Why We Forgive


There are many ways to think about forgiveness, not all of them true or helpful. It is easily the most emotionally and psychologically difficult aspect of the Christian life revealing both the power of trauma as well as the tenacity of lingering memories. The directness of Christ’s commandments (“forgive your enemies”) and the consequences of ignoring them (“if you do not forgive others neither will your heavenly Father forgive you”) can easily make forgiveness into a heavy, soul-crushing burden of spiritual failure. Understanding the true nature of forgiveness, however, carries us into the very mystery of our existence and reveals why such importance is given to its practice.

Much of our struggle with forgiveness lies in the trap of psychology and law. We hear the commandment as a legal requirement – “You must do this in order to have that.” But we experience the practice as a psychological failure. “I try to forgive them, but I still feel the same way.” Neither law nor psychology reveal the truth about forgiveness nor explain its essential role in the spiritual life. Our failure in these terms, however, should tell us more about the inadequacy of the terms themselves rather than the true nature of forgiveness. To tell someone what they ought to do (law) is sometimes effective. To tell someone how they ought to feel (law + psychology) almost never works. Our popular contemporary conception of forgiveness belongs to this latter category. We will never get it right.

Law and psychology both depend on an individualistic understanding of human life. And beyond that, they demand a worldview in which nominalism predominates. Nominalism is the essence of modern thought. Everything is presumed to have its own private existence, with the only connection being in our minds. Human beings (as well as everything in creation) have no particular connection with one another other than the connections they think about or imagine. We describe these psychological connections as “relationships” and lavish attention on them. Of course, that same attention mostly reveals that psychological experience is inconstant, unsteady, frequently unpredictable and always changing. Little wonder that self-help books (devoted generally to nothing other than psychology) are a booming industry of unending frustration.

The dynamic involved in true forgiveness, however, is neither psychological nor legal. It is concrete, even ontological in its character. For example, note this statement by the Elder Sophrony:

Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.

In a contemporary American context, such a statement is astonishing. How is my sin able to affect the rest of the universe? We are able to conceive how our sin (say, punching someone in the nose) can directly impact someone else (the guy with the nose). We are able to understand that others around the event can be affected (fear, anger, disgust, etc.). But the notion that a stranger on the other side of the world who has no knowledge whatsoever of the event can be affected seems absurd. And, of course, the elder did not say “the rest of humanity.” He asserted that our sin affects “the rest of the universe.” My punching Sergei in the nose has an effect on the entire Milky Way. What can such an assertion possibly mean, and how can it be true?

Well, first off, it cannot be true in a legal or psychological sense. Nominalism has no room for such a universal connectedness. But a universal connectedness is, in fact, part of the dogma of the Orthodox faith. You might wonder where such an assertion is found in the Creed.

And was made man…and suffered for us under Pontius Pilate…

The whole of the Christian faith, as presented in Scripture, the Creeds and the Conciliar teaching of the Holy Fathers requires that we accept the interconnectedness of life. This interconnectedness is expressed in a variety of ways: participation, communion, sharing, all of the language of “in Christ,” etc. The New Testament presupposes that Christ’s humanity is our humanity. He is not simply “one of us,” or “like us.” Christ becomes one with us. He becomes precisely what we are (yet without sin). The sin He takes upon Himself is not a legal burden, or a psychological phenomenon. He takes our actual and real sin upon Himself. Indeed, St. Paul uses even stronger language:

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21)

This is not the language of the law or of psychology. It is the language of being itself – the language of ontology.

The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.

We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.

We are told, “God is love.” Love requires an object and is meaningless without one. The Father loves the Son and is not and cannot be the Father apart from the Son. God Himself is love, but so are we. Love is the proper description of the reality that is our shared universal experience. It is in this very manner that we are told to love our enemies:

But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:44-45)


…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 6:35)

We do more than follow the example of God. We are told to exist in the manner of God (which is love). That is – we become His sons.

And all of this brings us back to forgiveness. We forgive because the lack of forgiveness is not just a feeling or an infringement of the law. It is more of a disease and a dark place within our being that slowly drags us into ever greater darkness. It not only has this effect on us, but on others around us. Our children, whom we rightly seek to protect, are themselves completely vulnerable and unable to defend themselves from the danger our own lack of forgiveness creates. There is a collective reality to our sin that we cannot avoid. The darkness of the world is never just outside of us. It is also within us, like the air we breathe. We are either living in a manner that heals that darkness (and that of others) or adds to it. There is no neutral zone.

