Can You Forgive Someone Else’s Enemies?

I have written from time to time about the concept expressed in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox Christian thought. I have been challenged from time to time by people arguing that we cannot forgive those who have not sinned against us – that this right belongs only to the victims involved. I believe this is profoundly untrue. But to understand why, it is necessary to look deeply into the meaning and function of forgiveness.

I should add as an aside that those who argue loudly that they cannot forgive some else’s enemies find little trouble in blaming someone else’s enemies. They do not think this to be beyond their reach.

What happens when we forgive? A very important example is found in St. Mark’s gospel:

Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,’Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say,’Arise, take up your bed and walk’? “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”– He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  (Mar 2:3-11)

What sin did Jesus have in mind when he forgave the paralytic? Had the man done something wrong to bring a punishment of paralysis upon himself? There is no such indication. Indeed when Christ healed the man born blind He was asked who had sinned, the man or his parents such that he was born that way. Christ says, “Neither.” But it would seem clear from the greater context of the gospels that Christ could have said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he would have received his sight. There is a simple conclusion to be drawn from this: forgiveness is not, strictly speaking, the remission of a legal debt or wrong that has been done. It is far greater.

There are parallel passages in the gospels regarding the forgiveness of sins:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (Joh 20:23 NKJ)

and

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:19 NKJ)

Forgiving is “loosing.” Refusing to forgive is “binding.” The imagery of loosing and binding helps move the imagination away from a legal construction. When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin. Through his sin, death enters the world, and all men die (Ro. 5:12).

And just as there is a binding that occurs in each of these things, so there is a loosing that is appropriate to each. Obviously, the injury that a victim suffers binds them far tighter to their enemy than someone who is at a remove. And such a loosing is greater and represents a greater spiritual effort. But that effort is itself impeded by the refusal of all around to share in the loosing. And just as the refusal of all around impedes the loosing, so the participation of others makes the loosing easier.

These things are difficult to understand if we insist that all of reality is, at best, psychological or legal. But the death of Adam is not shared in a merely psychological or legal manner: we all die. And the resurrection of the Second Adam is shared in a manner that encompasses the whole of creation. The Paschal Canon contains the verse: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” It is a perfectly strange thing to sing unless we understand the true nature of forgiveness – and how it is that the Resurrection of Christ makes it possible for us to forgive everyone for everything.

Of course, it jars us to hear that someone dares to forgive the killer of a child. “Only the child could offer such forgiveness!” These words were spoken by Ivan Karamazov as he professed his refusal of God’s mercy. He demanded justice for an injured child. Forgiveness that works by justice is no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is not the child saying, “What you did to me is ok.” It is loosing the bonds that are forged in sin. The forgiveness of sin is the trampling down of death by death – an act of radical, undeserved resurrection. 

We often think that not forgiving someone is only destructive for them. But the lack of forgiveness is often equally devastating for a victim as well. I had opportunity some years ago to be involved with a Victim-Offenders Reconciliation Program. In it, mediators helped work to bring restitution and reconciliation for various crimes. I eventually became involved with efforts of ministry with families that had suffered a murder (as had my family). The darkness of the crime extended mercilessly beyond the victim alone. Forgiveness was the only way forward. Murder is the triumph of a lie. Forgiveness is the triumph of an even greater truth.

It is striking how utterly central forgiveness was to the ministry of Christ. It dominates almost everything He did. Many observe that He kept company with “sinners.” But He first and foremost forgave them. Their loyalty and devotion to Him flowed from the spiritual loosing that they found in Him. A woman “who was a sinner,” bathes Christ’s feet with her tears and anoints them with fragrant spices. Those around Him are offended. But He says:

Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. (Luk 7:47 NKJ)

I cannot make your enemy be reconciled to you, nor can I do for you what you alone must do. Your enemy is yours to forgive. But he is mine as well, and the bond of unforgiven sin that links my life to his is still mine to loose. It is for this reason that we are bidden in the wisdom of the Fathers to forgive everyone for everything. Anything less is a bondage of destruction. Forgive all by the resurrection.

