Forgiveness – the Hardest Love of All

bro-ephraim-mar-saba1

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).

40 Responses to “Forgiveness – the Hardest Love of All”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The photo is of Brother Ephraim, a monk of the monastery of Mar Saba, outside Jerusalem. Here I met another monk, a man who had no enemies.

  2. Katia Says:

    Thank you father for your hard work!

  3. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for all of these encouraging words. I especially appreciate the encouragement to confession. God has greatly blessed me through this and while I may not enjoy the examination and the actual event, the peace, joy, guidance, clarity and other amazing results that follow in my heart — sometimes through the priests words and sometimes in the silent aftermath of confession alone — are really beyond my description, God be praised!

  4. mic Says:

    Fr, this one short prayer struck me very deeply, “O God, at the dread judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” That is POWERFUL!

    Also Fr, please, if you could expound maybe a little more on what you said here; “Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action,” do you mean this in so much that it is more of a self-pity, rather than a true repentance? or is there another definition you had in mind?

    Thanks Fr.

    peace
    mic-

  5. elizabeth Says:

    Thank you Fr. for the practical points on how to begin. These are helpful. Thank you.

  6. Jason Says:

    Father bless. Thank you for this post. I like it and agree with it. I need to implement it and apply it to my life first and foremost. You say, “Begin by struggling to form the habit of forgiveness in the smallest things. With a child, with traffic, with little irritations.” This is so hard to do in the business world. I’m an IS project manager and I’m responsible for holding others responsible to get their work done. A project team member gives me a flimsy response on why they can’t get their work done and the project timeline slides. I shouldn’t judge them and I should forgive them and ask forgiveness from God for the irritation in my heart, but the project still needs to get done, and this person has let me and the project team down. I realize forgiveness doesn’t equate to allowing a poor work ethic, but so often Kingdom ethics are at odds with the secular business world. This is of course nothing new, but we should realize that practicing our faith doesn’t equate to job success or promotions all of the time. Sometimes the hard-driving, un-Christian acting person really can accomplish more work in the business world than the Christian who forgives and shows mercy.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Mic,
    Often guilt is something tied up either in our cultural legal metaphor, a deep inheritance of many centuries but simply not true – or centered in our pride in which we’re embarassed by our action because we want the good opinion of others. Whatever guilt is, it is useless by itself. Sin requires action, and feelings are not a substitute.

  8. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    Mic, I am reminded by Fr. Stephen’s words of the words of a Bishop I heard. He said repentance is not looking down in shame, nor backwards at all my sins, but turning and looking up and forward into the face of Christ. . . . I understand from him that though repentance involves truthfulness and acknowledgment of my sin (sincere confession), this is all I can do myself as far as my sin is concerned (and even my confession is incomplete insofar as only God knows even my own heart fully). It is God who must remove my sin by the indwelling of Christ through His Holy Spirit. Thus it seems to me my Bishop was saying true repentance is forgetfulness of self, a single-hearted focus on Christ resulting in our transformation by His mercy. Repentance is a constant struggle for me. I am inclined to neurotically obsess about my sinful motivations and actions and wallow in my guilt, but I’m glad to say that although I frequently walk into Liturgy feeling unworthy, self-conscious and anxious about my faults, I always walk out after Communion filled with rejoicing, conscious only of the profound and merciful goodness of my Lord!

  9. Sara Says:

    I was under the impression that we had to confess our thoughts and feelings, too. Does this mean we only confess sins that are manifest?

  10. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, thank you for your words above to Mic. That is a very helpful clarification for me also. You articulate well the kind of mistaken orientaton that produces the greatest frustrations I have about myself and others in my life who are still in bondage to legal notions of God’s justice and/or the good opinion of others. How to get free of this bondage to my pride and having the good opinion of other sinners like myself–that is what I seek. At least, I know where to go for help. That is the best I can do right now. When I struggle in this area, I often like to think about the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The stones of accusation leveled at me are dropped in the Presence of Christ, and I am loosed from my sin. There are no words adequate to express my gratitude and my praise for Christ in that moment.

  11. Nicholas Says:

    I’ve always wondered about this periodic life confession idea. I was taught that since at confession our past sins are forgiven, we should leave them behind and think no more of them. Doesn’t this conflict with the idea of confessing them again, year after year?

  12. coffeezombie Says:

    I, like Nicholas, am curious what a periodic life confession means. Do you think you could maybe explain that a little more fully? Or point us to somewhere that Metripolitan Jonah explains it?

