There are many ways to think about forgiveness, not all of them true or helpful. It is easily the most emotionally and psychologically difficult aspect of the Christian life revealing both the power of trauma as well as the tenacity of lingering memories. The directness of Christ’s commandments (“forgive your enemies”) and the consequences of ignoring them (“if you do not forgive others neither will your heavenly Father forgive you”) can easily make forgiveness into a heavy, soul-crushing burden of spiritual failure. Understanding the true nature of forgiveness, however, carries us into the very mystery of our existence and reveals why such importance is given to its practice.
Much of our struggle with forgiveness lies in the trap of psychology and law. We hear the commandment as a legal requirement – “You must do this in order to have that.” But we experience the practice as a psychological failure. “I try to forgive them, but I still feel the same way.” Neither law nor psychology reveal the truth about forgiveness nor explain its essential role in the spiritual life. Our failure in these terms, however, should tell us more about the inadequacy of the terms themselves rather than the true nature of forgiveness. To tell someone what they ought to do (law) is sometimes effective. To tell someone how they ought to feel (law + psychology) almost never works. Our popular contemporary conception of forgiveness belongs to this latter category. We will never get it right.
Law and psychology both depend on an individualistic understanding of human life. And beyond that, they demand a worldview in which nominalism predominates. Nominalism is the essence of modern thought. Everything is presumed to have its own private existence, with the only connection being in our minds. Human beings (as well as everything in creation) have no particular connection with one another other than the connections they think about or imagine. We describe these psychological connections as “relationships” and lavish attention on them. Of course, that same attention mostly reveals that psychological experience is inconstant, unsteady, frequently unpredictable and always changing. Little wonder that self-help books (devoted generally to nothing other than psychology) are a booming industry of unending frustration.
The dynamic involved in true forgiveness, however, is neither psychological nor legal. It is concrete, even ontological in its character. For example, note this statement by the Elder Sophrony:
Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.
In a contemporary American context, such a statement is astonishing. How is my sin able to affect the rest of the universe? We are able to conceive how our sin (say, punching someone in the nose) can directly impact someone else (the guy with the nose). We are able to understand that others around the event can be affected (fear, anger, disgust, etc.). But the notion that a stranger on the other side of the world who has no knowledge whatsoever of the event can be affected seems absurd. And, of course, the elder did not say “the rest of humanity.” He asserted that our sin affects “the rest of the universe.” My punching Sergei in the nose has an effect on the entire Milky Way. What can such an assertion possibly mean, and how can it be true?
Well, first off, it cannot be true in a legal or psychological sense. Nominalism has no room for such a universal connectedness. But a universal connectedness is, in fact, part of the dogma of the Orthodox faith. You might wonder where such an assertion is found in the Creed.
And was made man…and suffered for us under Pontius Pilate…
The whole of the Christian faith, as presented in Scripture, the Creeds and the Conciliar teaching of the Holy Fathers requires that we accept the interconnectedness of life. This interconnectedness is expressed in a variety of ways: participation, communion, sharing, all of the language of “in Christ,” etc. The New Testament presupposes that Christ’s humanity is our humanity. He is not simply “one of us,” or “like us.” Christ becomes one with us. He becomes precisely what we are (yet without sin). The sin He takes upon Himself is not a legal burden, or a psychological phenomenon. He takes our actual and real sin upon Himself. Indeed, St. Paul uses even stronger language:
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21)
This is not the language of the law or of psychology. It is the language of being itself – the language of ontology.
The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.
We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.
We are told, “God is love.” Love requires an object and is meaningless without one. The Father loves the Son and is not and cannot be the Father apart from the Son. God Himself is love, but so are we. Love is the proper description of the reality that is our shared universal experience. It is in this very manner that we are told to love our enemies:
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. (Mat 5:44-45)
…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. (Luk 6:35)
We do more than follow the example of God. We are told to exist in the manner of God (which is love). That is – we become His sons.
And all of this brings us back to forgiveness. We forgive because the lack of forgiveness is not just a feeling or an infringement of the law. It is more of a disease and a dark place within our being that slowly drags us into ever greater darkness. It not only has this effect on us, but on others around us. Our children, whom we rightly seek to protect, are themselves completely vulnerable and unable to defend themselves from the danger our own lack of forgiveness creates. There is a collective reality to our sin that we cannot avoid. The darkness of the world is never just outside of us. It is also within us, like the air we breathe. We are either living in a manner that heals that darkness (and that of others) or adds to it. There is no neutral zone.
Ultimately, we can live without fear because Christ Himself has taken all of the darkness of the world into the light of His own life. Repentance, however, means that we unite ourselves to His sacrificial offering that forgives everyone and everything. The legal and psychological framework of the modern world’s notion of individualized existence has no room for such a thing. Only a life that learns to live in true communion can fathom such a thing, much less live it. This is the Orthodox way of life.
The other is my life. We need not consent to the darkness of sin nor consign others to that darkness.
Forgive everyone for everything.