61 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen. I do believe that we ought to — and that we can — forgive everyone for everything. I do not see this as reconcilliation in my lifetime as some people involved are dead. However, it is a blessing to be encouraged to forgive and thank you for this blog post. It is through the Orthodox Christian Church that I have accepted and hopefully engage in this truth. Glory to God for All Things!

  2. Your example is why “Christianity” is often high jacked by hateful, self-righteous, smug people ( basically people like me). We can’t allow our sense of “that’s not right!” to lose to mercy and to a love we just can’taccept. We can never forgive the truly horrible people ( our description, much as the Pharisees), especially notoriously horrible people such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pontius Pilate. The list is endless. That just wouldn’t be “right”.
    I remember reading where the infamous Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, asked his Polish guards to seek out a priest to hear his confession. Hoess was scheduled to die in a few days and wanted to confess his sins. The guards laughed. They said no priest would waste their time with a monster like Hoess. Hoess said there was one such priest, a priest Hoess had held as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Hoess told them, “Ask him, he will come”. And the priest did come and heard Hoess’s three hour confession. He administered absolution and the following day, a day before Hoess’ execution, gave him the Eucharist. Hoess went to the gallows quiet, somber, and apparently humble. When I tell this story, the reaction is usually, ” No way! That’s wrong. There’s no way that guy would confess. He deserved a horrible death”. We love playing what we think is God’s will, forgetting that He is love and mercy in their only real sense. So, what I am saying is your point is a crtical one to keep in mind as we prepare for the Great Fast and Pascha. “Lord have mercy on me a sinner and a fool”.

  3. Some may think that to forgive is like saying “it’s okay”. Please comment on this huge difference at your convenience. Thank you,. Father, for your wonderful insights.

  4. Thank you Veronica, I would also appreciate your comment on this, Fr. Stephen. I do not see forgiveness as saying “it’s ok” because to me that is a judgement call, and I cannot do that. I can forgive and I pray I do so.

  5. Veronica,
    If, in fact, what someone did is “okay,” then there would be nothing to forgive. It strikes me, that in thinking of forgiveness as though it were saying something is “okay,” misses the entire point of forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of a debt (the debt is real), or refusing to take revenge for an injury (the injury is real). If we think of it in terms of debt, then it is refusing to demand repayment. It is not a legal debt – but an ontological debt – with layers of psychological issues and such.

    I have taught that one way to pray for enemies (especially if it is a difficult matter) is to say: “O God, on the Day of Judgment, do not hold this sin against them on my account.”

    Another way to begin to pray on this matter is to add to your prayers this petition: “O God, forgive everyone for everything.”

  6. Paul

    No words. Such testimonies give me great courage and awe at the mystery of forgiveness, of trusting God and loving Him so that He can love others through us.

  7. Thank you so much for making the point that forgiveness is not saying “it’s ok.”
    I feel like saying “it’s ok” is in the same boat as dissociation– a person sins against you, and you avoid facing it by either saying “it wasn’t wrong” or “you didn’t do it”. Neither of those positions actually deal with reality and neither leads to healing. To come face to face with sin, call it what it is, and to begin to seek healing is what will lead to forgiveness. I find it so helpful when I can come to a place where I can see that the “perpetrator” has been as deeply injured or more than the “victim” by the sin. It leads to sorrow for that icon of Christ who has so marred himself. But the ability to forgive sins, committed directly against us or not, is a gift from God.

  8. I have long wondered about the prayer in which we confess our involuntary sins. It came to me that involuntary sins are those that we receive from our ancestors and those we take in from the culture around us. It is perhaps those of which we learn that others have committed.

    There is no sin committed that does not hurt every other person. That is the reality of being a human being. We are not autonomous individuals. We are interconnected beings each made in the image and likeness of God.

    Real repentance is not bound by what we call time either. As each of my sins touches each of you so does each act of repentance and forgiveness. Healing of some type will occur. That is the heart of the Gospel-Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
    Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand.

