Forgiveness – Do We Know What We’re Doing?

forgiveThe first service of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church is “Forgiveness Vespers,” served on the eve of Monday of the First Week. There is nothing unusual about the service itself – other than the “rite of forgiveness” appended to it. In this, the priest and the faithful ask forgiveness of one another. Often this is done with mutual prostrations. Each asks the forgiveness of the other. The rite can take time, depending on the number in attendance. When it is complete, the long labors of Lent can begin. Fasting without forgiveness would be a hollow activity. This is a meditation I shared with my parish this week as the Sunday of Forgiveness approaches:

Perhaps the most generous words spoken by Christ are those we hear from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Taken at face value, the words make little sense. Surely, those who crucified Christ knew that they were killing a man. Surely they were even aware that his execution was largely political and unjust. The centurion in charge of the crucifixion is said to have stated, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” So how could Christ say, “They do not know what they are doing?”

I believe this goes to the very heart of our lives and actions. We almost never know what we are doing. The greater context, the meaning of anything, is  hidden from us. We have children, work at a job, and live our lives, hoping that these have been worthwhile actions. We know that much, even most of what we have done has been tainted with bad intentions and other less-than-worthy motivations. But we never actually grasp the full scope of our actions. Even those good things that we do have a hidden aspect. Did that kind word spoken earlier make a difference? Did that act of charity actually change anything?

This hidden aspect of our lives is an inherent part of the human condition. We simply don’t know what we’re doing. This makes it very hard for us to judge our actions or to weigh them for their value.

Christ’s words are addressed to the Father on behalf of all of humanity. For it is not just the small number of people in Jerusalem who were consenting to His death. His death is “on behalf of all and for all.”

And this brings us to Forgiveness Sunday. “Why do I need to ask forgiveness of others if I have done them no wrong?”

The simple answer is: You don’t know what you have or have not done. But it is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that “each person is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Our lives are deeply connected—we are never uninvolved in the lives of others. What I have done and what I have not done both effect the lives of the whole world. A child dies on the other side of the world. I may have had no direct hand in the death, and yet I cannot excuse myself as if I have no share in what happens everywhere. The world is as we make it.

I once heard a monk say, “The person of prayer does not need to go any further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”

But none of this is to call us to a morbid guilt. It calls us to Christ and calls us to hear His words. On Forgiveness Sunday each of us asks forgiveness of the others around us. It is both a personal matter and collective. I have failed and need forgiveness. We have failed and need forgiveness. And perhaps the even greater call comes to us to join ourselves with Christ who says: “Father, forgive them!”

“Forgive me,” we say. “God forgives us all,” comes the response. It sometimes feels awkward, even embarrassing. Some people begin to weep. Others begin to giggle. Both are part of the human condition within our shame.

But the actions of Forgiveness Sunday unite us necessarily to the actions of Christ. By submitting Himself to crucifixion, Christ put Himself in the place of the sinner, the one needing forgiveness. He was displayed naked, nailed on high for all the world to see (“on His shoulders He bore our shame,” Isaiah prophesied).

In the mild social embarrassment of saying, “Forgive me,” to another human being, we unite ourselves to the deep, profound healing shame of Christ. And with brazen boldness we confess, “God forgives us all!” uniting ourselves with the priestly cry of Christ Himself, “Father, forgive them!”

And having read this, and done all that, we still will not know what we have done. But we are not saved by knowing what we do. We are saved by doing what He does.

Forgive me.

Fr. Stephen +


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.



25 responses to “Forgiveness – Do We Know What We’re Doing?”

  1. Michael Basham Avatar
    Michael Basham

    I truly enjoy your posts and send many of them along to others. Your comments this time about forgiveness, however, concerns me. Do we really believe in “collective guilt?” I have a problem with that and with “Forgiveness Sunday” in general. First: We are not our Lord and have no ability or need to take on the sins of the world.
    Second: Walking around in a circle, standing before someone I don’t even know and asking for forgiveness is silly. Beside, asking for forgiveness in that way is silly. If I am truly asking someone for forgiveness, I must also ask how I can make things right with them.
    Just a thought from a layperson.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr. Basham, it is not ‘collective guilt’ it is the knowledge that all of my sins effect everyone else and that through the cup we are connected in unfathomable ways.

    We bear one another’s burdens. That is not something we do by choice, it is something we do because we have been baptized and Christmated.

    I am not guilty of your sin, but my sin makes yours easier.

