Can You Forgive Someone Else’s Enemies?

washing-jesus-feet2I have written from time to time about the concept expressed in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox thought. I have recently been challenged in several places by people arguing that we cannot forgive those who have not sinned against us – that this right belongs only to the victims involved. I believe this is profoundly untrue. But to understand why, it is necessary to look deeply into the meaning and function of forgiveness.

What happens when we forgive? A very important example is found in St. Mark’s gospel:

Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,’Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say,’Arise, take up your bed and walk’? “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”– He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  (Mar 2:3-11)

What sin did Jesus have in mind when he forgave the paralytic? Had the man done something wrong to bring a punishment of paralysis upon himself? There is no such indication. Indeed when Christ healed the man born blind He was asked who had sinned, the man or his parents such that he was born that way. Christ says, “Neither.” But it would seem clear from the greater context of the gospels that Christ could have said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he would have received his sight. There is a simple conclusion to be drawn from this: forgiveness is not, strictly speaking, the remission of a legal debt or wrong that has been done. It is far greater.

There are parallel passages in the gospels regarding the forgiveness of sins:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (Joh 20:23 NKJ)


Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:19 NKJ)

Forgiving is “loosing.” Refusing to forgive is “binding.” The imagery of loosing and binding helps move the imagination away from a legal construction. When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin. Through his sin, death enters the world, and all men die (Ro. 5:12).

And just as there is a binding that occurs in each of these things, so there is a loosing that is appropriate to each. Obviously, the injury that a victim suffers binds them far tighter to their enemy than someone who is at a remove. And such a loosing is greater and represents a greater spiritual effort. But that effort is itself impeded by the refusal of all around to share in the loosing. And just as the refusal of all around impedes the loosing, so the participation of others makes the loosing easier.

These things are difficult to understand if we insist that all of reality is, at best, psychological or legal. But the death of Adam is not shared in a merely psychological or legal manner: we all die. And the resurrection of the Second Adam is shared in a manner that encompasses the whole of creation. The Paschal Canon contains the verse: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection.” It is a perfectly strange thing to sing unless we understand the true nature of forgiveness – and how it is that the Resurrection of Christ makes it possible for us to forgive everyone for everything.

Of course it jars us to hear that someone dares to forgive the killer of a child. “Only the child could offer such forgiveness!” These words were spoken by Ivan Karamazov as he professed his refusal of God’s mercy. He demanded justice for an injured child. Forgiveness that works by justice is no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is not the child saying, “What you did to me is ok.” It is loosing the bonds that are forged in sin.

We often think that not forgiving someone is only destructive for them. But the lack of forgiveness is often equally devastating for their victim as well. I had opportunity some years ago to be involved with a Victim-Offenders Reconciliation Program. In it, mediators helped work to bring restitution and reconciliation for various crimes. I eventually became involved with efforts of ministry with families that had suffered a murder (as had my family). The darkness of the crime extends mercilessly beyond the victim alone. Forgiveness is the only way forward.

It is striking how utterly central forgiveness was to the ministry of Christ. It dominates almost everything He did. Many observe that He kept company with “sinners.” But He first and foremost forgave them. Their loyalty and devotion to Him flowed from the spiritual loosing that they found in Him. A woman “who was a sinner,” bathes Christ’s feet with her tears and anoints them with fragrant spices. Those around Him are offended. But He says:

Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. (Luk 7:47 NKJ)

I cannot make your enemy be reconciled to you, nor can I do for you what you alone must do. Your enemy is yours to forgive. But he is mine as well, and the bond of unforgiven sin that links my life to his is still mine to loose. It is for this reason that we are bidden in the wisdom of the Fathers to forgive everyone for everything. Anything less is a bondage of destruction. Forgive all by the resurrection.

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.



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88 responses to “Can You Forgive Someone Else’s Enemies?”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    “When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin. Through his sin, death enters the world, and all men die (Ro. 5:12).

    And just as there is a binding that occurs in each of these things, so there is a loosing that is appropriate to each.”

    Thank you for this brief quote and for the whole article, Glory to God for All Things!

  2. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for this, Father.

    I may have questions later but want to “chew” on this first.

  3. Karin Avatar

    As Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” I, too, must and want to forgive all, for I have been forgiven all! Thank you for this post!

  4. Ralph Avatar

    I have long believed that God introduces the Ten Commandments with the idea that He is the One who is interested in our freedom (I am the God who brought you up out of the land of slavery). By implication then, the sins listed in the Commandments are things which enslave us (bind us) in one way or another (The thief runs when no-one pursues). This is the nature of sin, and we are set free by Christ. Halleluyah!

  5. Monica Avatar


    I’m not in the habit, usually, of commenting on your posts, but this one left a burning question.

    While I found what you said logical, surely the ‘how’ of the people around the victim extending forgiveness matters? Just as the people around not forgiving may hold back the victim in their own journey of forgiveness, should care not be taken that the forgiveness of those around do not pressure and rush the victim on a journey only they themselves can take? After all, if someone pushes you forward along a path, the chance that you may stumble is far greater.

    I also imagine that there is a matter of possible violation of trust, if the people close to the victim too publicly and vocally forgive the sin, at a time the victim is vulnerable and in need of support. This is not saying they should not – I am just wondering how to go about this responsibly towards all parties involved. Could you elaborate on that?

  6. 39Buttons Avatar


    Thank you. I always find your writing on forgiveness to be thought-provoking and useful, and that is especially true of this post. I think the language of binding and loosing is very powerful because, not only is it faithful to Scripture and tradition but it’s also understandable on a very general, psychological level – I’m sure many of us can think of schoolyard bullies or sarcastic teachers whom we may have forgotten years ago if we didn’t still bear a grudge towards them….

    I wonder if you would mind elucidating a little on your last paragraph. Although I don’t think this is what you’re suggesting, it could be taken to mean that the key to a holier/better/more peaceful life is to cut the ties that bind you to enemies, something like those ubiquitous bits of awful advice on Facebook and elsewhere that tell you to cut toxic people out of your life. But surely the opposite is true – that our hearts and lives are changed when we are bound closer to other people. The process of forgiveness and reconciliation brings us closer together, not drives us further apart. Much as we might want to cut our ties from people who have hurt us, surely part of forgiveness is realising that we are bound to them because we all fall short of the glory of God, and all stand equally in need of forgiveness and grace.

  7. davidp Avatar

    During my studies of 1st CT BC & 1stCT AD Jewish Second Temple times and Christian influence to the mid 2nd CT AD, there was in Jewish thought that behind all the diseases, blindness, etc…, it was brought on by sin. This may be one of the reasons that the early Christian church thought of Herself as a hospital to cure the soul of these sins.

    This is why even today, we should read the works of the church fathers, the desert monks, the Philokalia, etc… how these passions of ours do affect our health and well being. Blessings.