  9. I think forgiveness is just one more part of that ‘other’ logic that is part and parcel of true Christianity.
    Human logic (for example) naturally wants to ask God for the sick to be healed,
    God however says, I will give you the greater miracle: to die (!) (without death “being a death”), but, with death, being life…!
    Human logic wants to have a fair sharing of property, or suffering, a relative freedom from want and pain,
    God says: I give you the greater freedom: to have need for nothing and be able to suffer without losing your joy in Me and trust in Me.
    Human logic wants to right wrongs,
    God says: I give you the ability to take on all wrongs and be crucified with Me and even to share in my salvific transformation of everything.
    It is good to remind ourselves of the more radical truths of our faith.

  10. Fr. Stephen,

    Awhile back I was researching the etymology of the word “forgiveness”. What I found was that in a sense it meant to give back. When you forgive someone, you give them back the possibilities they had before they committed the sinful action. In essence you loose them from the bondage of their sin by doing a kind of reset and giving them another chance to try it again – without sin this time.

    That way of thinking about it helped me, so I offer it here for what it’s worth.

  11. Well, it seems to me that when one sins we are all affected – some more directly than others and not just the one whom the sin may be solely directed to. For example, if a friend was to sin against another friend of mine or someone in my family and I was not directly involved, it still pains to hear about that sin and what it has done to others. It can extend far beyond what we may think. Perhaps the total and complete forgiveness has to come from the one sinned against, however we still need to do our part. Then God puts His seal on it when the sinner goes to confession and God extends mercy. Some sins we view as unforgivable since they are so violent, but if we look at this as coming from a sick soul, our forgiveness can certainly bring them to repentance and conversion.

  12. This article brings up a question I have been thinking about. Who exactly are my enemies? Granting the obvious examples of people I encounter that try to harm me directly, either violently or coercively, are there other enemies I need to consider?

    Personally I have found this idea quickly becomes abstract outside of my personal experience. Am I to consider the enemies of Christianity my enemies even though I don’t encounter them on a day to day basis? If I am not currently under persecution, either personal or through some outside social force do I still have enemies in the abstract? Or maybe this is just wrong to think about in the abstract? Or by praying for forgiveness of all for everything this is a moot consideration?

    Hopefully this is not too obvious though it probably is. I am just trying to understand the command to love our enemies better.

    Thanks for another insightful post Fr. Stephen.

  13. Father:
    Your message is very timely just before Forgiveness Sunday.
    There is a whole book about this question of whether one can forgive the offender to someone besides oneself. A Holocaust book, The Sunflower. I forget its final conclusion/ premise. But i recall it did make me think a lot.
    In addition to forgiving all people for everything , should we not also simply confess the sins of others, our families, the world around us, even our ancestors? Perhaps not at the sacrament of confession, but in our private prayers? This is, in effect, asking for forgiveness for our sins and theirs too.

  14. >Who exactly are my enemies?

    Michael, it may be helpful to remember the question of the Lawyer: and who is my neighbor? when considering this. If we have all sinned, then we are all enemies. Our sins set us against God, our own Life, and each other. Our repentance to Him is our repentance to each other and ourselves. The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

    I am not sure abstraction is required as much as understanding the nature of healing. Even from a distance, in love it is deeply personal. Just my thoughts.

  15. Byron: I found your comment quite interesting and suddenly it came to me that anything or person who is openly or subtley trying to take us away from God and not bring us closer to God, is an enemy – until we sort it out which can go as far as needing forgiveness. That is the scene outside of us. Then we have the scene within and this is another matter for us to sort out. In this way we don’t have to think of the enemy and going to war with it, but just correcting the sin and problem before it grows and spreads. There are the smallest of harrassments, suggestions etc that can even lead to us having a personality change – meaning becoming moody or angry or depressed. Nipping it in the bud is a good thing to do if at all possible. Tks and God bless!

  16. So, Fr. Stephen, if I am understanding your response correctly, my thinking is backwards. I should not be worried about my enemy ‘out there’ but the enemy ‘in here’, meaning in my own heart.

    I only have enemies ‘out there’ because they are first enemies in my heart due to my hardness of heart or lack the understanding to see them in a different light, specifically the commandant to love my neighbor as myself. Is that somewhat accurate?

    Thank you!

  17. @Drewster2000

    The etymology of the Greek word for forgiveness (συγχώρεση) means to make room for someone to fit in our space. It aligns with the notion of “giving back” your personal space, so the other person can stand close by and share it, not only in the physical sense, but in your heart.