    So I say with all my heart, forgive me to you and to all.

  3. Dino Avatar

    My immediate thought is: are we not members of one another (Ephesians 4:25) ? Does not the created cosmos constitute an individual whole, so that the salvation of each person is inextricably bound with the salvation of all? Does not ‘divine love desire salvation for all’ (as St Silouan says)? Also, Julian of Norwich’s saying, ‘In the sight of God, all men is one man, and one man is all men’, accords with the thought of the Fathers. In far simpler language, Elder Paisios would explain this notion of ‘being responsible for everyone and everything’ (as Dostoyevsky put it), by saying: ‘well listen, if I was a saint I could have saved that child that fell into the hands of our adversary on the other side of the earth, but because I have not attained to this, the child’s sin is also my fault!’
    Doesn’t any mother, in fact, naturally say ‘I am sorry, it is my fault’ to her hurt little one when the older brother has hurt him while she took her eyes of them?

  4. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    To be in Christ is to do as He does, to follow in his ways to the best of our ability by the power of the grace He gives.

    He does not participate in collective guilt, it is personal. He took our sins on Himself – fully identified with every sinner to the point of death.

    Taking up our cross to follow Him means, among perhaps other things, that we also identify with others and bear their burdens, sins, and ask them to forgive us for ours. In Christ we share everything with everyone because He does exactly that, bearing all for our sake.

    Importantly, forgiveness of this kind robs the accuser of accusations. He cannot play cards against us that are already confessed, and it is needful when we stand bare before God’s throne to have already confessed.

    In this manner, therefore, pray:
    Our Father in heaven,
    Hallowed be Your name.
    Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done
    On earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread.
    And forgive us our debts,
    As we forgive our debtors.

    And do not lead us into temptation,
    But deliver us from the evil one.
    For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
    (Matthew 6)

  5. Lena Avatar

    As a baptized Orthodox Christian I should be an image of Christ even to people I barely know and I’m clearly not. That’s what I’m asking forgiveness for when we go around the church on Forgiveness Sunday. It also looks like to me that I’ll have that reason to continue asking people for forgiveness to the end of my days.
    Please, forgive me a sinner

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael Basham,
    Theologically, the word is perichoresis, a mutual sharing between persons. It applies to the persons of the Godhead, such that what we predicate of one is true of the other. It is part of what it means to be truly personal, rather than merely individual.

    For human beings, though this has largely been distorted through our sins, there is still a perichoresis, a mutual coinherence and sharing in the life of the other. And yes, it means I also bear your sin. For the least spiritually mature, this will seem ridiculous. For the saints, this will be utterly true and profound. Learning to accept this also means learning to truly pray for others, not to judge others, to understand that your life is my life – and in so doing – and only in so doing – come to love the other. You will never love your neighbor as yourself until you learn that his life is yours.

    And so, the wisdom of the holy Church has given us this paltry exercise in forgiveness. Of course it seems “silly.” But that silliness is simply your own shame and embarrassment – not actual silliness. There are many much sillier things we will have to do in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

    Of course, if you want to press further in, you can take forgiveness to deeper levels. My experience tells me that those deeper levels will remain theoretical and opaque so long as such small things seem silly.

    You comment reminds me of Peter’s protest that he would never let Christ wash his feet. I’ve participated in foot-washing (it’s very similar) and of course it felt silly. But when Christ opened Peter’s understanding he wanted to be washed everywhere!

    Did you pray everyday for every member of your parish? If you didn’t, then the days they stumbled, you were implicated as well for they were depending on your prayers. Did you judge any of them? Any time we judge another we take their sins upon ourselves – this is a spiritual law, taught by the spiritual fathers of the Church.

    Our lives are bound inextricably with the lives of everyone, always and everywhere. We falsely think that our success is our own – but we are all living in Sodom and Gomorrah (as the sinners). And it is only the prayers of righteous Abraham that delay our destruction until we can flee the city. And who is righteous Abraham? All those who pray for me. It is a great mystery. But it is God alone who holds all things in existence, and in His great wisdom and mercy He choose to share that effort with His beloved children – and so our prayers sustain the universe. Most don’t know this or feel this – but the saints do.

    St. Paul spoke of this mystery: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col 1:24 NKJ) It’s a verse that many have never noticed. How can Paul “fill what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?” Ponder it. And then go to Forgiveness Vespers.

