In this article, we will be looking at forgiveness.
Forgiving someone who has hurt you can be very difficult. This is particularly true when the hurt was deep and the wrong undeserved, or when the person hurting you was a close friend, a parent, or a relative. In the worst of circumstances, the friend who hurt you may even blame you for the pain he caused! Often, forgiving that person is the hardest thing to do.
King David knew the pain of a friend’s betrayal. In Psalm 55, he poured his heart out to God:
“My heart is in anguish within me… It is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship… My companion stretched out his hand against his friends, he violated his covenant. His speech was smoother than butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.”
David’s intimate friend had turned malicious traitor, violating their personal trust. The friend’s sweet words were in reality the sharp daggers of betrayal. David cried out to God, lamenting the great wrong that had come upon him. His heart bled for the man whom he had so completely trusted, with whom he had prayed and worshipped. He was demoralized, and overcome with personal grief.
Finally, after praying for God’s justice on the wicked, David turns to us, his readers, and imparts the deepest wisdom for all who have shared such anguish:
“Cast your burden on the LORD, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved… I will trust in You.”
In our struggle to forgive, we are not alone. Our Father is with us. Our pain is real, but there is Hope. We can actually come to the place of experiencing personal peace over a once-overwhelming heartache. And we can forgive.
When we forgive someone who has genuinely wronged us, we take part in a miracle. Forgiving is a miracle; It is love’s greatest work. When you forgive a person who hurt you deeply and unfairly, you are performing a miracle that has no equal! In the act of forgiving, our character is changed. We become more like Christ, and we bestow the Blessing of Mercy to others. “To be utterly forgiving gives a new aspect to life, an element of joyful freedom.” (Mother Alexandra, Life Transfigured, Vol 23, No 1, pg 13)
Forgiveness can free your life. Many people think the best thing that could ever happen to them is to win the lottery. Others believe the greatest miracle they could receive would be a physical healing. The greatest miracle is not money, and it’s not even healing. It’s forgiving. No other act is so personally freeing. No other act can work the deeper healing we need. No other act is more Christlike. No other act can change our lives for the better.
FORGIVING IS NOT FORBEARANCE
In this article we will be talking about genuine wrongs committed against you, not just personality problems. Some relationship difficulties do not involve sin. They are misunderstandings, miscommunications or personality conflicts. In these cases we may feel badly, but there is nothing to forgive, since no one has wronged us. With misunderstandings or miscommunications, we must simply get clear what is expected of us, or what we expect of the other person. With personality conflicts, we must apply forbearance.
Forbearance is an act of love completely different from forgiveness. Forbearing means we lovingly tolerate things that we don’t prefer, without resentment. Forbearance is needed wherever different people work together for the common good. Without mutual forbearance, we would either hold grudges against everyone with differing personality traits, or else we would become clones, each acting and thinking the same.
Forbearance is a constant need in the Church. St. Paul teaches us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). This kind of mutual acceptance and understanding is what maintains our unity. It is our common love and tolerance that keeps the bond of peace. Every member must forbear to maintain harmony in the Church (Col 3:13).
Forbearing a person is not a passive act; It is not the same as ignoring him or her. Forbearance is fully accepting the behavior that we don’t prefer, not just overlooking it. Forbearance is done with love, embracing the brother or sister without animosity or judgement. This is not forbearance:
- a sullen, reluctant attitude,
- avoiding the other person,
- acting with disgust,
- focusing on the thing bothering you in your mind, or,
- bringing it up in conversation to others.
Such actions are the opposite of forbearance! We must forbear one another in purity and with genuine kindness. Forbearance is a necessity for us all, toward us all to varying degrees. But there are times when we experience unjust hurt at the hands of another person. When objective wrongdoing is involved, we must learn the art of genuine forgiveness.
