Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?

That Christians are commanded by Christ to forgive their enemies is common knowledge. We often take this at face value – discover immediately that it is very hard (often impossible) and conclude that the commandment is an unachievable ideal. For non-Christians, forgiveness of enemies may, in some cases, be a shared ideal (most people believe in “peace”), but many if not most non-Christians would recognize immediately the dangers involved in forgiving an enemy – after all they are enemies. Why does Christ give us such a commandment?

There are several things that can be stated up front as not being reasons for this commandment.

1. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not part of a global strategy to bring peace to the world. Christ nowhere suggests that obeying His commandments will make the world a better place – indeed He warns his followers that taking the path He has taken will quite possibly mean their death.

2. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given as an ideal for our moral improvement. The impossibility we encounter within this commandment is itself and indication that such behavior is a gift from God. With men, such things are impossible.

3. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given in order to “help us all get along together.” Indeed, He also says that His coming will also bring division, even within families. The forgiveness of enemies is, in practice, far less popular than we might think.

So why the commandment?

The answer to the question is given several places within the gospels – most notably in Matthew 5:43-45 and Luke 6:35-36.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew)

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. (Luke)

The passages are certainly parallel and occur in a similar context. In both cases a similar reason is given for the commandment: we are to forgive our enemies “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” and “to be sons of the Most High.” The forgiveness of enemies and the actions associated with it are specifically given that we may be conformed to the image of God. Indeed such forgiveness is a manifestation of that conformity.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos once said: “You only know God to the extent that you love your enemies.”

This conformity is not a moral conformity – we are not struggling to be like sons of the Most High – we are not struggling to be like sons of our Father in heaven. Within the commandment – Christ is also offering true union with God – a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a union, as noted in the saying of St. Silouan. There are many who may point to experiences they have had, and religious choices they have made, etc. But if they do not love their enemies there is still much further to go on the road of salvation.

There are also some who seek to draw a distinction between forgiving our enemies and actually loving them. This is something of a legal distinction in which people imagine themselves to be keeping the commandment while, in fact, not keeping it. This is a spiritual delusion. The commandment not only asks us to forgive our enemies but to love them and to do good things for them. That this is hard (often impossible) simply points to the fact that we are saved by grace – and this, too, is not a legal notion. God does not pretend that we love our enemies and call it “grace.”

In the understanding of the Orthodox faith, grace is not God’s good attitude towards us, but is the life of God, His “Divine Energies” in the language of the Fathers. It is God Himself, working within us that is our salvation: “For it is God who works within you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Thus He who commands is also He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work within us.

In the face of sin, we repent (seek to yield ourselves to God’s grace), confess our sins, make communion, give alms, and make efforts to do good to our enemies. The work of grace sometimes seems glacial in its speed. A glacier moves but a few feet a year, but it changes the face of the earth. And so the Apostle tells us, “Let patience do its complete work” (James 1:4).

I treasure a story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko (and ask forgiveness for any inaccuracies that may have damaged the tale) in which he described someone who did not want to forgive (or repent – my memory grows fuzzy). He asked, “Well then, do you want to want to forgive?” The person thought and said, “I don’t think so.” So Fr. Tom said, “Then do you want to want to want to?” To which the person said, “I can do that.”

It’s a place to start.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





39 responses to “Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?”

  1. Steven Clark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree, forgiveness and love must be together. Problem I have is: trusting.

    Trusting is hard sometimes, hard because my experience of it has been so warped. I sometimes have difficulty trusting God; and I DON’T trust myself most of the time.

    Does loving and forgiving our enemies require trust?

    reader Steven

  2. Karen Avatar

    Thank you for this good word, Father.

    With regard to your point about what the Orthodox understand by the nature of grace, two additional supporting Scriptures come to mind (or fragments of Scripture): “. . . Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27) and “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

    Stephen, I think love of enemies is impossible apart from trust in God (which is equally difficult and I share your struggle!). I don’t think love of enemies, necessarily means that we trust our enemies (certainly not in the way we trust someone of whose love we are sure).

  3. Yannis Avatar

    The feeling of lightness that comes with droping the ego burden is amazing. However it must be a whole different story when people have suffered serious wrongs – murders, rapes and the like – fundamentally the same and yet, far far more difficult. I only speak for my own small experience where the rivalry is – as usual – petty. Grown men and women quarelling like children over fundamentally insignificant things. Building mountains out of the passions, and blaming others because each is bumping into others’ wishes and desires. Vanity, vanity, vanity.