  8. Albion Land Avatar
    Albion Land

    I am still confused as to how all this squares with what I have always understood — that forgiveness is available only to those who repent.

  9. Dino Avatar

    forgiveness is available to all but can only be interpreted rightly (as what it really is) and “retained” by those who forgive. See the parable of the servant who was forgiven the 10,000 – or the Lord’s Prayer.

    I think key to understanding the right way to do this is to realise that the perpetrator of any crime always has many mitigating factors [that we only consider once we see that we also potentially could commit any crime – given the circumstances and a severe enough withdrawal of grace]. Any perpetrator is also a victim (to a demon) -forgiving him in this knowledge and not seeing him as ‘another’, a ‘separate’ individual, but as part of “me” and “my vincible nature” would not violate the trust of his victims, it would in fact help the victims to heal too.

  10. Arnold Avatar

    This principle of forgiveness for all things is also implied in Step Five of AA’s Twelve Steps: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Divulging all my dirty little, and big, secrets to another person like me allows me to experience the love and acceptance, despite my greatest shame, that I thought would be denied me if I did not carry these things to the grave. It no longer matters that not all the people I have wronged are even alive to have the opportunity to forgive me. Those people who know me best have forgiven me, and I them. It is one of the ways we love one another.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This question shines light on the many powerful emotions that surround a victim and an injury. A victim feeling quite vulnerable may want (need) the reassurance of others around them. That reassurance could easily take the form of demanding everyone around them hate and punish the offender. None of what I am saying is meant to suggest that a criminal not be held accountable and punished, by the way.

    But the emotional demands of a victim are themselves (tragically) the product of the sin. Christ verbally forgiving all of us from the Cross is a profound example of Divine Forgiveness – and rightly shows how perverted the later diatribes of “Christ killers” were when found on the lips of Christians.

    The ministry I engaged in with families of victims was one of the most delicate and difficult adventures in emotional mine-sweeping that I’ve encountered in 35 years of ministry. It is extremely important, I think, not to tell victims that they must or should forgive their enemy – when they are not yet emotionally ready. It can do great damage. That said, there comes a time when we must carefully help them through that terrible ordeal.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The loosing of forgiveness is not necessarily the same thing as creating an appropriate boundary between yourself and toxic people. The bond that is cut is indeed toxic – but is the sort of thing that is simply destructive. The bond can even be a refusal to forgive someone who is, in fact, dead (where the “boundary” is quite fixed).

    We are “bound” to others properly only by bonds of love (“owe no man anything except to love him”).

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If by “forgiveness being available” is meant that God will not forgive you unless you repent – it is mistaken. God has already forgiven us for everything. Repentance is the turning of my life to God so that I can receive forgiveness and all good things. Repentance does not earn forgiveness, nor should we require something of others in order to forgive them.

    We give, “without expecting in return.”

  14. K.C. Avatar

    Last comment = awesome!!!!

  15. Greg Scandlen Avatar
    Greg Scandlen

    All sins are sins against God, so God/Jesus may forgive all sins. But you do not have the right to forgive me for what I have done to Sally. God, of course, can and has and praise the Lord for that, but you are not God. My sin against Sally is something only she (and God) can forgive.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Albion, the act of forgiving others frees you, whether or not they repent or accept the forgiveness is immaterial.

    I have a prayer that I say (far too infrequently) that always produces better sleep. Just before going to bed I ask God to forgive all of the people I judged during the day and to forgive me for judging them. We bind ourselves not only to our sins, but to the sins of others when we fail to forgive.

    Forgiveness is a big part of being able to rejoice in the life that God gives us.

    The principal that “whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven, whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven” is not some esoteric, spiritual saying. It is what happens.

    That is why Father writes:

    I have written from time to time about the concept expressed in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, “Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox thought.

    Forgiveness is at the heart of all of our spiritual disciplines.

  17. Greg Scandlen Avatar
    Greg Scandlen

    Arnold, AA also insists that you make amends to those you have wronged. Telling your tale in a meeting is not enough, though it can help you better understand the impact of your wrong doing. It is the next step that is the hardest, and it cannot be skipped over.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For reasons stated clearly in the article, I think you are wrong. It’s not nearly so tidy. I cannot forgive “on Sally’s behalf” (absolving you from a need to deal with Sally), but forgive you I can. Sins are not only against God – but against all of us – and all of us are commanded to forgive even as God forgives. That is the clear teaching of the gospel.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    According to St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. It is the very core of his life and teaching. You cannot claim devotion of St. Silouan and ignore it. Knowing God is, in fact, the very content of salvation (“this is eternal life…that they might know Thee”). It is a terrible measuring stick – one that tells me that I hardly know God at all. It also tells me that this matter lies at the very core of the gospel. I notice that when I write about it, it sticks in the craw of many and is a rock of stumbling.

    But it is the very content of the gospel. It reveals our heart like no other teaching and generally shows that our righteousness is but filthy rags. My enemies very existence torments me. I have imaginary conversations with them when I should be praying. Their presence in paradise would turn it into Hell for me.

    No other thing in my life haunts me in such a manner. And I think I am not alone in this. I hear it all the time and everywhere. It is the stuff that our hell is made from.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Greg, all sins are also sins against everyone. Our sins do not just have an impact on the one person, they affect everyone. So, Sally may be the person most injured, but she is not the only one. Even though I don’t know either you or Sally, I am damaged by any sins between you two. I share in it. Not personally, but in a real way.

    Forgiveness is not transactional nor linear because neither is sin. The transactional notion is one of the many failings of what Fr. Stephen calls the forensic model of salvation.

    If it helps, think of sin as air pollution. Regardless of the source, it spreads literally all over the world. If the pollution source is large enough that spread is measurable.

    We all engage in acts and thoughts of corruption, each adding to the pollution. The more we forgive, the less pollution we all have to deal with.

    In the Divine Liturgy we Orthodox celebrate, the priest offers up the gifts “for all”.

    If we seek union with Christ, then it is incumbent on us to forgive all. We may not have the ‘right’ but we do have the responsibility.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father even though “I have imaginary conversations with them when I should be praying. Their presence in paradise would turn it into Hell for me. ”

    How like Sartre. BUT…..

    Is there not inherent in such conversations the opportunity to pray? Seems to me there is. Even if only a half-hearted attempt to say “Father forgive them.”?

  22. David Avatar

    Father, the concepts of forgiveness have been very difficult for me since my teen years (personal reasons). Your mine field analogy is very apropos.
    In Mat 18:18, Jesus reiterates the Mat 16:19 about binding. However, Jesus follows up with the parable of the unmerciful servant, in that parable the king initiates the harsh terms of settlement against the servant, but, only after the servant begs for mercy, does the king forgive the debt. I have difficulty correctly understanding the parable, if forgiveness of the debt precedes the servant’s admission and petition for mercy.