  18. Father, I remember the monk you quote in your book: “I am a monk, I have no enemies”. I have this suspicion that enemies exist for two complimentary and intertwined reasons: I have not repented nor forgiven sufficiently.

    Last night I awoke hours early with the discussion here on my mind and was unable to get back to sleep. I began praying the Jesus Prayer and was led to include in that prayer the most truly evil person I have ever known. A man who prefers the companionship of demons to God. If ever I have had an enemy, he is it. As I took him into my prayer, my heart quieted. Peace came if not sleep.

    This morning I as I was late getting up I felt joy even though I was in physical pain. My wife was flummoxed as she is really struggling physically right now how I could feel the way I did. I tried to explain inadequately. Somehow I did not pray at him or even for him but with him as myself.

    As I drove to work, the theme song from the old TV show Greatest American Hero kept coming to mind. The show was terrible. The theme song quite good. A bit of the lyrics: “Believe or not, I’m floating on air. I’ve never felt so free…. I’m just me.”. Search for it on the internet.

    The joy is the fruit of repentance/forgiveness even, as Dino says the physical pain and existential struggles remain.

    God is good.

  19. Michael,
    Later this week, as we prepare for Forgiveness Vespers, I’ll be reprinting an article from 2011 on this same theme. I hope it will be a blessing to all who read it. That monk, in the Judaean desert, clearly meant what he said (the Bedouin who lived near the monastery had, indeed, occasionally killed a monk or two – it’s not like there was nothing to be forgiven). He simply had no enemies – his heart was whole. At the time, as I said in my book, I kissed his hand with the words, “You are the first Christian I’ve met in Israel!” He’s probably one of the few Christians of such a heart that I will ever meet.

    At least I will have seen it once in my life.

    As for me, I’m still surrounded.

  20. Actually I believe the more intense one’s prayer life is, the more they are tempted and provoked by enemies. The devil doesn’t like it when we are getting close to God, so he agitates more. This is when the Jesus Prayer is a help; keeps us focused.

    Jesus have mercy on me, a sinner.

  21. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    I have been a member of the International Order of St. Luke for over 30 years and in those years I have read many good writings on the topic of “Forgiveness”. I can say with complete sincerity, your blog was the best and spoke to my very heart and soul and being like none other. Thank you for allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through you with such clarity. I shared it this with my Men’s Bible Study, before I actually read or prepared to lead (in my rotation) 2Corinthians 2 including verses 5-11. “loosing and binding”. I think that is at the heart of what the Apostle Paul is teaching the Corinthian Church. For you to share this for me to read and myself and share is indeed the inspired work of the Holy Spirit. Thank you.
    For the record, I am still on my personal Journey into Orthodoxy, and your blogs and the blogs and personal friendship and mentoring of Fr. Lawrence Farley and reading many books of the Early Fathers, I am enjoying my Journey.
    Sincerely in Christ,

    Art Pederson
    Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada

  22. There is an important point that I heard taught my some Protestant preacher from Las Vegas early in my journey to Christ. It was on a taped sermon that I listened to with a friend of mine in Memphis, Tn in 1977. The preacher said that it is arrogant for Christians to believe that prayer changes “things” when prayer is meant to change me.
    The scriptural reference is Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration: Luke 9:29. “…as He prayed, He was transformed…”

    The mystery of how we bare one another’s burdens is deep and nestled in Jesus’ heart.
    None of us is ever alone. The old axiom that when we cry, we cry alone is untrue.
    I know that whatever pain I may be in, there is someone somewhere who is actively and consciously praying with and for me to bring my paralyzed soul to the feet of my Lord and His mercy.
    Be of good cheer.
    He woke me up tonight at 2:10 am my time to pray for someone dear to Him to share the pain. Rest in that and be at peace

  23. In regards to prayer, I have slowly come to realize, with the help of regularly attending Liturgy and Vesper services, that many personal prayers are not only for me, but for everyone I can, my heart being what it is notwithstanding, extend them too. Most of them are even worded that way. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on ‘us’. In my personal prayer book the wording isn’t changed to reflect the fact that often it is only me praying early in the morning. I am praying for all even when I am alone.