  4. Ioannis Avatar

    Recently I felt anger over someone’s behavior that I perceived threatened my friends and me. Immediately the Jesus Prayer welled up within me.

    It is very easy to repeat the prayer at times when I feel tranquil inside. Difficulty comes when I feel anger or fear. Perhaps that explains why, on this recent occasion when I felt anger and saw red, that I was not as inclined to repeat the Jesus Prayer until I chose to recite the Jesus Prayer. But through repeated repetition during tranquil times, the Jesus Prayer welled up from within in this moment of crisis.

    I consider the spontaneous appearance of the Holy Name as divine grace to enable me to make a choice in favor of repeating the Prayer rather than venting my anger. My choice came before my heart rate elevation and other indicators of an autonomic response that accompanied anger could recede. In other words, my body was in a state of fight or flight, but my will could resist focusing on thoughts that first ignited and then accompanied the feeling of anger.

    This episode illustrates how the Jesus Prayer provides a powerful weapon against forming enemies out of chance encounters.

  5. Simeon Avatar

    I like this post. I like the fact of the verse in James about giving patience its due. What I ask is that the Lord remember not the evil or bad done to me by my enemies; I hope in this to be able to truly forgive.
    This week I was working at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. I really saw the darkness that surround people. So many caught up into the world and what it has to offer (like it has anything to truly give). The Jesus prayer and the Trisagion were on my lips. Not that this makes me anything; it just helped me to see how things really are. I really believe that the Lord really opened my eyes.
    I guess now when I ask “Lord have mercy”, I will not only see myself and my family but also these folks around me who need His mercy too, even if they don’t realize it.

    Lord have mercy.

    -A selfish man

  6. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this series of posts on the end of relgion/end of the world/forgiveness of enemies. They express succinctly the “otherworldliness” (as in, “My Kingdom is not of this world”) that I find consistently in both the Church Fathers and the teaching of modern Orthodoxy.

    Along the same lines, it struck me recently that the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5 about relationships between husbands and wives and between fathers and children are not a recipe for a happy family life. They are, rather, instructions in how to die. I think Metropolitan Jonah, during his visit, said that the purpose of marriage, like monasticism, is to help us give up selfishness.

  7. Karl Avatar

    Father, or any helpful readers, I’m not understanding the difference between moral conformity and what you are talking about. By moral conformity are you meaning conformity to a set of rules? Are you suggesting that union with Christ is more than simply following rules of behavior? Are you saying that it is change welling out from inside of us rather than a moral box that we try to keep ourselves within?
    If that is what you are saying then it makes sense, however it sounds like you are also suggesting that we must work and choose to work toward that goal by attempting to stay within some moral box of praying for and doing good to our enemies. Is that right? And it also sounds like we must also be willing to give ourselves a break when we fail and forgive ourselves just as God does and start trying again. Am I correct?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I use the term moral to describe our outward behavior (conforming to rules, etc.) whereas we are promised an inner transformation in Christ. That transformation is the work of grace, and yet we are also taught that we should cooperate with the work of grace. We are not saved by our cooperation, but we are not saved without it.

    It is also true that we should struggle to obey the commandments of Christ (not seeking retaliation, etc) even before such a transformation occurs because it is good. We seek to do good, though we are still “becoming good” by the work of grace.

    I would assume that we should “forgive ourselves,” but it is even better to go to confession. There is great grace in that sacrament.

  9. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Father, bless ~ Would you kindly identify the parish shown in the picture? Thank you.

  10. Michael Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    -Not related to the “word” content of the post.-
    Where is this photo from? My old church had an icon of the Theotokos and Christ like the one in the apse depicted in the photo and I wondered if that icon had a name to it because I have never seen it since (besides in pictures) and it’s one of my favorite icons.


  11. Yannis Avatar

    i think that what may be confusing you is the difference between spiritual work and its method and morality as a set of rules.

    Both (morality and spiritual work) have method, that implies a set of rules, but they have different aims and objectives.

    Morality is basically concerned with conforming to a set of rules – this is the objective itself.

    Spiritual work is concerned with submiting to principles and accomplishing actions in faith with the aim of changing from within – as you say. It may look the same at the onset, but its very different at the outset.