  23. Dino Avatar

    I believe that the ‘begging’ on the part of the servant, serves the pedagogic purpose of demonstrating clearly how great our sinfullness is – a sinfullness that results in seeing our God as an object rather than a person, and seeing everything else exploitatively by our self-obsessed ego. It also demonstrates that the unmerciful servant showed a remorse like that of Judas’ rather than a true repentance. True repentance could have just as well exclaimed, ‘I know you are a merciful King which is what makes me feel even more contrite’… True repentance is aware of God’s forgiveness being already given before the asking, even during the act of sinning, it is what makes our compunction infinitely greater. In Greek we have a great word for this: “philotimo”. It essentially means – in this context- that what makes me shed copious tears in not so much my sin, not even so much that I have ‘saddened’ God -although there is a definite element of that too-, but that I have saddened such an unconditionally merciful God…

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Few parables cover every aspect of a question. In the parable in question, the point is not that the Master is like God. It is that the servant is like us. We are in favor of mercy when it’s mercy towards me, but not in favor when it is mercy towards the other. The master in the parable is not germane to the question of forgiveness.

    What about the Master who pays those at the end of the day as much as the one’s who labored all day? There the point is about the Master – who is generous and kind to those who do not deserve it. Just as it says in Luke 6:27-35

    “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, “bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.”And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. “But 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 back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. “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. (Luk 6:27-35)

  25. David Avatar

    Thank you Dino and Father for replying to me.
    I acknowledge that I understand very little of the meaning within the parables. Father the passage you cite is very much on point with my heart and it continues to be a stumbling block to me.
    But, a question I’ve asked before is; is loving and offering sacrificial mercy, to ones enemies, synonymous with forgiveness?
    Lk 23:33 Jesus, while on the cross, asks to the Father to forgive His persecutors, instead of saying to them directly, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The example is that Jesus has mercy for the persecutors, but, forgiveness was not yet accepted by them, because, as of yet “…they know not what they do.”
    Also, Jesus tells disciples to rebuke their brother if he sins, and “if the brother repents, to forgive” Lk 17:3-4. He appears to emphasize the condition of repentance in verse four “… and seven times turns again to you and says ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.”

  26. Arnold Avatar

    Greg, I agree that all the steps are crucial but, because of the way they are articulated and have worked in the experience of so many, I would insist that the acceptance of divine and human grace is prerequisite to the making of genuine amends. Also, I cannot make amends either to the dead or to those who will not receive them. I can only be willing and ready – my experience of grace is contingent only on my willingness to state the need and receive it without deserving it.

  27. Robert Avatar

    How and to what extent, do you think, is your essay related to “do not judge”? Is judgment synonymous with an unwillingness to forgive (in the sense related above)?

  28. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    I believe you state it well in Chapter 10 of your excellent “Everywhere Present” book, which I am now re-reading”

    “Of course, [forgiving our enemies] is not easy. However, in its difficulty we see the depths of the problem that confronts our life with God. We have a difficult time loving those who love us, let alone those who hate us.”

    Much to ponder in those three sentences!

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I hadn’t thought about it (but I will). I mostly notice that those who judge are simply giving voice to something in their head that is already judging them. Thus, generally, when someone says to me that they have a hard time not judging others, I think, “They must be miserable,” because the same judging voice lives in their head and watches them (and comments) all the time. Frankly, I think it is a neural pathway established by the voice of parents (most often) and just runs like an independent narrative. It’s not really “chosen.” It’s just noise. A miserable, miserable noise.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we can indeed make amends to the dead. They’re a little late – but prayers for the dead are most beneficial. We can also give alms to the needy in their name, also of great benefit. There are other similar things.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I believe it was St. Isaac who described God’s “crazy love” for us. I hear the same thing in the parables. And I think love of enemies is crazy – stark raving mad! But I think it comes when we crazily abandon ourselves to love. It’s very, very hard. Probably the most difficult of all things. It will not and cannot be managed as part of a normal, moderate life-style. This is the true violence that takes the Kingdom of God by force. It is a hallmark of the saints and holy fools.

    If we calculate the whole thing very much at all, we’ll never do it. And it is ultimately only possible, only even thinkable because Christ is risen from the dead. But if Christ is risen from the dead, then all things are possible, even the forgiveness of my enemies. Beloved Christ! Please be risen and even my enemies will bless you!

  32. Dino Avatar

    Your last comment vividly reminded me of yet another reason for, [also stressed by Elder Aimilianos as a kind of “justification” for his tireless reiterating of his ‘favourite’ paraenesis towards] assiduously safeguarding our Joy.
    Joy is the sine qua non for us to forgive all, the “spurrer” of effortless love, even towards enemies. It is so simple and so practical. Preserve the Joy with sustained spiritual vigilance and the rest follows healthily.

  33. ella Avatar

    repetance = change of mind and heart

  34. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E


    I’ve been working for many years to forgive some heinous crimes perpetrated against me as a very young child. It isn’t easy. These crimes have colored my entire life; they’ve influenced who I am, who I could be, what I could do with my life, my relationships with people (or the lack of them), and my relationship with God (ditto).

    For many years I believed God was a Divine Tortureer

  35. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E

    I will finish…

    I don’t think that about God any more but it took many years to get to that point.

    I’ve been praying for the perpetrators for a while now, even though they are dead. Apparently, I’m not as far along with forgiveness as I thought I was. I’ve begun writing something about it and find myself upset all over again.

    I feel now that if the perpetrators can be healed and come to the Kingdom it’s okay, but if on the slim chance I am there too, I don’t really want them anywhere near me. I know that’s probably impossible it being the kingdom and all. I’m hoping I’ll grow and forgive more completely….

  36. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E

    PS: I meant to post this semi-anonymously (you have my email address) but hit the wrong button at the wrong time. Oh well. It’s not a big secret, I just don’t usually blab about it here, there and everywhere.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’ve obviously come a long way on a difficult journey. Healing of such things is long and arduous. God is doubtless with you or you couldn’t be where you are already. May He give you grace as you continue.

  38. Dino Avatar

    I think Christ effectively defines an explicit correlation between
    judgment / non-judgement (in its broadest sense) and forgiveness / non-forgiveness when he ends that whole paragraph in Luke 6 with,
    “For with the same measure that ye mete, therewith it shall be measured to you again.”

  39. Anna Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Could you further comment on the neural pathway in our minds of judgement? I identify strongly with that, but wonder about how to live at peace with it/heal it. Thank you!

  40. Maedhros Avatar

    I’d think that repentance was utterly central in the ministry of Christ. both as presupposing Faith and a presupposition to be forgiven. The sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven!

