It can often seem impossible for us to forgive others when they have hurt us, or hurt those about whom we care. To forgive can seem like a betrayal, as if we were saying that what had happened didn’t matter. But often we are asked to forgive the most hurtful things of all, things that have life-changing consequences for ourselves and for others.
Yet we cannot act as though our Lord Jesus Christ has not spoken about forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, those words which he himself gave us to use when we address our Heavenly Father, he asks us to pray, forgive us in the same way and to the same extent that we forgive others. Indeed the spiritual Fathers of the Orthodox Church are clear that this is exactly what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us. If we want to be forgiven our own sins then we must forgive the sins of others, and especially those who have caused us harm.
Elsewhere he taught his disciples and said to them that we should not forgive our brother when he sins against us seven times, and St Peter thought that he was being very spiritual when he suggested this, but seventy times seven. And more than this, at the same time our Lord Jesus gave a parable about the servant who was happy to be forgiven by his own master, but refused to forgive those who owed him even a little. The outcome of that parable was that our Heavenly Father would judge against us if we sought forgiveness for ourselves but denied it to others.
And of course, and supremely, our Lord Jesus himself manifests for us what it is to forgive those who sin against us. He is God himself, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Yet he allowed his own creatures to beat him, wound him, abuse him and nail him to a cross for a painful death. Becoming man for the sake of our salvation he utters words which he would wish were on our own lips as we seek to live with that life which he gives us. He says to those he could destroy utterly with a single word, Father, forgive them.
It is interesting that the word forgive has an etymology, or word origin, which is to give completely. And this is what we ask for, that our sins will be given completely over to God and dealt with by his grace, so that there is nothing left for us to be fearful about, but rather a grateful and hope-filled sense of faith towards God. In the prayers of the Agpeya we ask that the handwriting of our sin be torn up so that there is no record left of it. The Greek word which is translated as forgive has a similar sense. It has the meaning of letting something go, or sending something away.
In the Old Testament the Jewish people were instructed to choose a goat which would be sent out into the wilderness, away from the camp, to be an atonement for the Israelites. This is a picture of our own sins being sent far away so that the judgement of God might not fall upon us.
But what will we do? It does not seem possible for us to forgive this person for what they have done, and we know that our spiritual life will come to a halt while we refuse to do so. We will not receive forgiveness all the time that we are unwilling to offer forgiveness to another. There are some who will not forgive. Rather than learning to let go of the hurt they hold it close and nourish it. Such a person is in a difficult spiritual state and requires much prayer for their own salvation. But others wish to be obedient, it just seems that forgiveness is completely beyond them.
For those in such a condition there is hope. Let us begin by understanding that forgiveness does not essentially require us to have pleasant thoughts about someone who has caused us harm. It certainly does not require us to ignore what they have done, or fail to have regard to the consequences of another’s sinful and even wicked actions. It is a mistake to imagine that what is required of us are happy emotions. Far from it. It is possible to forgive a person while feeling angry at what has been done. But what is required is that as far as we find grace to do so, we must let go of the desire to judge and condemn such a person ourselves. When we do so we are placing ourselves in the dangerous position of acting as if we were free from sin ourselves and undeserving of judgement and punishment for our own weaknesses and wickedness.
To begin to forgive a person, when we find ourselves unable to do so, we must honestly address God in prayer, saying…
Lord, there is no desire in me at all to forgive this person, only many confused and even hateful feelings towards him. Yet because I know that you require of me that I forgive him, and because I know that I also am deserving of judgement, I ask you to give me that grace to forgive even when I do not wish to forgive.
This honest prayer is the beginning of forgiveness, since it expresses some desire deep within us to do what is right and God pleasing even while we have no feelings at all to support such a desire.
We may then pray for the one who has hurt us, or hurt those whom we love. But what are we to pray? We should remember that we are trying to let go and give the situation we have experienced to God. We are not trying to generate pleasant feelings. Just as the essence of love is not warm, romantic feelings but is cold, hard, self-sacrifice so the essence of forgiveness is a similar act of the will turned towards God. Feelings may come and go, and may support or hinder us, but we must choose to let go, to forgive, and God will give us the grace to do so.
To forgive a person is essentially to give them over to the grace of God, as we wish to be those who receive the grace of God. This might well include the grace of repentance and of an understanding of what they have done.
But it must always, it seems to me, include some sense that we are also sinners, even if we have not sinned in this way or caused such hurt.
Our prayer might be this…
Lord, I do not have any warm feelings towards this person, but nevertheless I pray that your grace will be poured out on his life for his salvation, and that he might come to repentance and an understanding of the consequences of his actions. I know that I am also a sinner and have been given grace I do not deserve, and I ask the same for this man, even though I cannot feel that this is what I desire.
This is enough of a beginning. Pray this prayer every day. Do not seek to harm the person who has harmed you, but give over all of your care that justice be done to God, who alone judges righteously. If this person has broken the law then there it is proper that he should face the consequences of the law, even where that provides for an expression of forgiveness on your part. If someone has taken a life, for instance, there are consequences which society rightly imposes. Forgiveness does not mean that we always act as if nothing has happened. A person who has committed some offence against children, even if forgiven by the Church, should not be placed into a situation where children might be in danger. A person who has abused alcohol or drugs, even if forgiven by the Church, should not be placed into a situation where they are likely to fall again. Likewise, we are not required to forget what has been done, if there are wider consequences that should be considered.
But we are certainly to let go. And letting go means being strict with ourselves, and insisting that we are not the ones to whom judgement properly belongs since we are also sinners.
It may be that as we pray daily for the one who has hurt us we find that grace poured out into our hearts will allow us to pray more generously for that person. Perhaps after some time we will find that we do desire that they receive grace to repent and understand, and that we do wish that they also find salvation. We should give thanks for such a transformation in our own hearts, because we also need to be saved.
But we must not wait for happy and pleasant feelings. These will hardly come, and generally deceive us. What we must do is what is right and necessary. It is possible to pray now, as I have described. Honestly expressing our lack of warm emotions but wanting God to act in this other person’s life for his blessing and salvation. This is the beginning and the essence of forgiveness.
Let me urge you then. Begin by repenting yourself of all that is sinful in your life, and especially any hateful feelings towards others. You are a sinner. These sins separate you from God and make you entirely worthy of judgement and punishment. When you have repented for yourself as God for grace to make a beginning of forgiveness, even though you have no feelings or emotions or manifest desire to do so. Then begin to forgive. Do not wait. But pray for this person and ask that God will give them grace for salvation, for repentance and understanding, even if you feel you want the opposite.
God will hear even this weak and halting prayer, and will give you grace to the measure that you oppose your own feelings and do what is obedient and God pleasing.
May this be our experience, for our own salvation and for the honouring of God.