    The Fathers of the Church teach that salvation is a synergia – a collaboration of human effort and Divine Mercy. For people who try to do things “by themselves”, the ego reigns supreme. It is only when faith is placed gradually more on the Self than the ego, that the ego gets loosened up and eventually cut off. Yet, this process is not mechanical, or linear (the more the merier) – because human nature at its core its not mechanical or linear. I do not know how Divine Grace works, but all i know is that doing efforts with faith on it, action becomes more natural, more free, more expressive, more playful and lighter because it is far less self centered. Basically – from a human perspective – it is a step away from having faith in willpower. It is a great, great thing if you ask me.

  12. Karl Avatar

    Thanks Father Stephen and Yannis,
    Both posts were helpfull. I have a better understanding now.

    “Thus He who commands is also He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work within us.”

    I liked this. I can remember a time when I was struggling with a particular sin and I got a picture in my mind of me walking out into crashing ocean waves and struggling go stay on my feet agaiinst the tide. I realized that God was the ocean and I was struggling against God. The struggle was in letting go of sin and allowing Gid to work not in overcoming sin myself.

  13. Timothy Avatar

    We often get this backwards assuming love of neighbor leads to love for God so we try very hard to love our neighbor, which is difficult, and give up on loving our enemies, which is impossible.

    St. Isaac the Syrian teaches the opposite – love for one’s neighbor, even for one’s enemy, is a natural outpouring of God’s love within the heart. We must first love God and then we will be able to show God’s love for all things by loving our neighbor, even our enemies.

    “The commandment which says, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’ (Mt 22:37), more than the world, nature, and all that pertains thereto, is fulfilled when you patiently endure in your stillness. And the commandment that speaks of the love of neighbour is included within the former.”
    Part I, Homily 44, p. 220 in HTM

    “A person who has stillness and converse of knowledge will easily and quickly arrive at the love of God, and with the love of God he will draw close to perfect love of fellow human beings.
    No one has ever been able to draw close to this luminous love of humanity without having first been held worthy of the wonderful and inebriating love of God.”
    Part II, Homily 10:33-34

    “In the case of the person who has been deemed worthy to taste of divine love, that person customarily forgets everything else by reason of its sweetness, for it is something at whose taste all visible things seem despicable: such a person’s soul gladly draws near to a luminous love of humanity, without distinguishing [between sinners and righteous]; he is never overcome by the weakness to be found in people, nor is he perturbed. He is just as the blessed Apostles were as well: people who in the midst of all the bad things they endured from the others were nonetheless utterly incapable of hating them or of being fed up with showing love for them. This was manifested in actual deed, for after all the other things they accepted even death so that these people might be retrieved. These were men who only a little bit earlier had begged Christ that fire might descend from heaven upon the Samaritans just because they had not received them into their village! (Lk 9:54)
    But once they had received the gift and tasted the love of God, they were made perfect in love even for wicked men: enduring all kinds of evils in order to retrieve them, they could not possibly hate them.
    So you see that perfect love of fellow human beings cannot be found just as a result of keeping the commandments.”
    Part II, Homily 10:36

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael, it is the Cathedral in Kiev.

  15. mike Avatar

    …clearly..i am in need of help ..Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner

  16. gailbhyatt Avatar

    These parts particularly stood out to me:

    God does not pretend that we love our enemies and call it “grace.”

    In the understanding of the Orthodox faith, grace is not God’s good attitude towards us, but is the life of God, His “Divine Energies” in the language of the Fathers. It is God Himself, working within us that is our salvation: “For it is God who works within you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

    Thank you for this post. May I be a “doer of the Word and not merely a hearer only.”

  17. Ryan Avatar

    Father, I have another question if you don’t mind. Why did Christ have to suffer such a torturous death? Why couldn’t He have died a more natural one to unite God and man?

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    In simple terms, because we hated him, hated life, and the devil “had been a murderer from the beginning.” It is not only a gruesome death he endured, but in that death, entered into and shared the deaths of everyone, everyhwere, through all time.

  19. davdperi Avatar

    This was one of the hardest things for me to do….to forgive someone who hates or dislikes you for no apparént reason that I couldn´t figure out…but there is such liberty and freedom because it was my mind, reason and emotion that was trapping me.