  41. Patty Joanna Avatar
    Patty Joanna

    Frederica Mathewes-Green made a point in a lecture a few years ago, about how our giving in to sin emboldens satan in his work among us all. If by offering forgiveness, we can discourage his action among us, then that is a good reason right there to forgive.

    My memory is not good enough to cite the specific example she gave and to do it justice; I have the essence of it in my head, but I don’t trust myself to get the wording right and to be fair to her.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Think about how we learn and remember how to ride a bicycle. Essentially, the brain lays down a “neural pathway,” a chemical/electrical path that marks what our body needs to know in order to stay upright. If you don’t ride a bike for 30 years, you’ll still remember it, not because you have any specific thoughts, but because the memory is literally a physical pathway in the brain, even if not often traveled.

    Many things are learned in this manner. And thus we will say that “he has a kneejerk reaction.” It’s a “remembered” thing, but the “memory” is actually quite physical.

    Unlearning such things is therefore difficult. Some of them (such as the pathways for addiction) remain for a lifetime, but we learn how not to travel down them again. Be we do not “unlearn” or erase such pathways. We learn to do other things – to go down other pathways.

    Many activities in our lives, wrestling with certain things, are engaged like an alcoholic trying to learn not to drink by struggling to drink less. It won’t work, no matter how hard he tries. He needs a different pathway. We need to learn new words, new phrases.

    Fr. Alexis Trader writes some about this in his book on Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy and Hesychasm. He’s an Athonite monk, and a psychologist. Interesting combination.

  43. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, although I posted an early comment on this post, I want to say thank you again as I read these comments. So many people are blessed to know that God is Love and there is Hope. Thank you also for the referral of Fr. Alexis Trader. His writings have been such a blessing. God bless and keep you and yours always.

  44. Monica Avatar

    your name suggests you know the Silmarillion well enough. Feanor was forgiven by his brother for raising his sword against him, long before he actually repented of the deed; while he was, in fact, still very indignantly convinced of his own right. The forgiveness was in that tale obviously already there, ten years before any sort of repentence (and never quite clear whether or not he ever really did repent of it).

    I’ve never quite understood what exactly this ‘sin against the Holy Spirit is’. It confuses me. I’ve heard all sorts of explanations, especially in the ‘hardened heart’ and ‘inability to love God’ category, but feelings are often incomprehensible to me. Perhaps, Fr Stephen, if you have a moment, you could say a word or two about it?

  45. Maedhros Avatar

    Monica, so what?
    I hope you will not suggest a Gospel according to Tolkien now….

    Anyway, I know the Silmarillion well enough to know that Feanor was not saved, as much as his son, remembered in my nickname, was not saved. Yet, Maedhros was a noble character under many aspects, surely he understood the madness and the unrighteousness of the path where he was forced by his father’s oath; nevertheless, he did follow that path until the end, his destruction. The Valar did offer him salvation (forgiveness) at the end, he choose his pride, unable to repent, like an addicted who will not renounce that last shot that he knows very well will kill him.

    That is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. It’s the refusal and the rejection of the Truth, when He is in front of you and you recognize Him (and what He requires of you). The Pharisees saw the power of God operating through Christ, but they pretended to be saved on their own terms (which exclude repentance, of course). But no salvation is possible without repentance, without that metanoia (a change of life, to follow Him as much as you can, what you lack He will provide at the end, but your efforts must be strenuous, sincere, even if they not require “progress”). His burden is easy and His yoke is light, indeed, but a yoke and a burden they are!

    Repentance is the central theme of Christ ministry. “Repent” was the beginning of His public preaching, as was the beginning of the preaching of His Holy Precursor and Baptist John. More than forgiveness, as it is a presupposition for forgiveness and a consequence of Faith. There’s not one case of healing/forgiveness/salvation in the Gospels without that presupposition and consequence.

    You cannot return to God without repentance, on your own terms you will be stuck where you are, bound by the whispers of the serpent….

  46. Monica Avatar

    What you describe is the acceptance of forgiveness and the resulting life-changes. That doesn’t mean the forgiveness is not already there, on offer, for the taking. Indeed, if it weren’t, there would be nothing to accept in the first place.

    Surely the world isn’t divided into Gospel and worthless books? Haven’t stories and story-telling always been used to make a point? Tolkien need not be Gospel to make valid points. (or that would be taking sola scripture way too far).

  47. Maedhros Avatar

    Monica, what I have said I have said. I have NOT said that forgiveness is not there to be accepted and I have NOT said that Tolkien wrote worthless books (even if the world is divided in Gospels and books for sure).

  48. Christopher Avatar

    I also wonder (with Monica) if not more could be said on the relationship between repentance and forgiveness. For when Maedhros says:

    ” There’s not one case of healing/forgiveness/salvation in the Gospels without that presupposition and consequence.”

    I immediately think of today’s veneration of the precious and life giving Cross. In what way did the people “repent” when our Lord asks the Father to forgive them for what they do not know? Clearly, Maedhros is overstating something here.

    On the other hand, how often have we heard the demand for forgiveness from someone while they do not appear to be repenting? They seem to hide behind forgiveness, almost as a shield – not to overtly justify their sins but it has the same effect. This is particularly painful (for me anyways) when those in Church leadership do this. Seems like their needs to be some link/relationship between the two or otherwise is hollows each out – “cheap grace” comes to mind…

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will perhaps write more on this. But, in a nutshell, the conversation keeps drifting back to a forensic (legal) understanding of sin and repentance. It all clears up as soon as we learn to quit doing that.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In my experience all grace is forgiveness. Have any repented sufficiently to be worthy? Is it even possible?

    Shakespeare had it right: “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

    The whole incarnation pre-supposes God’s ineffable mercy.

    Repentance allows us to step into that mercy for sure but there are some sinful situations which are simply not subject to obvious repentance yet God and the Church give a blessing anyway.

    Such blessing and mercy are a great grace.

    “What God has cleansed call thou not unclean”

  51. Paula Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your article. There are a lot of uncomfortable thoughts swirling. I’m wondering if you have some insights into how to extend forgiveness to an abuser who continues the abusive behaviors despite being aware that they are abusive, and who explains it away by pointing to causation factors in their own lives over which the abusee (to coin a word) has no power. Clearly, the abuser derives some sort of enjoyment in the activity, enough that they don’t stop, yet manages to accumulate sympathy and forgiveness from those around while continuing their horrible mistreatment of the designated victim. How does the victim extend forgiveness? How does this work if the abuser is a parent, when the Lord commands us to honor our parents?

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, it would be important to establish some kind of boundaries – boundaries that prevent the abuse – or to interrupt the abuse by saying it is wrong. (I’m assuming the victim is an adult). Not knowing any of the circumstances…

    But it’s very hard to forgive when abuse is going on. All of our instincts are for safety and will largely override any other thought.

