Our Call to Forgive
Holding on to bitterness is like drinking poison, and hoping your enemy dies from it. (Nelson Mandela)
A missionary shared a story of a former man-eating cannibal, a tribesman from some small South Pacific Island, who encountered the power of Christ’s Good News, and converted to Christianity. One subsequent Sunday, the missionary observed how this man began to approach the Holy Altar to receive Holy Communion, only to quickly turn around and rush out of the Church. After a few minutes, the tribesman returned into the Church and received the Holy Sacrament. Following the service, the missionary approached the tribesman and asked for an explanation of his behavior.
The tribesman replied, “As I approached the priest, I noticed in the line in front of me the man who had killed my father, a man whom I swore to kill the first time I should see him. The desire for revenge seized me, and I rushed outside thinking about how I would kill this man once he left the Church. Yet as I contemplated this action, I heard an inner voice say to me, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I thought also about our Lord on the Cross, and how he was able to say, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”
With a renewed spirit, and peace in my heart, I returned back into the Church and received Holy Communion.
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How many of us hold on to some bitter memory? Some hurt we’ve experienced long ago, and we simply can’t forgive or forget. Our Christian faith is founded in the lesson of forgiving whoever has hurt us, reconciling with our enemy. Yet, how difficult this is! The most frequent sin and struggle I hear in any confession or counseling I offer, is the inability of others to forgive those who have hurt them. And obviously, the more serious the hurt, the harder one finds it to forgive.
Our Christian faith, however, centers on the spirit of love and forgiveness. I can’t exaggerate the variety of ways our Lord Jesus taught the utmost significance of “loving mercy” and “forgiveness” as indispensable characteristics in the lives of His followers. In the Gospels we hear it over and over again: “Turn the other cheek. Love one another as I have loved you. Forgive even up to seven times seventy. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Love your enemy. If you do not forgive others their trespasses, than neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Of course, the epitome of forgiveness and love is our Lord willingly dying on the Cross for the sins of a fallen world, and then as he suffered on the Cross crying out, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Precisely this spirit of forgiveness we see again and again in the lives of the saints, as they suffered terribly from injustice, hatred, anger and persecution. St. Stephen could look at his murderers with a peaceful countenance and could say, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
Well, few people will argue with me about the importance of forgiving and loving one another, and how these virtues stand at the center of our Orthodox Christian faith. The difficulty, of course, lies in each of our own particular cases – when someone has specifically betrayed us, hurt us, maliciously lied to us, or done some evil to us. I’m sure we all can recall when we’ve been hurt in some way, and the struggle we have to forgive. I’m sure that some of us in the Church today are still harboring ill feelings towards another, and are not able to forgive and go on. How many of us in this Church today aren’t speaking to a family member, a former friend, a colleague, or some other acquaintance? Or how many of us speak civilly to another, yet harbor an inner resentment, hurt, anger, and pain deep within our hearts?
Christ’s command to forgive surely is NOT an easy one to fulfill! And yet, that is a central part of our spiritual development and maturity. It’s ok to admit that we cannot forgive someone right now, but as Christians, it’s NOT ok to accept the status quo of holding on to a grudge. We each need to realize how essential it is to forgive! It may take time to gain the strength and wisdom, and we may need to grow spiritually, but we should never lose sight of our ultimate goal – forgiving an enemy and reconciling with our God. For don’t forget, when we are out of communion with another, we have also lost our communion with our Creator. Love of the other is intimately connected with love of God. As one of our Church Fathers said, “We are as close to God as we are to our worst enemy.” Now that’s a powerful statement to meditate upon – “We are as close to God as we are to our worst enemy.”
Think for a moment about the one we have difficulty forgiving, and then place the image of God on that person. As we keep a distance between ourselves and that person, we are keeping that distance also between us and God!
Well, I hope we all can accept that as Christians, forgiving one another is a part of our identity, a part of our DNA. We live in Christ, therefore, we forgive! That’s who we are.
Yet, for many people, the question still remains - how can we learn to forgive? How can we gain the inner strength needed to forgive? I want to forgive, but what concrete steps should we take to actually forgive? Our Church tradition offers several suggestions.
First, we must properly understand God’s love for us, and constantly remind ourselves of this divine and unconditional love. Begin by reminding yourself that life itself is God’s greatest gift to us – a life which includes our health, our family, our friends, and the beauty and love that surround us. A key element of this life is the knowledge and love and experience we have of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the salvation He offers which begins here and now. When we reflect on our blessings, our hearts should overflow with gratitude towards the Giver of our life!
After we properly think about God’s love for us, we need to see ourselves as we truly are. Our faith teaches us that all of us have fallen away from God in a variety of ways. To sin does not mean simply to break a commandment, but it means to turn away from our relationship with God. We’re all called to become saints after the likeness of our Lord. If we fail to live up to this calling, than we have sinned and not fulfilled our potential. By understanding our own sinfulness, we then can better appreciate God’s extreme mercy and love towards each one of us. It is when we don’t understand God’s extreme mercy that we may find no reason to forgive one another.
This is what the story of today’s Gospel reading so graphically described. A king forgives a servant an unbelievable debt that would have been impossible to repay, only to watch this same servant show no mercy towards his fellow servant who owed him a small amount. “How can you be so unforgiving and unmerciful,” the king said to his servant, “when I have shown you such great mercy!”
These are God’s words to us – “How can we be so unforgiving and unmerciful, when God has shown us such great mercy!” These words alone should compel us to forgive those who have hurt us. When we base our forgiving others on the mercy God has shown us, we should then realize we do not forgive others because they deserve our mercy. We forgive others because God has first forgiven us!
A third step in trying to forgive is to try and understand the other’s perspective. Think about what the person has experienced in life, and try to understand them before allowing ourselves to condemn them.
A fourth step is trying to put the hurt in our past. As long as we brood upon an injury, there is little hope we can forgive. Don’t print the incident permanently in your mind. When the hurt recurs in your mind, try to turn your focus on something else – like on your own shortcomings, on God’s mercy towards you, on the countless blessings you have in your own life. Don’t dwell on the hurt, but dwell on God’s love and mercy!
Finally, learn what true divine love is all about. Dwell on Jesus Christ, Divine Love incarnate. The more you develop an intimate relationship with Christ, the deeper you will enter into divine love, and the greater your ability will be to show that divine love through forgiving one another.
The transfigured Christian life presents us becoming new creations in Christ, people who allow Jesus do dwell in us and radiate His spirit of love onto the world! May we all strive to live out such transfigured lives!