    I am pretty dense, so it has taken me some time to come to this realization even though I have been pretty consistent in saying this prayer every day and most evenings. This post is very helpful in reinforcing that this is right praxis.

    Another curious thing I have noticed after praying for some time is occasionally I get the sense that the prayer is linked with all the other times and places I have prayed it, almost as if they are occurring together, if that makes sense. At home, in church, at other places when I have a chance to pray. It feels like a noetic impression and I was wondering if others have this impression too. Church services, particularly the Liturgy sometimes feel this way.

  24. Michael
    That impression (of all prayerful, heaven-wards approaches, at all times and places, being linked) makes total sense. Despite the infinitely varied nature of that encounter, it is always of the Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, even if to a still, most nascent degree…

  25. Michael, time is very mutable in Christ. It makes perfect sense that all of our prayers are always occuring in the same space.

  26. If I were to words to the picture it seems to say that we are all connected in this dance of life and death.

  27. I see that God brings us all into One with Him through the sacraments and gospels. Our prayers are our communication which affect everything past, present and future – for all time and in His time.

    God bless!

  28. Nikolaos,

    It does sound like the two ideas align. When you sin against someone, you sever (at least) one of the connections to them. When they forgive you, they restore that connection and give you another chance.

  29. Dee, and what a dance. Only one slight correction quoting the words of the immortal Snoopy: To live is to dance; to dance is to live!

  30. Fr Stephen, you often discuss (as you do here) the need to move beyond a legal paradigm when thinking about sin. I hear this often from Orthodox teachers, that sin is like a sickness which God desires to heal. The problem with sin is sin, not guilt.

    In that context, what does it even mean for God to forgive us? Why would he ever not forgive a sickness?

    The Lord’s prayer says, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (which I believe is a more literal translation of the Greek). It does seem that the very language of forgiveness of sin puts it within a legal framework of guilt/penance/forgiveness.

    Can you help me understand? I very much appreciate the view of sin as an ontological and health paradigm, but I still see much legal language in scripture and prayer which I feel cannot easily be dismissed.

    So what do we mean by God forgiving us?

  31. It is important to get to the “source” or cause of one’s sin and not just the sin itself. There is the health aspect of it, but there is also the deliberate sins against the H Spirit – and breaking the 10 Commandments. Being holy without sin is not an easy venture. Sometimes we are faced with decisions (whether in a panic or not) that will place us in a position of sinning. So the choice is ours but still what was the “root” cause of the sin? A soul and body full of sin without confession, sacraments, and healing has no way to convert (change their heart). In fact they become even more hardened to what they are doing and getting deeper into it. It can be a very dark path which allows the sin and oppression to take over. We should have a sense of sorrow when we see others in this state and pray for them, direct them to healthy resources of faith and encouragement.

  32. Issac, the nature of sin is that it always hurts others. It is a communicable disease. We can see from the virus outbreak that people who have the disease are required to separate themselves from others and cleanse themselves plus take steps to not get reinfected. It can seem like they are being put into prison, etc. But they are not criminals.

    The doctors want to heal, but they require the cooperation of the patient in order to do do.

    Of course there is a legal aspect as well. The faith is antinomical. Two seemingly opposite possibilities are actually put together to reveal the whole.

    The faith is not an either-or dialectic, linear chain of logic. The faith is revealed in both/and ways. That begins with the Word being made flesh and being fully God and fully man without mixture or confusion.

    So sin and it’s healing are both legal and a disease at the same time ( like addiction problems). The mistake lies in making it solely a legal problem or solely a sickness problem. Neither approach is the truth in His fullness.

  33. Isaac…I appreciate your question to Fr Stephen, and am looking forward to his response.
    Father has addressed ‘legal language’ in scripture as it was understood before modernity. Pardon me if you have done a search already…if not, here is a link to a post that may be of help:
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/07/13/secularized-sin/

    In the blog’s search box I found the above article when I did a search for “sin is not a legal problem”. There are many helpful articles.