FORGIVING IS ESSENTIAL
When genuine wrong is involved, our first need is to forgive. Yes, forgiveness is our need. Even though it was the other person who committed the sin, we are the ones obligated to forgive. Let’s look at what the Holy Scriptures say:
“If one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:13)
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:32)
Before we even begin to discern what forgiveness is, how it is possible, and how to go about it, let us acknowledge that we must forgive. Our Church isn’t just people who are forgiven by God; It is people who forgive others. Forgiveness is not an option, because forgiveness is a part of love and love is not an option for the Christian. The Lord’s Prayer, which we recite regularly, asks God to
“forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
Mother Alexandra writes,
“Mercy must flow freely from our hearts as a natural gushing and purifying stream… Our Creator …promises us absolute and complete remission of our sins, on one condition: that we, ourselves, forgive.” (Life Transfigured, pg 13).
“For we too have an account to give … and we are not able to pay, no matter what we do. Therefore God has given us a way to repayment both ready and easy, which is able to cancel all our sins, I mean, to forgive others.” (Chrysostom)
Following the Lord’s Prayer, the way we forgive others is how we ask God to forgive us. We pray that God forgives us, to the same degree that we forgive those who have wronged us. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk taught
“If we do not have mercy on another, what mercy can we expect from God? It is dangerous not to forgive!” (Journey to Heaven, publ. by Holy Trinity Monastery, as in Orthodox Christian Journey)
After a Church meeting, one woman approached the speaker. She said, “Do you remember the girl who said she and her friend had not been on speaking terms in six weeks? Well, I’m the one she spoke about. I don’t think it’s fair for God to expect me to make the first move. After all, she’s the one to blame.” The minister replied, “Let’s sit down and talk about it. First, let’s pray. Will you start?” There was an awkward silence. Finally the minister said, “If you don’t know what to say, just say the Lord’s Prayer.” The woman began, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and—” The woman stopped. After a silence, she finished the prayer and went out to find the girl who had wronged her, to restore their friendship.
Mother Alexandra teaches,
“To be utterly forgiving is as important as our daily food; we ask for both in the same prayer.” (Life Transfigured, pg 14)
Jesus commands us,
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you” (Mk 11:25).
As radical as it may sound, forgiving others allows God to forgive us. God’s forgiveness is given only to those who forgive. Our Lord made this absolutely clear:
“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15).
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk comments:
“Do we forgive our neighbors their trespasses? God also forgives us in His mercy. Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. Forgiveness or unforgiveness of our sins, and hence, also our salvation or destruction, depends on each of us individually. Without forgiveness of sins, there is no salvation.” (Journey to Heaven)
Without our forgiveness of others’ sins, we will not be saved. This is also what Jesus taught in His parable of the Unmerciful Servant:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants… One was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents… The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt… Then his lord summoned him and said, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers… So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:23-35)
“…So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you…” –those are strong words! The unmerciful servant was jailed and forced to pay an immense debt. Put in the context of heaven (which is what Jesus was teaching about), this punishment is certainly grave indeed: it is a punishment that has bearing on eternity. Fortunately, it has a condition: “…if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” We have to forgive, no matter how difficult it may be. The Fathers tell us,
“Let us hearken, for to us is this word spoken.” (Chrysostom)
Still, forgiving is often the hardest thing a Christian must do.
Why is this act of forgiving so difficult? Because it conflicts with both our fallen nature, and our fallen sense of “justice.” Our fallen nature wants to hold on to hurts, keeping them tightly sealed so they can fester and grow and create bitterness. Our fallen sense of “justice” wants to put down the offender as evil, sick, or depraved and to reap vengeance on him in “righteous” anger. These two fallen senses battle with our need to forgive, and make the act of forgiving very hard.
All of us, at some time, experience someone hurting us personally. When we are deeply and unfairly hurt, we often respond defensively with feelings of hatred. This is common to every member of the human race. When negative feelings are hidden or denied, they fester inside us. If we hang on to our pain, it will eat away our joy. Only when our hatred is admitted and felt can we heal it. If we don’t forgive, bitterness, resentment and hatred grow in our hearts. The “root of bitterness” is unforgiveness.
Robert Louis Stevenson once told a story of two maiden sisters in Edinburgh: The sisters lived comfortably in a rather large one-room apartment. One day they had a disagreement. As time passed, their anger grew, and they stopped speaking to each other. Instead of resolving their dispute, they both held on to their bitterness and stubbornly stayed in the apartment.