  13. mic Says:

    Fr. and Karen,

    i think what i was trying to figure out was/is, is feeling guilty and lamenting over one’s sins the same thing?

    Thank you both for your previous input!

    peace
    mic-

  14. Katia Says:

    Hi Mic,

    For me if i feel guilty that’s mean i ve done something wrong(sin) and require action to go to confession as soon as possible. I see it as a indicator of my conscience. Hope this is of help

    With love in Christ

  15. anonymous Says:

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for helping me understand forgiveness, and the practical advice on achieving it.

    The comments about “feeling guilty” over sins committed make me think about perfectionism, one of my own character defects. My own perfectionism tells me I’m capable of being perfect, and many of my guilty feelings come from falling short of the ideal which I think I’m capable of. All this is Pride, of course. It’s been useful to come down to earth and join the rest of humanity in all its flaws. Of course, this requires discernment, lest I make excuses for bad behavior/thoughts/feelings I am responsible for, and I’m still learning that discernment.

    (same anonymous as from the previous thread)

  16. Katia Says:

    Hi anonymous,

    “…The comments about “feeling guilty” over sins committed make me think about perfectionism, one of my own character defects.”

    one of mine too, but this is a difficult one to figure it out, pride vs perfection, we are called to be perfect as Jesus Christ is, but our enemy is not happy about this and tries to stop it, so we should fight against pride to achieve perfection with God’s Grace and mercy. so she thinks, but not sure if i am right. Father please correct me

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Thoughts and feelings too. You’re right.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Theoretically, in such an annual confession, we are not just going over the same thing, but reflecting deeper and deeper as we grow in Christ. I know better how to examine my conscience now than when I first confessed.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    No, I don’t think they’re the same thing, Mic.

  20. Dianne Says:

    Me too on the life confession question. I don’t really understand that and could use some help with it. After all, we are charged at every confession to “have no further care” of the sins we’ve just confessed. And things that are indeed shameful, but that are truly left far in the past–things that I regret but that are really over and done with–confessing them over and over? I don’t get it.

  21. Dianne Says:

    Sorry, Father; apparently you were just answering the question as I was posting.

    Thanks for your answer, but I’m still having trouble imagining how this would actually work. Maybe I just need to ponder it a while.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    It’s the kind of thing an experienced confessor can help with, and is probably best dealt with on that personal level.

  23. mic Says:

    Thanks Fr, that is the answer i was looking for!

    Thank you Katia and anonymous as well.

    Glory to God for all things!
    peace
    mic-

  24. Jane Says:

    Patience is a related virtue in learning to be forgiving. I have indeed found that being patient in traffic is a small way of practising both. For Jason and the problems with work and deadlines and people’s feeble excuses, I think those are biggies, and like Fr Stephen says, we need to start small. Being patient helps me be less judgmental and gradually more forgiving as well.

    I relate Jason’s problems at work with our OCA crisis which blew up last year, where hierarchs and senior church officials were damaging the whole Body. Hard to forgive when so much damage has been done, not to me personally but to the community. It does seem that people have to be held accountable (whether in a work situation or in the Church, or a family). Forgiveness is often preceded by repentance on the part of the person who offends me, but when it is not, I still have to ask God to help me forgive. I do love that short prayer, as a place to start when forgiveness is really hard

  25. Becky Says:

    The best story of forgiveness is one that I read in Kent Whitaker’s latest book “Murder by Family.” Kent’s wife and youngest son were both murdered and he found enough love in his heart to forgive the man who murdered them- the murderer happened to be his eldest son! I couldn’t even imagine having to go through something like this. His forgiveness is a powerful example of the perfect love and forgiveness that God has for everybody.

  26. wondersforoyarsa Says:

    Hi Father Stephen,

    This is a documentary our church is hosting, along with your old stomping grounds:

    http://allsaints-chd.org/asWeForgive.php

    It’s about the struggle for the victims of the Rwandan genocide to forgive the perpetrators.

  27. Meskerem Says:

    On Forgiveness, there are many stories in the book called “The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation”, by Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev of Bulgaria (a translate).

    There are very powerful stories on Strife and Reconciliation. On the conclusion of his book He said:
    “On every holy day we go to church for Divine Liturgy. There we want to offer God our small sacrifice: to light a candle, to drop our alms in the box for the poor, to pray to the Savior. But on the way to church we meet our neighbor with whom we have quarreled yesterday, and we pass by him and turn our face away from him with disgust. Do we consider that God too will turn away His face from us? Until we are reconciled- or, if the other one does not want to be reconciled, at least until we forgive- God will not accept either our sacrifice or our prayer. If we forgive our neighbors their transgressions from our heart, then and only then will God forgive us, and we will be able to pray boldly; And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, because He Himself has said: Forgive and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37). Amen.