    But for prayer, it is good to offer a “safe” prayer that contains some emotional distance:

    “O Lord, at the day of judgment, do not hold this against them on my account.”

    This simple prayer offers our willingness to participate in God’s forgiveness. And it places us within His all-healing mercy.

  53. Karen Avatar

    Regarding what has been said about attempting to erase old neural pathways (impossible) vs. building new (healthy) ones, I just read this in Elder Porphyrios’ book, Wounded by Love:

    Our religion is perfectly and profoundly conceived. What is simple is also what is most precious. Accordingly, in your spiritual life engage in your daily contest simply, easily and without force. The soul is sanctified and purified through the study of the words of the Fathers, through the memorization of the psalms and portions of Scripture, through the singing of hymns and through the repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

    Devote your efforts, therefore, to these spiritual things and ignore all the other things. We can attain to the worship of God easily and bloodlessly. There are two paths that lead to God: the hard and debilitating path with fierce assaults against evil and the easy path with love. There are many who chose the hard path and “shed blood in order to receive Spirit” [Abba Longinos] until they attained great virtue. I find the shorter and safer route is the path with love. This is the path you, too, should follow.

    That is, you can make a different kind of effort: to study and pray and have as your aim to advance in the love of God and of the Church. Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear. The same holds for our passions and our weaknesses. Do not fight them, but transform them into strengths by showing disdain for evil [i.e., by ignoring it]. Occupy your self with hymns of praise, with the poetic canons, with the worship of God and divine eros. All the holy books of our Church . . .

    By reading these books you will gradually acquire meekness, humility and love, and your soul will be made good. Do not choose negative methods to correct yourselves. There is no need to fear the devil, hell or anything else. These things provoke a negative reaction. I, myself, have some little experience in these matters. The object is not to sit and afflict and constrict yourself in order to improve. The object is to live, to study, to pray and to advance in love–in love for Christ and for the Church. . . .

    . . . Your most intense effort should be how you will encounter Christ, how you will be united to Him and how you will keep Him in your heart. . . .

    . . . In this way your release from evil and from your weaknesses will happen in a mystical manner, without your being aware of it and without exertion.

  54. Christopher Avatar

    Is not Saint (Elder) Porphyrios such a blessing! Not too many icons of him available in America yet, I settled on the one with him and Saint (Elder) Paisios where Paisios is saying “Turn the dial to humility for God always works in this frequency. Then humbly ask for His mercy.” Uncut or Legacy, can’t remember…

    When Saint Porphyrios says (from Wounded):

    “When you lose the divine grace, don’t do anything. Continue your life and your struggle simply and normally until, without anxiety, you will be filled again with love and longing for Christ. And then everything will be fine.”

    This really helps me as I tend to over analyze and react, adjust – figure out how to “improve”, etc. Yet, I should know better. As someone who is heavily involved in physical education, I have often reflected on Vince Lombardi’s famous dictum:

    “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”.

    This is not my experience at all. It’s like saying that if one wants to learn to ride a bicycle, one has to perfectly ride it from the beginning. It is to begin at the end, not at the beginning.

    To lay down a new “neural pathway” in a physical discipline, one has to try and repeat, very imperfectly, hundreds if not thousands of times, before that discipline is “perfected”. When it is, it is as natural as your next breath and there is almost nothing your opponent can do about it except counter with an equally skilled and natural move.

    The frustration can creep in when your trying that “neural pathway” for the 372 time and it fails again your tendency is to say “Ok, I given this the honest college try – it simply does not work”. Then, you have a chance to train with a real master, and you ask them to try this move on you. They even close their eyes, execute the move in an almost half-hearted, slow motion sort of way and no matter what you do they have you.

    I may be a white belt in Christian acesis, but that’s ok as God has sent us true masters to show us the Way…

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This weekend I served with a new deacon at a parish…and remembered my exceedingly clumsy diaconate. Then on Sunday we had a man join us for his first service in the altar. Serving simply takes practice – about a year’s worth of liturgies. It is my easiest and favorite place to pray – doubtless because of the “pathways” that years’ of practice have set in place. Once I calm down and recognize that nothing else is going to happen while I serve this liturgy, distractions tend to wane and prayer begins. If life becomes a liturgy…

  56. Christopher Avatar

    Father, a tangent question you might be able to answer:

    Are the translations in Donald Sheehan’s “The Psalms of David: Translated from the Septuagint Greek” the same as the ones in “The Orthodox Study Bible”? I understand he worked on the Psalm’s in the Orthodox Study Bible but I don’t know if they were simply copied from his book. Don’t want to purchase the book if they are exactly the same as the ones I already have.

  57. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephan,

    You mentioned that you had a murder in your family. God forbid, there are so many murderers in our world today, our very government being the main one. My gifted and talented son was savagely stabbed to death in a drinking party of teenage and young men. My son was 17. He and I resonated, even tho I had relinquiched custody when he was 11 years old, because his father insisted, and I knew his father loved him. Whereas I felt I would never be able to provide for him. And is true, I have lived a life of poverty. A killer was arrested and imprisoned. I called the parents of the killer to a special room at Damon’s funeral. I forgave them and told them that we bared the burden of Damon’s death. So, that is not the problem, but my brothers and sisters, who blame me for Damon’s death, have written me off, do not return phone call, do not invite me to weddings or graduations, block any attempt of mine to reach out to them. They didn’t even inform me of the death of my sister, Ardyce.

    It is so coincidental that you mention Brothers Karamoskov, which I watch twice (Russian version) and am reading the book. Have read Crime and Punishment, and have watched Tolstoy’s War and Peace 6 times! am reading the book. After 25 years, I finally found someone to talk to, i.e., Tolstoy and Dietoevsky. I have discovered that Russians have a much better grasp of forgiveness than we do. I am trying to understand it. My heart immediately related to them, but I cannot get my head around it. I am discovering that we have been told a miriad of lies about our enemies to cover up a multitude of heinous sins rutinely committed by our government in our name. As a matter of fact, Dietoevsky suggests that Demitri escaping prison and running to America is worse than being sent to Siberia! Twice over, I have lost all my possessions, and not only do I get no help from my family, but I have been written out of the will. I live alone and am happy most, if not all, of the time. My ex-husband bought a house for me with acreage, and I plant 3 large gardens. He made it possible for me to own the house completely, no mortgage. So, the problem is with the family. Forgiveness is a thorny issue for me. I am sure I have a question here, Father, but I just don’t know how to bring it out. Could you help with this?

  58. Maedhros Avatar

    Well, I hope nobody thinks that is possible to access that sweet medicine of saint Porphyrios, to follow that path, without repentance.