  7. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Allow me another observation: As we all bear Christ, anytime we see another member of Christ and do not honor them as such from our heart, in attitude and mind and deed, that is, if we do not see them as Christ and treat them with that high honor, we sin against them because Christ has given them His own identity by grace.

    By this standard I have plenty to confess and, as Lena said so well, “reason to continue asking people for forgiveness to the end of my days.”

  8. Sarah Avatar

    This so so beautiful and important. Thank you for writing this! I have one question, which I’m hoping you could help me out with.

    I’ve never understood what the “healing shame of Christ” means. Psychologically, shame is about feeling deeply, almost ontologically, defective. Rather than the idea that one has done something wrong (which is guilt), it is the sense that one’s existence itself is wrong.

    If this is not what is meant by the shame of Christ, then what does shame mean within this context?

    Thank you!

  9. Charlie Avatar

    michaelpatrick; you’ve stolen my thunder with your quote from the Lord’s Prayer !
    I’m hoping that asking forgiveness electronically is acceptable because I don’t have a passport and a ticket to Eastern Europe is a bit much for my wallet.

    May your Great Lent be a source of enrichment to you (and all readers of this letter.)

  10. […] Forgiveness – Do We Know What We’re Doing? […]

  11. Fr Richard Avatar
    Fr Richard

    Thank you Father for your words of encouragement. Please forgive me and pray for me.

  12. Dino Avatar


    …I should be an image of Christ even to people I barely know and I’m clearly not. That’s what I’m asking forgiveness for when we go around the church on Forgiveness Sunday… it’s reason to continue asking people for forgiveness to the end of my days.

    that’s both a central point and an easy one for all to understand – thank you for concisely articulating it!

  13. salih kurtbas Avatar
    salih kurtbas

    l am not Orthodox but l like this blog very much.Forgiven not easy but very good medicine our hearts. And please forgive me!

  14. Karen Avatar

    Miichael Bauman writes:

    I am not guilty of your sin, but my sin makes yours easier.

    In the sense I may not be the primary agent acting in the commission of a particular instance of sin, this is quite true. On the other hand, and in reflection on Father’s comment to Michael Basham above, all particular expressions of sin (i.e., “sins”) come from the same root Sin. We all participate in that root Sin and are guilty of it. In this sense, I’m as guilty of my neighbor’s Sin, as he is, despite Sin’s perhaps taking divergent expressions in each of us (although usually even our sins can be far more similar to those of others than we might at first realize).

    Perhaps another way of looking at this is to recognize that no matter what form Sin takes in my brother or sister, and how unlikely I deem it I could make an equivalent error (i.e., how tempted I am to sit in judgment on them), true spiritual self-knowledge (through experiential knowledge of Christ) reveals that given equivalent temptations and circumstances, and apart from the grace of God restraining me, I would commit the very same particular sins and worse. If we lose sight of this, God may indeed withhold His grace from us in order that our own fall into a similar sin will enable us to humble ourselves and so truly receive God’s grace both for our own repentance and for the forgiveness of others–these being deeply entwined together as Forgiveness Sunday shows us.

    Forgive me, my brothers and my sisters!

  15. Matt Avatar

    I am not guilty of your sin, but my sin makes yours easier.

    Excellently put… and instantly calls to my mind a a concrete example that I’ll link here provided that a) it might help some who might find this getting a bit abstract and b) Fr. Stephen sees this in the moderation queue and allows it despite the triggering subject matter and occasional foul language in the link.

  16. Grant Avatar

    Thank you again Father for writing these resonating words. Oh God I know not what I’m doing. May He forgive us all!

  17. Lena Avatar

    I’m honored and humbled

  18. Dino Avatar

    The delicate difference in a line from Psalm 22(LX)/23, translated as “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” and its slightly special reading in Greek, which goes: “Your mercy will hunt (pursue/track) me all of my days” perhaps has a significance. This almost scandalous ‘giveness’ of His mercy, the ease with which God’s mercy is always at hand before we even think to ask of it, makes our forgiveness of others, our pleading for forgiveness, our fasting, and our ascesis, (ultimately our entire life and our death) all fall under the umbrella of gratefulness. It is all done in thankfulness and trust when we keep this little line in mind. And it thus becomes a route to what a theologian would term a ‘Eucharistic Ontology’.