Ultimately, we can live without fear because Christ Himself has taken all of the darkness of the world into the light of His own life. Repentance, however, means that we unite ourselves to His sacrificial offering that forgives everyone and everything. The legal and psychological framework of the modern world’s notion of individualized existence has no room for such a thing. Only a life that learns to live in true communion can fathom such a thing, much less live it. This is the Orthodox way of life.

The other is my life. We need not consent to the darkness of sin nor consign others to that darkness.

Forgive everyone for everything.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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


20 responses to “Why We Forgive”

  1. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    You have laid the groundwork for why I forgive – I was tempted to say “should forgive” – but that is law once again isn’t it? I readily agree and confess that I am often pulled this way and that by the “oughts and shoulds” of Jesus’ teachings. It’s like trying to put on a coat that somehow just doesn’t fit. I end up with the realization that doing what is right just isn’t part of my nature. I can agree with you, but what I bid go keeps coming back. It’s like the horror movie in which the evil dead just don’t stay dead.

    Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, I’d very much like to hear the “How to Forgive”. Having just participated in the very wonderful Forgiveness Vespers, I have spoken and received forgiveness, but is it just the words and the will to say them? And I have no illusion that my attempts at forgiveness will necessarily change anything or anyone…else. But thank-you for pointing out that love (in this case forgiveness) coerced isn’t love at all.

    In my mind, I realize that being angry with blind people because they run into me (and I them) isn’t truly appreciating their condition-Lord, have mercy on us who say we see and have no sight.

  2. Agata Avatar


    Could I ask this question about forgiveness?

    Is it possible that forgiveness is often so difficult because if we offered it truly, we would be robbed of our identity as a victim? Being a victim (of something or somebody) is often one of our most important identities? Who would I be if I am not that victim…?

  3. Karin Avatar

    May I share my Facebook note here?

    During Lent
    passionately pray for those who:
    whispered lies about you
    laughed at you
    ridiculed you
    mocked you
    scorned you
    disrespected you
    humiliated you
    shamed you
    embarrassed you
    believed evil about you
    slandered you
    insulted you
    hurt you
    defamed you
    used you
    discredited you
    rejected you
    trashed your love
    for they know not what they do.”
    Christ did
    and we are called to be like Him!
    Turn the other cheek
    even if they never ask for forgiveness.
    Bless them
    do good to them
    and love them always.
    Watch the transformation
    that happens through your prayers.
    If not in them,
    then in you.
    Karin Ristau ©

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you ever so much for the correction! In my dialect, there is no difference in sound between “affect” and “effect” for the most part, and it’s a very common mistake. If I stop and think, I get them right…but stopping and thinking…now that’s problematic.

    You get an “A” in English today!

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose that is true for some. I think that it is largely just the failure to love – to truly love. To truly love another is to enter into the life of the other. Parents do this very often for their children, and, therefore, forgive them easily and willingly (when things are healthy). We forgive the beloved in our life very quickly, and we feel insults to them as though they were our own.

    Of course, it’s very hard to love those who hate us. It involves such frightful vulnerability and risk of shame. It is nothing other than a willing embrace of the Cross of Christ. It is not a little thing, nor a merely “moral” thing. One reason I am so disdainful of “morality” is its insipid notions about law and obedience. Atheists are often very moral people. It does not require a God, much less His Cross.

    Love is not moral. Love is completely a matter of being – of a shared existence – the life of the other as my own life.

  6. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    I am so sorry, much as I would like to, I do not understand.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pick out a statement you don’t understand and say what it seems to you to be saying. Then perhaps I can look at that and be of help.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My parents taught me long ago and modeled the inter-connectedness of all things. Knowing this put me at odds with the world and myself from an early age as I watched them struggle with their inability to communicate their understanding.

    Reconciliation did not begin for me until I was received into the Church.

    The Church is the only place I have found where I can realize what my parents taught me. Perhaps they too can have the joy as well.

  9. Martin Zip Avatar
    Martin Zip

    Your message reminded me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Praise God that the father of the prodigal son did not struggle with forgiveness and consequently fall in the trap of psychology and law. Father and son were joyfully reunited in love! Sadly, his self-righteous brother did fall into the trap of psychology and law that you mention.

