We have a beautiful passage set for us today in Luke 6:35-38. It is short enough to quote here completely.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
The Lord Jesus expresses how we should seek to live in a series of pairs of attitudes. One of the Fathers says that God has given us himself the means of moving him to be kind and gracious to us, and we see this in these words.
How are we to escape the judgement of God? It is to become one who does not judge others. How are to to escape being condemned before God? It is to become one who does not condemn others. How are we to receive the forgiveness of God? It is only by becoming those who forgive others.
This does not, it seems to me, mean that we do not exercise judgement and discretion. There is truth and error. We are not to abandon judgement in these things. There is good and evil. We are not to abandon judgement in these things. But we are not to act and think as if we know all the secrets of other people’s lives and hearts and can make that lasting judgement which belongs to God alone. We are not to easily judge the motives of others, or their intentions, or their moral character. This belongs to God. And when we do act and think in such a way it is because we have forgotten our own sins and weaknesses.
How does God treat those who are ungrateful and evil? It is with mercy. And nothing less is required of us. But how is this possible? How can we offer mercy and forgiveness to those who have harmed us or wish us ill? It is surely not in our own strength. Many of us fall into despair or bitterness because we are unable to produce warm feelings of happiness towards those who have hurt us, or those we love. But emotions are not the essential quality of forgiveness or mercy.
We are to do good and lend hoping for nothing in return.
This is what God asks of us. That we make a beginning by our actions without expecting or asking for anything in return. The one who treats us badly at work, or school, or university, or even in Church. We are to do good and give ourselves without expecting some great change in them that makes it all worthwhile. We are to understand that the most important change is the one that is to take place within us. So we begin with that good we are able to do. We pray in our heart, Lord I forgive this person. Even if we do not feel that we have forgiven them. We pray in our heart, Lord I ask for your grace for this person, for repentance and salvation. Even if we do not feel that we want them to be blessed. Our emotions are poor guides. It is what we say that matters. It is what we do that matters.
When we begin to pray for a person who has harmed us, we find that something changes in us, before it ever changes in them. Perhaps it never changes in them. But God asks us to be concerned with ourselves. How can we be forgiven by God if we have not forgiven those who have harmed us? How can we escape condemnation if we condemn others, as if we knew the secrets of their heart.
We must judge ourselves, and condemn ourselves, so that we might find forgiveness with God. That which we give to others is entirely that which God will give to us. If we withhold mercy, then there is no room in our heart for us to receive the mercy of God. If we give mercy freely to others then the mercy of God will always fill to overflowing that which is given away. If we give forgiveness freely to others, however hard this can be, then the forgiveness of God will always cover every sin of our own heart.
The change has to take place with us. Not as an emotional response to others, but as a determined act of will, moved by the divine life and energy. To pray – I forgive – is a beginning, and it draws down upon us the grace and mercy of God, whatever our feelings. To give ourselves in acts of kindness, even to those who harm us, without thought of return, is the means by which we become Children of God.
NB There is always a need for forgiveness, but this does not mean that the consequences of someone’s actions should not be dealt with as is appropriate, especially if they are criminal and affect other people. Nor should we quietly endure violence as if it were a cross. It is not. It is criminal behaviour wherever it takes place. Sometimes the loving thing we must do is to stop such a person committing sin, not as if we judged them, not as if we condemned them, but because enabling others to sin is not a sign of love. If someone asks me to go shopping for them, I might do so as an act of service. But if an alcoholic asks me to buy him some wine or spirits, then my service would cause him harm. Likewise, I might forgive someone who is violent or abusive towards me, but if it persists, in the domestic setting or elsewhere, then it needs to stop for the sake of this other person, and if necessary, other agencies need to be involved, especially where behaviour is criminal. But we are still to forgive – this does not mean calling something that is evil good. It is still evil and hurtful.