    Frankly, it’s hard for me to understand what I am overstating here. You can very well forgive an unrepentant, but this will save you, not him. And it’s not required from a Christian to forgive him: you MUST forgive IF he repents. You CAN forgive him anyway, probably the highest Christian virtue, but that will not save him.
    God will give the same salary to all workers of the vineyard, regardless of the hours spent there. Probably also to those who did not labor there at all, in the end, through the fire. I pray always for this: too many cheated by the deception which rules this world, mankind is trained by the devil since birth today, too many who “don’t know what they do”.
    But if you think that the salary will be given even to those who spent their life purposefully destroying the vineyard and abusing their neighbor, I think you are deeply mistaken.

    There’s nothing forensic/legal here. Christ was not a lawyer, and repentance is His requirement, not mine, because it’s the only foundation for salvation, the central theme of is ministry; repentance, more than forgiveness!

    Because without repentance you cannot forgive, nor you can be saved.

  59. Christopher Avatar

    “Well, I hope nobody thinks that is possible to access that sweet medicine of saint Porphyrios, to follow that path, without repentance….Because without repentance you cannot forgive, nor you can be saved.”

    Can’t disagree with you there Maedhros. I took (probably mistakenly) you to be saying that to forgive, the person you are forgiving has to be repenting. I take Fr. Stephen to be saying (and our Lord) that this is not the case, and that this in fact does have a beneficial “effect” on even the non-repentant person, in ways that we simply do not understand. Both St. Porphyrios and Elder Thaddeous affirm the power of our inner activity or “thoughts” (and thus our forgiving) on others, event to the point of it being a part of their salvation.

    Like I said before, there is a way (well, more than one way) to abuse this however – to speak of (or from those in authority demand) you focus on your repentance and forgiveness while they are in fact shielding themselves, or in even somewhat benevolently they are honestly working out their own repentance.

  60. Karen Avatar


    I will translate the meaning of your first sentence in your comment on St. Porphyrios’ “sweet medicine” using the full context of St. Porphyrios’ teaching here:

    “Well, I hope nobody thinks that is possible to repent without repenting.”

    Let me explain by asking what exactly about exerting one’s efforts in love toward Christ, etc. (rather than trying to attack and defeat one’s own sins) is not repentance? What St. Porphyrios is describing here is exactly repentance, that is, a Gk. term transliterated as “metanoia”, meaning not sorrow for sins (that is another Gk. term), but rather a complete redirection/change of mind, character and purpose. Judas experienced sorrow and contrition for his sin (the other Gk term, transliterated “metamellomai”) and in this sense “repented himself” (Matthew 27:3) of betraying Jesus . . . and despaired and hung himself! He did not experience “metanoia”, so what good did his “repentance” do him? That is St. Porphyrios’ point. What he is describing in the passage I excerpted is the positive aspect of what we in English think of as “repentance” (the English term tends to incorporate the meaning of both Gk. terms, though the Gk. text makes a distinction between these), meaning an “about face” in our orientation from self to Christ. I believe he speaks of this as “safer” because relying on contrition for (one’s past) sin to effect one’s repentance (i.e., one’s reorientation from self to Christ) is not a given. It can just as easily lead to despair, while looking first and foremost to Christ and cultivating love for Him has no down side and will “easily” and naturally lead to sins’ losing its hold on us.

    I agree we can’t benefit from Christ’s forgiveness apart from the kind of repentance St. Porphyrios describes, though I would second Christopher: the Orthodox understanding is the forgiveness of others can help set us free for repentance, while others harboring unforgiveness toward us makes it more difficult for us to repent.

  61. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    Christ the lawyer:

    “My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not commit sin. But if any one does commit a sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.” 1 John 2

  62. Michelle Avatar

    “What St. Porphyrios is describing here is exactly repentance, that is, a Gk. term transliterated as “metanoia”, meaning not sorrow for sins (that is another Gk. term), but rather a complete redirection/change of mind, character and purpose.”

    How does the heart feel sorrow for a sin while at the same time not realizing that it has missed the mark because it was aiming in the wrong direction?? If the heart feels sorrow for a sin it must be because it realized it was originally aiming at an unworthy target. The heart could only know its original target was unworthy if it also knows it’s relative failure to measure up to a more worthy target. In other words the heart becomes aware of the direction it should be aiming in because of its worthiness, and because of this awareness it feels a sorrowful regret for facing in the wrong direction. Isn’t this the same thing as wishing it were facing the right direction, even if only a weak tinge of a wish? This sentiment of the heart is not utterly ignoble to me. Yes, it may not indicate an actual change in direction, but it is miles closer than a heart that is utterly satisfied with facing the original direction, happily aiming at an unworthy target, because it in fact prefers its own target as being worthy, while scorning the truly worthy target. And I find it hard to believe that one could even be the slightest bit capable of changing directions to face the truly worthy target without first regretting its present aim at a false, unworthy target.

    My heart breaks for those who taste that tinge of regret, but are too weak with worldly lust to ever actually change their direction. I hope that the tinge of sorrowful regret in their hearts is worth something to God.

  63. Helen Avatar


    I wish I could say something that would comfort you and help you grieve over the loss of your family. I think that you did succeed in forming your question. You want to know, “can I forgive my estranged family members when they have not repented?” I think that the answer is most certainly, “yes. ”

    With God’s grace you were able to forgive the family of your son’s murderer. Forgiving your family, unrepentant as they are, can lift some of your sorrow. We are to follow Christ’s example and forgive, even while being hurt. This is not the reason we should forgive, but the outcome of following His example/commandment is our own healing.

    Yes, we can and should forgive without waiting for repentance. It is easily said, but not easy to do. I wish I had help for you as to “how.” Everything I think to say sounds like an attempt to minimize your pain. I know that while the injuries are ongoing, it is very hard to look outward and forgive those who hurt you Pray for grace.

  64. Michelle Avatar

    As a side note, I think my previous comment is valid in light the ontological view of salvation, though I realize everything I said could be mistakenly taken in a legal/forensic way.

  65. Karen Avatar

    Michelle, from experience I think it is possible to experience sorrow for sins, while at the same time failing to discern the need underlying the sin (which is for dependence on Christ, not self-effort). The Fathers warn of two dangers on the journey of repentance and ascesis–one is “succeeding” in denying one’s appetites and concluding one is experiencing grace (when one’s success is actually being fueled by vainglorious pride and is not accompanied by true love for Christ and others), the other is failing to control one’s appetites and concluding one is beyond the reach of Christ’s help, that is, to despair. I think Judas experienced the latter because his “repentance” lacked the element of faith and hope in Christ (which is part and parcel of a true repentance).