  20. Yannis Avatar

    Generally, the “no apparent reason” is often (but not always) due to profound likeness (symmetry) or profound difference (antisymmetry) in an ego expression (be it a desire, shame or fear). Its the symmetrical and antisymmetrical that many times create strong emotions of like and dislike – because both refer and reflect an ego characteristic in ourselves.

    Being able to forgive, often means being able to cut off the fear, shame or desire by accepting ourselves in our weakness and letting go of attachments and so get rid of the elements that elate or depress us. Often we hide literally behind our finger in our relationship to these things – because they are very painful to come to terms with face to face – even for a while. We are mostly content to let them rule us hidden from within by determining our perception and so relationship to things, other people and ourselves and so finally our goals and actions.

    Once however they are cut-off, there is no reason to poke others about or feel stirred when poked ourselves – because there is no attachment to project or defend our fear, shame or desire. The “no apparent reason” is not there anymore.

  21. easton Avatar

    my first thought was, who are my enemies? i don’t feel that i have enemies, or maybe i don’t consider anyone an enemy….

  22. Death Bredon Avatar
    Death Bredon

    Fr. Stephen or any other moral theologian, a couple of questions:

    Should I extend forgiveness to people who are not contrite or only charity?

    Are love and forgiveness the same thing?

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Death Bredon
    I do not think we await contrition to forgive. Christ forgave us from the cross while we were not contrite. Forgiveness is an aspect of love. Without forgiveness (where needed) love cannot exist in its fullness.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’re either very blessed – or have lived too carefully.

  25. Death Bredon Avatar
    Death Bredon


    If I extend forgiveness to a trespasser who is not contrite, how do I keep my forgiveness from just becoming approval of the trespass? I have in mind some simple example–say, a thief steals my car and won’t give it back.

  26. Rick Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I am a pastor in Cincinnati, OH and have enjoyed your blog for some time now. Is there any chance we could have a email conversation? I would very much appreciate your input on several matters of theology I am wrestling with.


  27. Yannis Avatar

    In my understanding, “turning the other cheek” refers to an integration of subject and object. In this way, passivity is transformed into participation, and so – by accepting to undergo – one becomes “on top of the situation”.

    I remember reading a book about life in concentration camps in Nazi Germany (“Mauthausen”) from Iakovos Kampanelis, a Greek playright, author and lyricist. It is autobiographical, the book has also been translated into English.

    One of the labors for inmates was to carry by hand huge boulders from a quarry down some 200 narrow quarry steps all day with very meager rations. This work “programme” was one of the ways inmmates were worked to death – most lasted barely a few months.

    One day, one of the inmmates, another Greek – a vegetable stand owner by trade – helped an inmmate who was struggling with his boulder. This small act of compassion attracted the attention of the supervising SS officer, who immediately singled out the Greek guy, took him over to the quarry top, picked up a larger-than-average boulder, and told him: “This is yours”.

    Antonis, that was the Greek guy’s name, looked around for a bit and then went over to an even larger boulder and said: “No, this one is mine”. For the rest of the day he was choosing and carrying the largest boulders, and the SS guard – who had been well known for killing people on a whim and on the spot – simply left him alone. I think this incident is a very good demonstration of “turning the other cheek”.

    Forgiveness is an inner state in my mind – it does not mean resigning one’s dignity, or allowing oneself to be steped over. Rather, it means not attaching to and allowing to grow feelings of hatred, fear, vengeance etc that come out of a rivalry. It means being more objective with oneself and one’s neighbour.

  28. easton Avatar

    father stephen, i think it is the word “enemy” that trips me up. i like your advice to forgive everyone, everything. guess i know i’m the one who really needs forgiveness… thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  29. Sean Avatar

    @ Michael:

    The icon you are referring is the common icon painted on the apse above the altar in most churches. It is called Platytera or “Our Lady of the Sign”.



  30. bob Avatar

    Fr. Hopko often points out that doing the things that the Son Of God does, forgiving the enemy, loving everyone no matter what, is how we become like him. And if you do it well enough you get what He gets, a cross. Not an easy thing to sell. And I am a great coward for not wanting what he has to offer.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    No problem. Email: email hidden; JavaScript is required

  32. mike Avatar

    …….on the flip side…..A.A.teaches us the necessity of geniune remorse for the wrongs we have done others..Step 8 states :made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all..Step 9: made direct amends to such people wherever possible ,except when to do so would injure them or others….so I would like to take this oppotunity to say im sorry to Fr Stephen and seek his forgiveness for my childish behavior and derogatory things said on this blog in the past…(he probably recognizes the I.P. adress)

  33. Victor Avatar

    Death Breadon,

    There is no sure way at all of keeping people from repeating their sins.

