There is a story related in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov about an old woman who was quite wicked. She dies and goes to hell to the great distress of her guardian angel. The angel searches for any possible good deed to plead on her behalf and finds a rotten onion – something the old woman had given to a beggar. The angel takes the onion and, with it, begins to pull the old woman out of hell. The end of the story is less than successful, but its power lies in the importance and significance given to even the smallest act of kindness.
Christ gives a similar significance to a seemingly trivial action – giving a cup of cold water:
“And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)
This small action, for me, offers a hint towards a way forward in the forgiveness of enemies (those who have caused us harm). Few things are more painful than the injuries we gather over the years. I find that most people do not have “enemies” in any classical sense. Rather, we have people with whom we’ve had painful encounters. Bitter words and actions, anger and insults, never seem to disappear on their own. If they go away, it is often because we find ways to emotionally block their remembrance. Reminders often bring a fresh or renewed sense of injury. It is thus rarely our “enemies” that give us difficulties so much as their remembrance. They become “psychic” enemies, collections of bitterness harbored in parts of the brain that, for some reason, seem to be primarily concerned with such things.
I have written about the importance of forgiveness over the years, including “forgiving everyone for everything.” It is invariably a subject that gets a bit of “push-back.” For some, the remembrance of an injury is part of the boundary that keeps them at a healthy distance. Thus, forgiveness feels “unsafe.” That kind of forgiveness for certain enemies might well be unsafe. Boundaries exist for a reason and they are not part of what forgiveness entails.
I want to offer two thoughts on the forgiveness of enemies. Both have been of use to me. The first is a prayer that I use myself, and have offered to others, when there is difficulty forgiving someone. It runs thus:
O Lord, on the day of judgment, do not hold this sin against them on my account.
It is a prayer of “postponed” forgiveness – something that feels emotionally safe and which places vengeance where it belongs – with God. On the day of judgment, we ourselves will want forgiveness for all we have done. As we are taught in Christ’s parables, we should do the same. I have had any number of conversations with people who have found this approach to be of use when everything felt “stuck,” and immoveable.
The second thought is more immediate to the heart.
It is very difficult to do a “negative” thing. It is why when we struggle to quit an addiction, we find it difficult. It creates an absence that longs to be filled. The same is true of intrusive thoughts. Trying “not to think” something is nearly impossible. Again, it creates a negative which begs to be filled and the thought returns again and again. So, my second thought on forgiveness involves positive action. Positive action has life, beauty, truth, and being. It is strong and brings the might of reality to bear on the unreality of darkness.
In the struggle to forgive, if possible, find something (anything) from the offending person for which you can give thanks. It is to go, like their guardian angel, looking for an onion, even a miserable, rotten onion given as a small act of kindness. It is the cup of cold water in their life. It does not matter how small the matter was, how insignificant or trivial. It takes something from their life for which you can make the offering of thanksgiving to God. This doesn’t entail speaking to them, or renewing an unsafe relationship. It entails the difficulty of our own inner torment created by the pain of what remains unforgiven.
Finding such an action we pray: O God, I give you thanks for the kindness I received.
My experience with this approach is that it can make a profound change in the heart. Something softens that before was hard. While even this is not always possible, it is an effective balm of the soul when it is. We too often underestimate the power in very small things. That power, I believe, is the work of grace.
In the gospels, there are people to whom Christ says, “Your faith has made you well.” That “faith” seems to be His description of certain minor actions. The woman with an issue of blood simply touched the hem of his garment. We’re not told that she sold everything she had and gave it to the poor or that she made some profound profession of faith. She simply touched Him.
The tenth leper came to Christ and thanked him for the cleansing miracle. Christ told him his faith had made him whole. His act of thanksgiving was received as a “faith” that made him complete in a way unknown to the nine who gave no thanks.
The sinful woman who washed the feet of Jesus was told that her faith had “saved” her. He forgave her sins. It was a dramatic action, no doubt, one that would have required her to bear the shame of drawing attention to herself in a very public setting, but was, still, no more than a difficult evening. Even the Wise Thief, who spoke with kindness to Christ during their crucifixion, found that his faith brought him paradise “in a single moment” (as we sing in his hymn).
The grace that comes in such moments is always present for us as well. It makes sense for us to find small things of a good nature that we can offer as we wage war against the darkness that haunts our soul. A word of thanksgiving for even a small “cup of water” (or other random kindness) done by an “enemy” can set in motion the grace that made others whole. It may even allow us to enter paradise, in a single moment.