    We are all effected by modernity, Isaac. I can see it in the way my thoughts, actions and reactions are framed. Father’s teachings help me recognize this. But it takes a long time to begin to change…we do it so automatically. I have found when I have pertinent questions, I ask trusted people, I search for answers, and I don’t fret too much over my ‘modern’ thinking. What has helped me the most though, is to ‘search’ prayerfully…and always keep in heart the wonder of God. You may not get the answer right away (most of the time you won’t!). But in hindsight you will get a glimpse of God’s ‘workings’ all around you…that sheds light upon your inquiries!

  34. Michael Bauman, thank you for that lovely reply. It helps me think about these things further.

    I agree that sin always hurts others, as does sickness, but does that “harm” extend to God Himself? When I sin it affects my wife, and thus I rightly ask her to forgive me. When we sin it affects our relationship with God, but does it affect Him? I still don’t quite grasp what He is forgiving us for, other than something strictly legal, such as a debt owed to God’s Justice. (I can see, for example, where the motivation for the Satisfaction Theory comes from.)

    Perhaps it is as you said, “Both.” Is there indeed a sense of legal justice for which we need forgiveness, which is overemphasized in the West? And if so, is there a risk of under-emphasizing it in the East?

  35. “Extend to God himself” – I would say it does because anyone we sin against, is a Child of God who has the indwelling Holy Spirit. I am thinking too of the phrase, “Look for Jesus in others” or when Jesus said, “When you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned, you did these things to me.” So, Christ is there within and in our midst.

    God bless…..

  36. Isaac,
    It is very easy, given our cultural heritage and context, to hear “legal” where it doesn’t exist. Jesus uses the imagery of debt in a number of the parables that deal with forgiveness. Debt, for us, seems to be a legal construct, where, in the Scriptures, it seems to go deeper. For example, in the healing of the paralytic – where Christ heals by saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” He basically asks whether it makes any difference to say “your sins are forgiven” or “rise, take up your bed and walk.”

    If, for example, you owed a debt, and you’re thrown in prison, you don’t have a “legal” problem. You have a prison problem. The effect is not legal, but quite physical. It’s not like simply having your charge card cancelled. In some cases, a debtor could be beaten or sold as a slave.

    “Legal,” in our culture, has the sense of “extrinsic,” not actually part of who and what I am. I have debts, I declare bankruptcy. It is embarrassing, perhaps, but, it is not prison or a beating.

    Sin, as debt, is not something that is “owed” to God – something external to myself that must be paid. It’s far more existential and ontological. Sin as debt, in Scripture, means, in some sense, that the other person “owns” you. It could cost you your life.

    The Old Testament’s overarching narrative is driven by debt. The entire system of the Sabbath-Year and the Jubilee is about the cancellation of debt. It is the most fundamental principle within the Law of Moses. In Deuteronomy – it is clear that the failure to keep this Law will ultimately result in disaster for the whole land. Indeed – the Captivity into Babylon is interpreted precisely as a consequence of that failure.

    If sin/debt were only a legal problem – then it could disappear in an instant. God could say, “Forgiven!” and “poof!” it disappears. When a criminal is pardoned in our legal system – he walks – instantly – scot-free.

    My suggestion is to think in deeper, broader terms about the fullness of the mean of “debt” – in a manner in which it extends far beyond a mere legal framework. We need to hear the whole of what is being said.

  37. Isaac,
    Does sin hurt God? This is a question to ask the Crucified Christ. Yes, it does. In some fashion, Christ remains on the Cross and continues in His wounds to enter into the communion of our suffering and sin. It should not be isolated as a “one-off.” The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world.

  38. Issac, there is always a risk of over emphasizing pone part of an antinomy. In the west when sin has been treated exclusively as a forensic, legal problem and the ontological nature of sin ignored a proper critique involves talking about the deeper reality of sin first.

    Does my sin “hurt” God? The obvious risk to this question lies in thinking God is made in our image rather than the other way around.
    But consider two things: The Crucifixion and the much smaller, intimate moment at Lazarus’ death. He wept.