    If it is a brother or sister in the faith who has wronged you, the scriptures are clear as to how to approach them to teach them not to persist in the sin. Matt 18:15-18
    The upshot of this teaching begs the question, however,”How should we treat pagans and tax collectors?”

    Jesus’ sitting at the table of Zaccheus was the means of Zaccheus’ repentance. There is nothing in the gospel text here to suggest that Jesus reproved or rebuked Zaccheus at all. This is a single event, but it is a very common type of event in the Gospels and I suspect it is the model for us.

    In Christ,

  34. Jane Avatar

    I very much like Yannis’s words about actions with effort and faith letting your work become lighter and more playful (I know have paraphrased it badly). In this connection the thought came to me, maybe fasting is like playing scales, loving and forgiving my enemies is like playing Beethoven sonatas. So if even my Orthodox friends sometimes embarrass me by commenting on my poor efforts at fasting, I do not on that account stop – but perhaps I try to do it more privately. Like praying in my closet. Scales are not for anyone’s entertainment (except I am happy when I do them better!).

  35. Yannis Avatar

    thank you for the credit you give me. In all honesty however, many of my words (and all of their essence) aren’t mine.

    Always remember that ability and skill aren’t fixed. On the contrary they can be altered incrementally – that is increase them in intensity and difficulty some until we can do that and some more etc until we reach the goal. Spiritual work is no different. Start with small times of prayer, periods of fasting etc and largely spaced in time, and proceed to increase them and decrease their spacing in time appropriately to yourself (ie find a pace that takes you sufficiently enough out of your comfort zone, without disturbing your mental and physical balance).

    Most things in life are synergetic ie they require getting many aspects right in order to succeed. During our way towards the goal we experience periods of dryness – these are because aspects of something need to be individually learned first and then learned in combination and in relation to each other. Due to that, for long times, we may experience a flat curve of improvement (ie what appears as no improvement at all), but if we sincerely persevere, one day it will blow up in a steep improvement curve.

    This is because all the elements have been finally appropriately learned individually and in combination and they now have locked together in one harmonious whole.

    During the dry periods, the ego is constantly poking us: “I am worthless!”, “This is not working!”, “I will never get it right!” etc. Generally, the larger the ego the more intent one is on results. What needs be done, is set aside aspirations and judgements and simply concentrate with faith on the process with our current skill.

    What happens during prayer of the heart really demonstrates this well. Once the thought stream swells with fears, hopes and desires, without blocking it or joining it we return to the invocation of the Divine Name. This is the right attitude that will take one far – the journey is about growth – not about perfection.

    The distance between constant effort, no matter how unsuccesful, and no effort is light years larger than the distance between constant unsuccesful effort and very good effort.

    God be with you.

  36. Jane Avatar

    Thank you Yannis! Even if the words are not yours, it is you who are passing them on to us, and if I remember right, either Father Stephen or Father Thomas Hopko (two of my current guides along the Way) says that is what we are to do.

    The concept of just persevering even when we seem to be making no progress has become ingrained in me now, and the sense of a sudden leap forward, through Grace, also tallies with my experience. It is most important to persevere, having found a practice which is as you say (almost) within our capability (and with the blessing of our spiritual father).

  37. Greg Avatar

    Since the iconography in the photo came up, I thought I’d mention that I believe this is the interior of St. Vladimir’s cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine. (Father, please correct me if I am mistaken – I was there shortly after your post was published.)

    For those interested, the iconography in the cathedral is quite famous (quoting wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Volodymyr%27s_Cathedral):

    “It is the cathedral’s colourful interior that particularly strikes the eye. Mosaics were executed by masters from Venice. Frescoes were created under the guidance of Professor A. Prakhov by a group of famous painters: S. Kostenko, V. Kotarbinsky, Mikhail Nesterov, M. Pymonenko, P. Swedomsky, Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Vrubel, V. Zamyraylo, and others. The painting of the Holy Mother of God by Vasnetsov in the altar apse of the cathedral impresses by its austere beauty.”

    I strongly recommend Kiev as a destination, especially for Orthodox Christians.

  38. Ranell Parker Avatar
    Ranell Parker

    Thanks! This article meant alot.

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