  66. Karen Avatar

    Michelle, the Apostle Paul contrasts “worldly sorrow” and “godly sorrow” in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10. I think what you say is true of godly sorrow. This is the passage I had in mind in my comment about Judas.

  67. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    Baring some extraordinary circumstance, any man can take in oxygen by breathing because it is abundant in the atmosphere God provides. It is necessary for life.

    Christ’s death-destroying death fills our atmosphere to overflowing with His forgiveness. It is natural to breathe forgiveness in too, but our souls turn blue if we won’t exhale enough – “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. Our need for forgiveness is no less than for air. It flows freely in person living well.

    You said repentance is vital. Yes !

    Repentance requires breathing air and forgiveness in and out so we can get back on the path of life and stay on it, carrying our own cross to the end. Our path may be tough and messy. We may need help. Christ let Simon the Cyrene help carry His cross when He, without sin, carried ours.

    If we repent, getting back and back again onto the path of life, if we let thankfulness come and go out of us as easily as breathing air and forgiveness, we become a Eucharistic gift that blesses the author of life and gives life to others.

    “I ran on the path of Your commandments, When you enlarged my heart.” Psalm 118(119):32

    Lord, teach me to breathe and enlarge my heart.

    Pray for me a sinner.

  68. Christopher Avatar


    This is true is it not, the fact that the legal/forensic imagery is there in the NT. My priest said something interesting this weekend – while admitting this imagery and it’s subsequent development (especially in the “bad” western form) it never really was something the east took as anything more than “pedagogical” (if I understood him correctly). Still, it can not be denied.


    I think Karen is right – one can experience the sorrow, the emptiness of sin, and never realize that the target is wrong. In fact, it is more common I think to question ones techniques, or tools, or the direction of the wind – anything else but the target.

  69. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    No, I think nothing like what we consider to be legal/forensic imagery is in the NT. It is a construct of a neurotic moralizing scholasticism with doses of Protestant rationalism on top. Father has been eloquent on this. Salvation is not so simple, it flows in our blood or doesn’t flow in our blood and that’s why we need to become new creatures fed on Christ himself. It isn’t a one-time transaction we personalize by simply assenting.

    What is there in the NT is Paul making arguments against Pharisees and those who echoed them, people hell-bent on maintaining a Christ-less salvation, probably because the Church’s growth confounded and frightened them.

    If I could fully understand what was in Paul’s theological training and in the mind of his enemies in faith, I could probably explain every argument he makes. Alas, I’m no scholar. Just a sinner who needs the true gospel.

  70. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    And yes, I’ll concede perhaps some pedagogy too. Again, I’m not a scholar. Just someone who’s return to the way was made much more difficult by the false forensic/legal gospel.

  71. Christopher Avatar

    I would have to respectfully disagree with you (and Fr. Stephen) if one wants to claim that legal/forensic imagery is completely absent in the NT. Of course, as you and Fr. Stephen say, it’s place in the “hierarchy of understanding”, it’s interpretation, and of course it’s history and subsequent understanding through the whole St. Augustine-Anselm-Aquinas (then protestantism) vs Orthodox understanding is another matter. I thought it is generally understood (never counted them myself) that there are close to a dozen different such “images” used. They all are “inadequate” because they all are attempts to point to Reality beyond their limits. If you reduce Christ/Salvation down to any one of them then you end up sinking. I could be wrong on all this however…

  72. Alan Avatar

    Well, I hope nobody thinks it’s possible to access God without forgiving others.

    “….and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….”

  73. Michelle Avatar

    Karen, and Christopher,

    In the Orthodox Study Bible the notes for 2 Cor 7:9-11 state, “the sorrow of the world is feeling sorry that we were caught. It centers on ourselves, on our embarrassment over the predicament we find ourselves in.”

    So I agree, one’s sins can inadvertently bring forth a sorrow that proves to be utterly useless and unfruitful towards redemption. But this worldly sorrow doesn’t actually have anything to do with being sorry about the sin itself, but rather is a sorrow caused by a prideful heart that resents being exposed as a failure.

    But this kind of worldly sorrow is not, it seems to me at least, being addressed in Karen’s comments when she said,

    “What St. Porphyrios is describing here is exactly repentance, that is, a Gk. term transliterated as “metanoia”, meaning not sorrow for sins (that is another Gk. term), but rather a complete redirection/change of mind, character and purpose. Judas experienced sorrow and contrition for his sin (the other Gk term, transliterated “metamellomai”) and in this sense “repented himself” (Matthew 27:3) of betraying Jesus . . . and despaired and hung himself! He did not experience “metanoia”, so what good did his “repentance” do him?”

    Rather, here she seems to be saying that Judas was not sorry about being exposed as a failure, to the embarrassment of his prideful heart, or merely sorry about the prickly predicament he inadvertently created for himself, but, instead, that he actually experiences a heartfelt sorrow (“contrition,” as she put it) over his horrifying sin of murder, and that this contrition apparently did him no good what-so-ever. He is sorry over his ever aiming at his original, unworthy target -to murder for the sake of greed. To me, it is not entirely ignoble to realize the horror of committing a murder for the sake of self-gain. Maybe its not a perfect, complete understanding of why murdering indeed is an unworthy target, or why greed itself is an unworthy target, but it is worlds closer to realizing the true target that needs to be aimed at than what the “worldly sorrow” described above is. I would think that a heartfelt sorrow caused by receiving a small taste ( though, admittedly, an incomplete and/or inaccurate understanding of the truth) is in fact a grace that does a great deal of good for the heart.

    I can’t help but to think of the man who committed suicide in jail, Ariel Castro, who had kidnapped those three women. In one news cast I recall hearing that its possible that he purposely became careless about preventing their escape after growing to love a daughter he fathered by one of them. If by any chance this is true, and a small seed of love was planted in him, causing him to in even the smallest, most incomplete way, to feel a heartfelt sorrow for what he has done, then I would say that his despair and suicide over such a sorrow is truly tragic, and that, despite his faithless despairing, that small seed of love, and its resulting speck of contrition, will be mercifully taken into account by God. Of course, all of this is speculation caused by a single news cast. I do not claim to know that any of these heartfelt sentiments actually existed in this man. But I truly hope its true.

  74. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Christopher, if by ‘imagery’ we are referring in any way to later interpretations of texts rather than what the church teaches in regular course, those ‘images’ are indeed not there. They are foreign phantoms unconnected to the pillar and ground of the truth.

    Alan, I just read Fr. Stephen’s article, “Should I Forgive the Unrepentant?” You should do likewise. Your comment sounds like some condition that is simply out of place because God’s forgiveness is a mystery conditioned on Christ alone standing in the dread countenance of God. While forgiveness is ours to receive there are no rules for themselves or others. The living Christ is our only reference and only hope. Not what we did or he did. We have to stand before him and live there or nowhere. Period.

