The Heart of Forgiveness

Nothing is more difficult to our heart than forgiveness of our enemies. I cannot complete this small series on the heart without a few words on this topic. This post was written last March.

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 are 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: it is 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. Life offers us the possibility of 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 may well 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, 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).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





16 responses to “The Heart of Forgiveness”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: The monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert. I once met a monk there who had no enemies.

  2. Susan Cushman Avatar

    I started to write, “perfect timing” for this post, but then I thought, when would it NOT be a perfect time to read this, and to embrace a life of forgiveness? During this season of preparation for the Feast of Nativity, when I often lose perspective on what’s important and get caught up in getting “my list” done, it’s good to be brought back to center. Thank you.

  3. David Dickens Avatar

    I find it easier to forget than to forgive. That is, it is easier for me to distract myself from other’s offenses against me or my beloveds, rather than staring the pain in the face and truly forgiving it. Strange that other people say “I can forgive, but not forget.” I think they mean they can be polite, but I’m not sure.

    At any rate, willful ignorance of others’ wrongs is a cheap way to bliss. I must repent and work on the more costly path of forgiveness.

  4. Patty Joanna Avatar
    Patty Joanna

    Susan, I just came to post exactly what you said. What day of my life could this not be a timely post?

  5. TheraP Avatar

    To me this is the heart of the Gospel. And if, as Jesus also told us, “by their fruits you shall know them,” then we Christians are sorely wanting in being called His followers. Individually and collectively. And especially in making enemies of each other. Along with Jesus, I pray we may all be one. Every day – we begin again.

  6. Ryan Avatar

    Life confession, huh? Amazing suggestion as I happen to be reading Augustine’s “Confessio” – a life confession par excellence. I may just mail you mine. It will probably arrive in a UPS truck. I am not so humble as Blessed Augustine though to have it be published…:)

  7. yannis Avatar

    Forgiveness of enemies is a very fine point in my humble opinion.

    One can easily get secretly caught up and duped by emotionally charged thoughts while trying to supress them in order to be “forgiving” to others that antagonise, mock, insult or even hurt him/her at any cost since the scriptures advise so. Trying to live up to the letter of the Gospel by suppressing feelings and thought streams would bring oneself against oneself inevitably and not in a positive sense – instincts and feelings are there for a reason and in front of injustice and inconsiderate/immoral behavior anyone would – rightly – react.

    Its true that the Saints have been truelly forgiving and overly kind to their tormentors (Saint Serafim of Sarov comes to mind but too many other examples exist) but this seems to me to be a sign of their detachment from their own self rather than a sign of their attachment to those who despised them and there is a world of difference in this.

    Dont get me wrong – i dont suggest that the Saints did not love their tormentors – but that they must have done so with a love that is beyond sentimentalities because, it seems to me, the sentimental sort of love cannot bear the burden of such a cross.

    Being able to dettach from the thoughts stream that “upsetting” people bring and being able to see their side of the coin and most importantly resist disliking them for who they are instead of for what they/their behaviour represent, is a step towards the right mentality in my humble opinion.

    Love in its ultimate form can be nothing less than a deep awareness of the sanctity and necessity of everything and everyone rather than the bolt of (positive or negative) emotions we associate with the word commonly.

    Under this light i think that not undergoing a certain degree of ascetic practice (in the broadest sense – not talking about monastics only), and seeking to fulfill the letter of the Gospel in loving one’s enemies, carries with it the risk of accumulating negative feelings under the surface that turn one into a moralist rather than a more spiritually advanced person.

    Best Regards


  8. Marsha Avatar

    Yannis, very wise. I may have to print that comment along with this post for re-reading.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would think that love of the sentimental sort is little more than a passion and unable to sustain anything, much less forgiveness. Indeed.

  10. Vasiliki Avatar

    Father Stephen, you mentioned that you met a monk who had no enemies (at Mar Saba) …

    What of the person who ONLY has enemies?
    Does this imply that he is not blessed by God and wont see salvation?

  11. yannis Avatar

    Many people’s approach to the commandment for forgiveness reminds me the poem “The poison tree” by William Blake:

    “I was angry with my friend:
    I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
    I was angry with my foe;
    I told it not, my wrath did grow.

    And I water’d it in fears,
    Night & morning with my tears;
    And I sunned it with my smiles
    And with soft deceitful wiles.

    And it grew both day and night,
    Till it bore an apple bright;
    And my foe beheld it shine,
    And he knew that it was mine,

    And into my garden stole
    When the night had veil’d the pole:
    In the morning glad I see
    My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree”

    It can be really easy to confuse forgiveness for the appearance of forgiveness setting the scene for the “poison tree” to grow – at least i have observed this pattern many times, to myself included.

    Best Regards


  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    The monk I met had no enemies because he had forgiven them. Everyone is blessed by God. What someone may do with God’s blessing is a mystery for which I have no answer. “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). I am certain of God – it is of myself and others that I am not certain.

  13. Vasiliki Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen, that is profound. I had never thought of it that way … the whole world could be our enemy but if we dont view them as our enemy they arent … thank you.

  14. Carolina Avatar

    On the cross, Jesus asked His Father to forgive what was happening to him. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23: 34 He himself did not directly forgive them.

    This is a pattern which I use. Added to that, I ask God to heal the hurt which I have incurred. Hurts hurt! My soul needs healing!

    Our minds love to repeat disasters it seems, so I often have to do this more than once, 10x, 77x etc, as the hurt rises to the top and the deadly cycle starts in again. Breaking the deadly cycle of our minds is the key.

  15. Diana Avatar

    “Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action and is not the same thing as asking forgiveness.”
    Yet another healing revelation, thank you so much.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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