  19. Mary Bongiorno Avatar

    Thank You Father for stateing the truth so clearly, and for faithfulness also your books. I pray that God bless you for all the prayers you have said for me. I am moving this month to Austin and ask once again for your prayers since I cannot get to Liurgy. I ask for you to pray for the will of God and my safe trip to Austin and the home I am looking for, in Christ servant Mary Amen

  20. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen:

    You don’t know what you have or have not done. But it is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that “each person is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Our lives are deeply connected—we are never uninvolved in the lives of others. What I have done and what I have not done both effect the lives of the whole world.

    I find these words consoling and enlightening. One of the many things I have learned from your blog (as well as from some of the Orthodox reading it has led me to) is to not view sin in the forensic way I grew up with, i.e. sin as a list of bad things I’ve done.

    This old view of mine left me confused on a couple of accounts. Why did the great saints (Orthodox and RC) always go on about what great sinners they were? What could they possibly have been doing wrong? It made their repentance almost seem insincere to me – yet I knew I had to be mistaken in this.

    Though I am far behind them in terms of virtue, it also left me puzzled at times as to what I was to repent of, if I couldn’t recall doing anything particularly bad. The first remedy for this puzzlement, of course, was to pray to better know my sinfulness – a prayer which God has been kind enough to answer :-).

    However, a less forensic understanding of sin and a greater understanding of our connectedness to one another has also been a great help with both areas of confusion.

    The saints, as they drew closer to God, also drew closer to other people. (One of you provided a most helpful quote from St. Dorotheus a while back.) As the saints became more Christ-like in this world, they naturally took on the sins of the world, not seeing themselves a separate from or better than people who committed greater wrongs. They were no longer seeing sin as an individual matter. Hence, their repentance was very real and genuine.

    As I have grown in my understanding, I see that my sin is anything that keeps me from being completely united to Christ. Although I must always be vigilant regarding my own specific bad actions, this view helps me simultaneously be less afraid to consider my sinfulness and more genuinely repentant. In other words, I am less dominated by neurotic guilt over every little thing I may have done wrong and am increasingly drawn to change in my heart anything that separates me from God.

    It is helpful to me to know that I don’t know what I am doing, lest I mistake my lack of awareness of my sin for an actual lack of sinfulness. And the individualized view of sin makes it easy to slip into pride, much like the Pharisee who feels that he is good by comparing himself to the Publican.

    The call to communion with others is a call to prayerful repentance of our common sinfulness. I am indeed responsible for the sins of the world.

    I share these thoughts in hopes that they might help others who are as easily confused as I am. Please forgive me.

  21. dino Avatar

    that’s a good point you make concerning awareness of sin. The Saints, furthermore, usually talk of awareness of ‘sinfulness’.
    The key point however, really is that this awareness of sinfulness is connected to one’s purification: The more one advances towards purity the more he becomes aware of his sinfulness, the more one is illumined by Christ’s divine Light, the more his filth and darkness is revealed to him. The more prayer enters the depths of his heart and becomes automatic & unceasing, the more he realizes that without it, he will be taken to the depths of Hades alive and clings to it ever more tightly…
    This paradox is a kind of axiom of the spiritual journey.
    This explains fully why someone who hasn’t committed any obvious sin, not just in deed but not even in a completed thought, can feel far more perverted than one who has been immersed in practicing depravity for years. The first, illumined by God’s Light, and because of the emerging purity of his radiant soul, suddenly recognizes that even all his virtues were nothing than a selfishly driven deviation from what he has been called to be – he sees himself as a demonic personality, (the last of all as St Paul would say) but this is only allowed once his hope in God has been cemented beyond any ‘return’ to his previous self-willed life so that he can live according to God’s will beyond that stage, in the image of Christ.
    The second, might one day realize his depravity and start repenting, but the depths of man’s (Adam’s if you like) falleness are not revealed to him with the same ‘refinement’ just yet.

  22. marybenton Avatar

    Thanks, Dino, this is a helpful reflection. Probably hard for me to comprehend, given that I am not very illumined. But God is working on me :-).

  23. Dino Avatar

    A more traditional image is that of comparing a scratch on two tables. If a table is immaculate, you notice the tiniest scratch like a sore thumb, and you feel exceedingly sorry for it, if the table is filthy and already covered in scratches like a worktop, then you strugggle to notice even a huge new scratch on it, and you are not even bothered by it.

  24. George Avatar

    I know that many times in my life I have thought I was doing the right thing only to find out later, with a different understanding, that I was not doing the right thing.Lord have mercy on what I am doing now!

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