with the hardest things but with the easiest. We do not begin fasting by tackling the most strict regimen. We do not begin prayer with an effort to pray continually for forty days (or some other great feat). Such efforts would either crush us with their difficulty or crush us with our success.

These are a few thoughts on beginning the life of forgiveness:

1. Begin by struggling to form the habit of forgiveness in the smallest things. With a child, with traffic, with little irritations. Do not struggle in a small way but throw yourself into forgiveness. It should become a habit, but a habit of grace, a large action.

2. Use this prayer for the enemies who seem to be beyond your ability to pray: “O God, at the dread judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” This places forgiveness at a distance and even a hard heart can often manage the small prayer of forgiveness at such a distance.

3. Be always aware of your own failings and constantly ask for God’s forgiveness. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

4. As much as possible cultivate in your heart the understanding that all human beings are broken and victims of the fall. None of us enters a world of purity, nor do we enter the world fully fuctional as a human being. It is the gradual cultivation of mercy in our heart. Many will complain that our culture already has a “cult of victimization” in which no one takes responsibility for their actions. The same people will imagine that the world would be better if only everyone took more responsibility. But they themselves will not take on the responsibility that belong to us all. As Dostoevsky says, “Each man is responsible for everything before everyone.” Thus the complaint comes out of our pride. We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we were the world would be better. This is a lie.

5. The proper response to taking such responsibility is to pray and ask forgiveness. Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action and is not the same thing as asking forgiveness.

6. Make a life confession at least once a year – being careful to name as many resentments as you can remember (this last advice comes from Met. Jonah Paffhausen).

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:27-38).

21 comments:

  1. Thank you Father, and may God continue to bless you and your service to His ministry. I most certainly have a vast amount of work to do in getting myself right in this area. Reading this left me in tears as I reflected my shameful behavior, prideful words hurled at others, and my anything but Christian thoughts regarding so many people – nearly all of whom are complete strangers.

  2. Dear Fr. Stephen, thank you so very very much for taking time to address this topic. As we approach Lent — as I approach Lent and have been reminded awake and asleep of things long past that I thought I had forgiven, but I had really not, and carry such luggage day after day: your words here are a tonic!

    I especially appreciate the prayer that helps place forgiveness at a distance and really all the numbered ideas here.

    I can attest that the prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have Mercy on Me a Sinner is blessing my life.

    God is so Good! God is Love! And He is with your writing! Glory to God for All Things!!!

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks for the succinct and practical article. Forgiveness. Yes. God bless.
    In Christ,
    George Bryant

  4. Thank you, Father. I heard someone say once (it may have been you, I don’t remember), that if we consider the church a hospital, it would be harder to judge people (and consequently it would be harder to not forgive them). In the hospital, we don’t judge people because of their diseases; we may just be there with them, feeling their emptiness with our presence. And this even while we are empty ourselves. Bearing each other’s burdens…

    If we depart from the framework of justice, where our enemies are human beings, and we move into the framework of health, then the only enemy is the disease itself. What am I to forgive in this situation? The mud that is on people, perhaps brought on them by their interaction with me?

    Forgive me, a sinner = please, be with me on the path to regaining my health.

  5. Octavian,
    Yes, viewed in terms of disease, forgiveness has a different meaning. Its meaning passes into the realm of healing, of fighting the infection that is within us as well. I have found that justice metaphors are almost completely useless in the spiritual life.

  6. Father, regarding your point #2: The prayer you suggest is really quite a substantial leap in praying for one’s enemies at least for me. It requires that I acknowledge that any judgment, hurts or resentment I have are not solely from the outside due exclusively to the acts of my enemy. It also takes courage to actually make the prayer specific for a particular person.

    Years ago I stumbled on my own version which I found a bit easier since it was not so specific which I prayed nightly for awhile: Father, please forgive all I have judged this day and loose me from that judgment as well. Now is a time for me to remember that prayer and start using it again hoping for the courage to be more specific.

  7. Your last remark is helpful, but can you further clarify what forgiveness is? When I forgive, what am I doing?

    Thank you,

    Tullius

  8. Tullius,
    For one, you are letting go of something that is hurting you. In AA they say that a resentment is like drinking poison expecting someone else to die. These painful wounds (which is surely one major aspect of the need to forgive) eat at the soul like a worm (“where the worm dies not”). Casting out the worms is thus getting out of a temporary hell. If the only price for getting out of torment were to be to forgive someone, would we not pay it? But that is precisely what it is. The torment is ours. The sin might have been theirs – but the torment is ours.

  9. “In AA they say that a resentment is like drinking poison expecting someone else to die.”

    Wow… That really puts it simply and powerfully.