“A chalk line drawn on the floor separated their two areas; it bisected the doorway and the fireplace, so that each could go out and in and do her cooking without violating the territory of the other. So, for years, they coexisted in hateful silence… At night, each could hear the breathing of her enemy.”
Sadly, the story ends there. Stevenson concludes,
“Never did four walls look down on an uglier sight.”
Forgiveness is essential, for four reasons: First, it is the commandment of Christ for His followers. If we call ourselves Christians, we must forgive. Secondly, it is a necessary component for lasting and honest relationships. If we are the Body of Christ, and members of one another, our relationships have to take top priority! Right relationships are forgiving relationships. Thirdly, it is in the character of God, which is Love. If we are to grow in Godliness (II Cor 3:18; Eph 4:24), we need to impart Christlike forgiveness. Lastly, we ourselves need to be healed of the hurt inside us. Holding on to hurts, creating bitterness, putting the offender down and being angry destroys us. To withhold forgiveness harms no one but ourselves.
Ignoring our relational hurts is analogous to doing nothing about an open wound. Like an accident with a hunting knife which has left a huge gash in our leg: If it is cared for, it can heal. If nothing is done about it, infection sets in, and we could lose the leg, or even die. We must face our deepest hurts and deal properly with them, in order to be healed.
In some cases, the sense of betrayal is so great that the process of forgiveness seems too painful to go through. It seems unnecessary torture to revisit our heartache. We feel we just can’t relive it. We actually create a better feeling of peace inside by keeping the offense unforgiven. So we avoid forgiving the person who wronged us. But this feeling of “peace” is deceptive. It is based in illusion. As long as we withhold forgiveness, true peace –God’s Perfect Peace– cannot fill us. As long as we hold an offense against someone, we close ourselves off to God. In our confusion, we may think we feel better, but we are actually blocking God’s healing. Ask yourself: Am I really resolved to go to my grave without forgiving? Can I afford to go to my grave without forgiving?
In other cases, we may honestly not want to hold on to the hurt, but the pain is so deep we can’t get it out of our minds. We may genuinely not want bitterness, but the hurt won’t go away, confusing our emotions and making it hard to forgive. In such cases, we may need to separate our feelings of sorrow from the objective act committed, in order to more clearly forgive it. We seek to disassociate our pain about what was done from the wrongdoer, so as to forgive that person.
Satan, the Accuser of the Brethren, sometimes uses our feelings to frustrate us, and to impede the process of forgiving. Some folks are so torn inside because they don’t feel forgiving that they give up. But feelings of hurt do not need to be gone for us to fully forgive. Here the issue becomes not forgiving the other person, but overcoming our personal sadness. We may continue to feel a profound sadness regarding the situation after we have forgiven. True reconciliation is a major source of healing, but there are cases when that just doesn’t happen, and we must rely on God’s grace and love. God will work healing in our broken hearts over time, after we have truly forgiven.
As our Heavenly Father knows, forgiveness is for us, as much or more than it is for those we forgive. The Fathers teach,
“We punish ourselves by hating others, even as on the other hand we benefit ourselves by loving them… For not to others are we cruel, but to ourselves. When you are vengefully minded, consider that you are being vengeful against yourself, not against another; that you are binding up your own sins, not your neighbors’.” (St. Chrysostom)
Besides receiving the forgiveness of our sins, when we forgive others we experience great spiritual and physical benefit. Our body and our soul are not separate; the condition of one dramatically affects the other. Countless scientific studies prove time and again that the state of our relationships directly influences our physical health and the soundness of our bodies. In a sense, when we forgive, our mind and heart are saved, along with our soul.
Forgiving others heals our hurt. It frees us from bondage to anger, resentment and pain. Forgiving frees us from animosity toward the person, so our wound can heal. Louis Smedes, in his book “Forgive and Forget,” writes:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then discover the prisoner was you.” We need to be healed of the wrong, too. As Father Gregory Rogers teaches, “Inner healing, at its core, is forgiveness.”
The rest of this article is available as a booklet from Elijah Productions at http://stores.lulu.com/elijahpublications