    He shares our suffering fully. He assumes our sins, not legally or forensically but into His heart. Because He is not sinful, He is not “hurt” or damaged as I am. Nonetheless, He weeps and even He needed help carrying the Cross.

    Even the legal aspect of healing our sins has an ontological reality that is ignored in PSA and other legalistic approaches.

  39. Father, I am not sure if it fits here but what of the involuntary sins we bring to His feet asking for mercy. We Orthodox seem to be the only ones who consider those sins. Whatever they may be, they certainly fall outside any forensic approach.

    They seem to be entirely ontological but also seem to be rooted in our bodies in a specific way.

    I would love it if you would address the nature of involuntary sin and it’s healing.

  40. Thanks so much Father.
    The Lamb slain…indeed, timeless, ever-present…’seen’ within the Father when there was no ‘time’. How can you explain such a thing! I have no idea. But that’s our God.

    I am still perusing your posts on ‘sin is not a legal problem’.
    I have found that once I have had some light shed on a particular question, another question inevitably pops up. I can see where our mind (soul) is so very fragmented. We approach knowledge of God in bits and pieces, and God willing, in time these fragments somehow begin to form a ‘whole’.
    For that very reason, I am very cautious when I hear people state emphatically that ‘this is the way that it is’. Or that they’ve been in the Church for _____years, and have done or experienced this or that…so they ‘know’. And I also begin to doubt highly when I hear time after time a continual admittance that ‘I am a sinner’. Why must some people repeatedly state this – the obvious? Are they a bigger sinner than I? We are encouraged to admit such a thing, but I doubt highly that people who say that over and over, believe it. I think a lot of that is a form of pride. Or so it seems. I think it has a lot to do with shame. Shame is hard to bear quietly.
    But, back to your articles, Father. There is another post – https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/03/25/not-sin-part-2-chains-bind/ – where in the comment section you address repentance (March 25, 2016 at 4:11 pm). I have a great deal of trouble grasping the meaning of repentance. I can not seem to get out of my head that it is not ‘I will do better…I will try harder…’ . And each and every time I go there, I fail…again and again and again. But your answer @ 4:11 pm helps settle my angst, my despair (years of guilt, shame, anger still linger) and offers great hope. The answer is not to subject ourselves to an endless cycle of ‘doing better’ . This is not repentance. But to bear the shame. You say:

    “Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats… . Those who did good to the king had no idea they had done good. Why? Because they did it “to the least of these.” What does it take to serve the “least of these?” It involves entering their shame, even sharing their shame. Anyone can help a king. Indeed, helping kings can feed the ego. The self-emptying involved in serving the least of these is something quite different. It is very close to the heart of true repentance.”

    You mention again, “we are saved in our weakness”. Yes, surely not our boast of overcoming sin. There is no such thing. If there is Father, please, I ask you, to correct me.

    And you finish with this:
    “There’s a reason prostitutes and drunkards are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees (and always have). That reality is worth pondering. The moral man may be the hardest to save.”

    Oh I long for the day when it will not be necessary to continuously ponder such truths! From what you say, Father, that Day will come after the last day. In the meantime, we shall cling dearly to the Faith…as stated at the end of the article:

    “But for those who see Christ’s victory, the celebration has already begun, for they see the assurance of the promise that has been made to us:
    “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

  41. Paula, thank you. There is a reason that almsgiving and the repentance of Lent are linked. True almsgiving, just as true repentance requires “a contrite and humble heart” which God does not despise.

    Certainly, we see through a glass, darkly. Longing for the day when we see him face to face–together.

  42. Or as Shakespeare observed:. “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render the seeds of mercy”

  43. Michael…yeah! Even Shakespeare got it right. I suppose it helps to have lived in an age which understood enchantment…that God does indeed live among us, in His first storey abode.

  44. what of the involuntary sins we bring to His feet asking for mercy…. They seem to be entirely ontological but also seem to be rooted in our bodies in a specific way.

    Michael, is “involuntary” sin any different than any other sin? It may be that categorization is the wrong approach. I suspect that the use of “involuntary” may just be a way to keep us from overlooking something because we “didn’t mean to do it”. If I randomly fire a gun (instead of carefully aiming) and kill someone, death is still the issue.