  10. Saint Sophrony once said that true forgiveness – in its perfection – is when someone sins against you, and you respond by begging God to forgive you as if you were the one who sinned. He added that anything less than this is not truly forgiveness.
    Thank God that He doesn’t expect immediate perfection! I don’t think I’d pass…
    May we all get there! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

  11. Father Stephen,
    In lue of the ever growing instability of the world and the events which are unfolding before our very eyes, with the apparent rise of an ottoman islamic empire. muslims working towards the establishment of a caliphate, the civilizational jihad being waged worldwide, the abomination of islam, the pagan liberals, atheists and sodomites pushing for their sinful agendas, the establishment of ignorance, I understand the need to forgive, but how do we as Christians distinguish between forgiveness and tolerance? At what point is enough enough? When does the hammer drop? I ask because I know that I am able to forgive the most wretched of acts, I pray for all people, yet I find that I have no tolerance, in fact, I feel like tolerance is nothing more than a gateway for the safegaurding of sin and I want to know that these people will pay for what they do. We are all created in the image of Christ, we are all sinners in need of salvation, but at what point does Christendom unite and fight as one body against the enemies of our Lord? It pains me to continuously see the horrors of those who follow the ways of the world imposed upon everyone. It infuriates me to see the ignorance of so many who turn a blind eye to reality. I sit comfortably here on my couch, but I know that somewhere, so much pain and suffering is being inflicted on someone, somewhere a child is being subjected to so much pain, so much brutality that I want to see these people pay dearly for what they do. I pray everyone repents for their sins. Forgiveness, yes, tolerance, no, I simply have no more for the enemies of Christ. I may be wrong, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

  12. Jeff,
    They will never pay for it. What you describe is deeply evil but you also describe how it is clawing at your heart. It is very, very difficult. “Tolerance” literally means “to bear.” Christ bore the sins of all. Whatever happens politically/militarily in the world will not secure the Kingdom of God. Only prayer in the deepest place – both for our enemies and ourselves. Not until their sin becomes my sin can I ever effectively pray and forgive. Only Christ can show you this. But it is the witness of the saints. And if we ridded the world of their sort, but never prayed with their sins being our sins, then the world would still be as dark.

  13. @ Fr. Freeman & Jeff
    These are two different – albeit related – matters, IMO.

    One the one hand, Fr. Freeman, I am hearing you forward the need (repeatedly) for individual-in-community repentance on the deepest of level; that of essentially following Christ into hell as a partaker in His death and recognizing our being a fellow with all the fallen – even the ‘worst’ – who are there.

    On the other hand, Jeff, I hear you struggling for a degree of social order based upon the apparent moral justice with which Judaeo-Christianity has come to be associated.

    I feel your angst here! Nevertheless, it is a false conundrum.

    I am reminded here of the attitude of many Christians from my father’s generation in this country – one that consumed me for many years of my life also – “Evil may eventually prevail, but NOT on my watch”. While this may be an admirable sentiment, it has little or nothing to do with His Kingdom. As Christ explained: “My Kingdom is not of this world”. And – until we SEE “all things put under his feet” however that may come to be and whatever that Kingdom may consist in or look like – we will continue to suffer the inevitable injustices of men against their fellows and of our imperfect socio-political, economic systems. In fact, it may be to our advantage to embrace the rapid deterioration of peace (e.g. the list of concerns you iterated above) since only when the world is in utter chaos and depravity, arrayed in battle against all that is Godly, are we told to ‘look up for your redemption draws near’.
    Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!
    Meanwhile, we must remember “the weapons of our warfare” – those ‘weapons’ which Fr. Freeman appeals to in these blogs – “are not carnal but are mighty to the tearing down of strongholds”; particularly those strongholds of the enemy of our souls and bodies which are found within each of our own hearts. At this point in my life, I am of the persuasion the the most meaningful ‘social gospel’ (i.e. any sort of application of Christian values to socio-political justice) is that admonished by St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved”.

  14. Bless, Father.

    This comes a bit late as I found this post through a Google search for commentary on Luke 6.

    I have recently become a caregiver and everyone has told me not to forget to take care of myself. I know that God rested on the seventh day and Jesus took a nap. But I keep coming back to Luke 6 and how the cloak AND tunic were given, we offer BOTH cheeks and we give to ALL who ask. I’m just not finding “self-care” in the Gospels. Would you help me strike a balance?

    A blessed Holy Week to you and yours.

  15. Jeff, if I may: my dear wife worked for awhile as an intake person in a local emergency room. After awhile she had to quit because she could no longer take seeing the brutalized bodies of babies who had been abused come into her ER. She still has the sense of it today after many years and she weeps internally because of it. She bears those sins. Yet she also prays for the children and yes, the perpetrators. She is a kind and generous lady.

    As to those who hate us simply because we are Christian, Jesus told us that would happen so we should expect that and not be too troubled by it. That is not easy. It seems however, that such is the way of the Cross: forgiving those that curse you and despitefully use you.

    The world and our own flesh revolt at such suggestions. The only way, literally the only way, I have found not to “take up arms” to end them is to repent as Father suggests here.

    I have come to realize that whatever sins I see in others, are my sins. As I begin to repent of my own sins, it helps others heal from the effects of those sins, no matter who specifically perpetrated them. It does not make sense by the world’s standards.

    It can be a harrowing experience even in very, very small doses which is all that my heart will bear and even then I have to be under extreme duress to do it. The medicine is potent. Frankly, I cannot imagine the courage it requires to take up such a task voluntarily as St. Silouan did.

    Yet the words of the tortured and dying priest in the Romanian Soviet jail as he forgave the man who tortured him past the point of recovery and also lay dying in the same way haunt me: “If I, being a human, can forgive you, think how much more God will forgive you.”

    Repentance is THE way to the Kingdom as Jesus told us from the very beginning: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”.

    IMO, it is impossible to forgive much less bear the sins of others unless we repent.

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