  10. Constantine Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    This post was a light bulb moment for me. It’s early morning here and I am sat down trying to wrap my head around your words. See, I have always thought of Christian virtues as being, how can I put it, hierarchical? Attaining moderation through fasting can lead to self control over thoughts, then control over passions, ability to forgive, humility. Maybe not in this exact order but either way, with love being at the top. Yes, a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think, however, you speak of love being present throughout? So our virtues are more of a circle so, for instance, we forgive because God is love and as Christians we are called to be like him? So love is the cause but ALSO the outcome of forgiveness? Not to mention a source of martyrdom on account of the vulnerability that comes with it?

  11. Robert D Hosken Avatar

    Forgive me, Fr. Stephen! I forgive you.

  12. Diakonos Avatar


    Thank you for a users manual on forgiveness. Too many educated people simply consider forgiveness as something that just randomly happens. Like waiting for dice to come up with the proper number to cause the effect. It is part of Theosis, and following God’s will for those who ponder what that might be. I await your lesson on how we deal with those who refuse to forgive, and waste their energy burning down the landscape of their lives trying to hurt those they feel wounded them.

  13. Dave Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    Am I thinking correctly?

    Man was created in the Image informs us regarding our interconnectedness to each other. Because as Trinitarian’s we say God is One and we do not separate the Persons of the Godhead thereby implying an interconnctedness existing within the Godhead…….God does not exist except as an interconnected whole. Therefore mankind is interconnected because man is created in the Image.

    In Adam implies our interconnectedness as creatures created in the Image and in Christ implies our interconnectedness as new creatures created in His Image and ultimately God’s interconnectedness with us in Christ.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. This is correct. Of course, our fallen state makes this less evident than it might be. Man is “created in the image,” the Fathers say, but is “moving towards” the likeness. In Adam, that movement was interrupted but was fulfilled in Christ. Thus Christ says, “I do only what I see the Father doing,” etc. He does nothing apart from the Father. He is in the Father, and the Father is Him, etc. It is this towards which we are moving in the life of salvation.

  15. Jan Avatar

    Oh, Father. I need this wisdom. I feel I have forgiven, let things go. I feel no anger or pain in my daily life, just an abstract emptiness. When I consider returning to the environment where I was so hurt, I get nauseated and very afraid. I feel I would be banging my head against the wall to go back there (long story) and it would serve no purpose. But do I walk among them, praying for their souls, or do I continue to walk away? Because I sort of feel I may not have truly forgiven or let it go, if I cannot face it, or those who wounded my heart. It’s the Great Lent and I am alone. It does not seem right, somehow. I think maybe it’s being caught in the modern essence of forgiveness? Any words?? Blessings.

  16. Nicole Avatar

    “The power of trauma and the tenacity of lingering memories” is certainly true, Father Stephen. I find that as I deal with trauma, memories, and some of the unhelpful things that people have said to me, that I desperately need Christ the Healer. For my own safety and well-being, I won’t go back to the source of the trauma that was done to me and I prefer not to be around anyone who thinks that I should sacrifice my safety for any reason, but I can pray for those people’s blindness, the sickness of the abusers, and the next person who will inevitably be hurt by them I can’t lash out at the abusers or others who have been less than helpful and even added to the injury. That wouldn’t change the dynamic of the sin. Right now, all I can do is pray and have faith in Christ the Healer. Forgiveness, I think, is in this process. Blessings!

  17. Makedonka Avatar

    Perhaps to the modern mind, “The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate” can be most easily understood through the concept of the ecosystem, the environmental issues…

  18. kLutz Avatar

    “Forgive everybody. For everything.” That’s my motto!

    I suspect that until one forgives oneself, in similitude of Father, there is no forgiveness of ‘the other’. In forgiveness – grace – there is no ‘other’.
    I am reminded, especially this Pascha, to come to the Cross daily!
    “I surrender all” includes all those imaginations of what ‘should be’, by which I fault-fully divide my genus.

  19. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you for this very insightful post!

  20. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    “Love is not moral. Love is completely a matter of being – of a shared existence – the life of the other as my own life.”

    Beautifully stated, Fr. Freeman!

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