  45. I also begin to doubt highly when I hear time after time a continual admittance that ‘I am a sinner’. Why must some people repeatedly state this – the obvious? Are they a bigger sinner than I? We are encouraged to admit such a thing, but I doubt highly that people who say that over and over, believe it.

    Paula, for some the constant reminder is a good thing. In a way it keeps them grounded. While I don’t usually say such a thing out loud, it helps me (especially in dealing with others) to keep it in my thoughts. Still, there are people who wear it like a badge.

  46. Byron: Yes, this reminds me of “white lies” – they are still lies. Lies don’t come in colors. We can feel very justified in lying to protect someone for example hiding someone who is being sought after to be killed (like in a war). Still, we lied to the person asking even though it was to protect someone.

    God bless!

  47. Very true Bryon…we do need to keep our sinfulness in mind. Like, forefront! At the very same time I need to keep forefront Christ’s forgiveness. Like He does with the prostitutes and drunkards… who knew that without Him they would perish, in a world that wanted nothing to do with them. I’m not sure they knew who Christ was, but there was a drawing to Him, like a magnet. Yeah, those poor in spirit, who must have recognized Him as their only hope. But Christ didn’t come for the righteous, did He.
    I honestly don’t know how anybody can turn away from Jesus. Even the most hardened of hearts – correct me if I am wrong – can not help but have some kind of reaction. What is that but the fierceness of His love, His forgiveness? This love is completely evident. It can not be taught. Only received. Some are so broken that they can not handle such unconditional, divine love. Christ does not forget such people.
    So He tells us to give them a drink…to visit them…to clothe them…as He does for us. We are them.
    Blessed are the poor in spirit.

  48. It is very difficult to watch someone who is emmersed in a sinful life because we want so much for them to feel the love and healing presence of God – we want the grace to come for them. What we don’t understand, is that the person can be so enshrouded in evil – whether oppressed or lost seeing no way out, intimidated by others, living in fear and many ways, that it is a very huge reality to them. They have a dark cloud or as scripture says, “a veil over their conscience” which we cannot see, but is really there. It is like the abused woman who just seems to keep going back to the same problems, or doesn’t seem to be able to get up and get out – because she is that oppressed and fearful. After all of these terrible feelings and thoughts comes more paranoia. We continue to pray for their soul and for them to feel strong and safe enough to get out of their darkened corner, however they need some space even if very tiny in their soul to be open and receive the grace. Prayer and fasting – penance offered for these who are God’s children also. Sometimes one who has “been there, done that” can develop a better relationship with a troubled person however prayer, fasting and penance is our responsibility. God bless!

  49. Paula,

    You are correct: our focus should be God, not our sin. We keep our sinfulness in mind, so we remember that we are not God….

  50. St. Porphyrios’ words spoke to me today:

    “Do not fight to expel darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear.”

    His book, “Wounded by Love” is a wonderful read, expounding on the infinite light of Christ’s love that dispels the darkness of sin.

    As I came into the Church, I began to realize the true essence of lighting candles before the Saints: because all light comes from Christ. All light each Saint radiates, is the light of Christ. Light comes into the world and dispels the darkness. Christ tramples down death by death…arising with the glorious light of the Resurrection.

  51. Paula, Even Shakespeare? (umbridge). He got a lot right because he still lived in a time which had familiarity with the Christian mind and he was a poet. The mercy speech from Merchant of Venice is beautiful. Instructive too as Shylock still chooses the law.

  52. My ignorance Michael! Didn’t mean to disparage Shakespeare, that’s for sure. I know little about him, except he lived in pre-modern times. And that he is widely read…and admired.
    I never really delved into his work…and apparently it was not part of the curriculum in the schools I attended. Probably should’ve been, though…

  53. “Murder is the triumph of a lie. Forgiveness is the triumph of an even greater truth.” Powerful words!

    One other way in which forgiveness is “like God” is that it makes all things new. I think this is important, even every day, we can re-evaluate and re-assess. “I forgive, but yet I also must protect myself going forward” or “I forgive, God please show me the way” are progressive ways to free for both (or all) parties. These also open the door for reconciliation, I think.

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