  75. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    meant to say, “no rules for ourselves or others”

  76. Christopher Avatar

    Michelle & MichaelPatrick,

    Thanks for your comments – given me some things to ponder…

  77. Alan Avatar


    I have read the other article. You completely misunderstood my comment.

  78. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Sorry Alan, I’ll own that mistake.

  79. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father for that clarification. The 2 Corinthians wording was in my mind in discussion of Judas, but not necessarily because I thought there was an exact parallel between the kind of “worldly sorrow” St. Paul was discussing there and Judas’ remorse, but just in a more general sense that there is godly sorrow that leads to repentance (metanoia), and there are other kinds that don’t quite get us there. I was also thinking of my own tendency to get stuck in despondency and unbelief by focussing on my failures rather than being spurred by them to turn to Christ. I would have to admit concerning my own experience, along with a true contrition (actually a deep shame) for my sins, there is a certain pride and rebellion involved there, too. While I wallow in despondency chastising myself, I find what I am actually doing is refusing to humble myself and come as a child “just as I am without one plea” to Christ empty handed. Rather, I find I’m buying into the lie that if I just flagellate myself enough I can effect a change in myself and thus have something “worthy” to offer Christ and, if not, well then I am “beyond His help, beyond hope” (or so the lie goes). This clearly is delusion, though. I don’t find Christ in all that, but rather just more of the false self.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I understand what you’re describing. The man that Silouan spoke to – was – I suspect – about as “unreflective” as many other Russians I know. Americans are “Woody Allen” when it comes to introspection – rarely desperate towards God – and only desperate in our own minds. If we could call on God in the same manner that we engage in an inner argument – we could enter the Kingdom of God (or find the peace that Silouan’s village killer did).

    And to all in General:
    So many of the questions (in this comments thread and elsewhere) surrounding all of this are fraught with self-doubt, hesitancy, inner turmoil, double-mindedness. We want to forgive, sort of, but we don’t. We are “di-psyche” “of two minds”. As St. James warns, such a person should not expect to receive anything from God. Which mind should God give anything to?

    The simple grand, outlandish, over-the-top, absurd, beyond-all-expectation action of forgiving someone without expecting anything in return is beyond the imagination of many. But it is just such a greatness of heart that enters the Kingdom of God. We don’t enter the Kingdom because we don’t want to. As the sheep go rushing by the King of glory, we stand by hesitating, trying to figure out how it works, what the sheep’s angle is on all of this, and wondering if perhaps the goats don’t have it right after all.

    It is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to Dostoevsky. He draws characters who, in the end, are outlandish enough to enter the Kingdom. Dmitri Karamazov willingly goes to Siberia for a murder he didn’t commit. Raskolnikov confesses his crime, etc. And they will enter the Kingdom before us.

    Harlots and publicans and thieves are all entering the Kingdom before us, and I’ve got someone wringing their hands about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit! My heart shudders and quakes before God. Forgive me, one and all.

  81. Alan Avatar

    Fr, thank you for your last comment. I know I needed to read that and I suspect others did as well. But at least for me, it begs the question, given that what you wrote to all of us is correct, what are we to do?

  82. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your last comment reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s _Revelation_. All of it, really–but especially of the final vision of the white trash, freaks, and lunatics entering heaven ahead of the “respectable”–from whom everything that they could claim as “theirs”, even their virtues, were being burned away. How very hard it is to not draw the line on forgiveness somewhere–anywhere!–so that I can stand comfortably on the other side. Lord, have mercy!

  83. Michelle Avatar


    I’ve been thinking long and hard about your last comment. You’re right, a person can feel contrition, and yet still fail to turn to Christ for the fullness of healing, and instead try to find it somewhere else. I too try to conjure up healing from within myself, where healing simply does not exist. Only God has Life, and Life is the worthy target, the only source of healing. But I still maintain that contrition for sin is good, and good only comes from God. If Judas, or this Mr. Castro I mentioned, have in fact felt some sort of true contrition in their hearts for their sins, then this contrition is good, and thus I would assume it must have come from God. This contrition had the potential to grow into the fullness salvation, even here on earth, but they stopped it short by despairing and committing suicide. But I truly hope that they both get to at least retain that little speck of goodness they experienced in their hearts for all eternity. Harboring just a smidgen of good is infinitely better than being completely devoid of goodness all together.

  84. Karen Avatar

    Michelle, apologies for confusing your comment with one from Fr. Stephen and replying to him instead of you. (That’s what I get for speed reading!)

    It seems to me also, contrition for sin is a good thing. It is not necessarily the same as feeling sorry one got caught. I suspect there is almost always some of each going on when we are trying to come to terms with the reality our own sins and their consequences. Contrition can be like a stillborn baby, though, if it doesn’t mature into full repentance. I’m reminded by your comment of Jesus’ parable of the seed sown in different types of soil. Only the stony ground did not even receive the seed. The shallow soil and the thorny soil both embraced the seed and supported some initial growth, but only the good soil ultimately bore fruit.

  85. Karen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen writes: “If we could call on God in the same manner that we engage in an inner argument – we could enter the Kingdom of God (or find the peace that Silouan’s village killer did).”

    So true! I’m going to ask God to bring that to my mind the next time the accuser comes begging for an argument as to why I can’t just go rushing back into my Father’s waiting embrace the next time I realize how far I have wandered from Him!

  86. Karen Avatar

    (cont.) Can’t promise I won’t still be rehearsing my speech on the way home, though! 🙂 (Old habits die hard.)

  87. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    For some reason when I read this article, I thought about the story I heard years ago where an American tourist was visiting a rural Chinese village. Suddenly her purse was stolen. She cried out and pointed toward the back of the receding figure. What surprised her even more was when 5 men of the village ran after him, caught him and dragged him back in front of the lady so he could return the purse.

    She profusely thanked the men and told them she was honored they would do such a thing for her, to which they replied that it wasn’t done for her. This man was a friend of theirs and had a young family to take care of and couldn’t afford the time in jail.

    I think it came to mind because it seems to relate to the whole idea of us all being related to each other, affecting the lives of all those around us.

    Sinful acts are like grenades to lesser and greater degrees.. When they go off, they affect all around them, not only the intended victim. And of course the perpetrator also takes damage.

    This “affects us all” mindset is heinous and caustic to the individualism that is rampant these days. We don’t want to hear it and therefore whip out the legalistic/forensic model to see how we personally can do the 1-2-3 steps which will shield us from these sin grenades.

    But it doesn’t work. As you said, salvation is messy – and so is forgiveness. If we use the grenade metaphor this makes sense. Explosions don’t just cause a person to drop to the ground like a bullet; they violently blow things apart. And therefore it makes perfect sense that the cleanup from such a tragedy would be messy as well.

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