    Goes on to say “ How light your soul feels when you are reconciled with your enemy!… You want, like a bird freed from a cage, to fly up to the heavens with joy!…”

    Lord Have Mercy!

  28. Andrew K. D. Smith Says:

    I like suggestion 2 – at first, it looks like it’s saying ‘maybe I can half-forgive them now’, but if you actually consider using it in real life, the knowledge of not forgiving fully is entirely humbling…probably enough to allow forgiveness to flow.

  29. Mercy Part II « ULTIMATE TRUTH Says:

    […] Mercy Part II Posted on March 14, 2009 by Mark Epstein Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy Psalm 109:26 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. Father Stephen […]

  30. Michael Says:

    Thank you. This is very good – I need this especially now.

  31. About Forgiveness « Turtle Rock Says:

    […] March 09 by turtlemom3 Fr. Stephen Freeman had a wonderful blog post about forgiveness on March 13, 2009. I recommend it to you. He said, in part: These are a few […]

  32. luciasclay Says:

    The photo with this story is compelling. I think of it periodically throughout the day.

    That monastery must have been a wonderful place to visit.

  33. fatherstephen Says:

    I would gladly have stayed longer. Peace permeated the place. The saints who have dwelt there are frequently seen by the monks, including St. Saba (5th century).

  34. Theodora Elizabeth Says:

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this. Forgiveness is something I’m always grappling with. Although it’s not an enemy, although he very well could be considered one, given how he made my childhood hell. My father was an alcoholic for many years, and although he’s been dry since my college years, relations with him are very difficult, and virtually non-existent, as a result. My priest has simply advised me to keep things as civil as possible, send cards, etc. I’ve been struggling with this for 20 years, and it’s going to be a long-term thing. I’ve always been one for holding grudges, so “forgiving and forgetting” is extremely difficult.

  35. Basil Says:

    Wow.
    Your statement in point 4. is poignant.
    It is in line with my recent reading of St Gregory of Nyssa’s eschatology; he had such a fascinating and nuanced understanding of human freedom. The perilous world we find ourselves in that forces so many to behave in ways ‘untrue’ to their inner heart.
    Orthodoxy has taught me so many saving paradoxes– here it is how my sin can be at once a titanic horror– I am the sinner; I am Adam whose single seemingly isolated transgression has brought the whole creation crashing down into bondage to sickness and death. I must ask forgiveness of everyone and everything!
    Yet at the same time I can look on my brother with deep pity as I see his evil deed is not from his heart but a falsehood contrived by the manipulations of our enemy, the evil prince of this age, who has used even my own inner darkness against my brother.
    I am not a victim, but I surely have made a victim of my brother.

    Thank you Fr Stephen.
    -MB

  36. Sean Says:

    “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.”

    Father,

    Have we ever met? Feels like you already know me.

  37. Per Persson Says:

    Do you think the forgiving of enemies only apply to individuals or does it also apply to organizations and even nations (both in the role as forgiver and enemy)?

  38. fatherstephen Says:

    Per Persson,

    Ultimately organizations and nations are not entities, but ideas. Only persons exist. Thus it is only persons we forgive. Although when acting collectively persons often hide behind the collective and use it as an excuse to say they are not responsible. But they are. It is the persons we must forgive.

  39. Sean Says:

    Father,

    reflecting on what Per Persson asked, I need to ask something that has been long in my mind: In war, when there are people killing each other without personal enmity but rather because of the general enmity of one nation against another, is it not this killing the same sin as when there is personal enmity? For example, if I kill someone in a battle, am I not guilty much the same way as if I had killed them for any other reason (even though for law I am not a murderer)? The only difference is that in a battle I do it not because I necessarily want to, but because I have to defend myself.
    And then, what does forgiveness mean in the context of war? I know that the enemy who tries to kill me is not doing so because he has something against me, but because of the war? Is an enemy guilty against me (ie is there anything to forgive)?
    I apologize for asking something not closely related to the post but I am in the military and this particular question has tantalized me for years.

  40. fatherstephen Says:

    Canon law treats killing in war as a much lesser offense than cold-blooded murder, though still a sin. Most who have gone through battle have a sense of sin about what took place and often need a good confessor to help them. The horror of modern war is that it often de-personalizes everyone – which is a great sin in itself. But forgiveness must be personal (in the true sense of the world) because human beings are persons.

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