Forgiveness – The Hardest Love of All


I cannot think that any of my readers is a stranger to forgiveness, either the need to be forgiven or the need to forgive. The need to forgive, according to the commandment of Christ, extends well beyond those who ask for our forgiveness: we are commanded to forgive our enemies – whom I presume would rarely want to ask for our forgiveness.

Of course, our experience of those who are truly enemies is that we do not want to forgive them. We do not trust them; the wound has been too deep; their offense is not against us but against someone we love who is particularly vulnerable. I could enlarge the list but we are all too familiar with it. The reasons we find it hard to forgive our enemies is endless.

But the commandment remains – not as a counsel of how to live a healthier, happier life – but with the added reminder that we will only find forgiveness as we forgive. Forgiveness is not optional – but a fundamental spiritual action which we must learn to use as though our salvation depended upon it – for it does.

Several times in Scripture forgiveness of others (including enemies) is linked with our becoming like God, being conformed to His image. Thus when I think of forgiveness I think as well of the whole life of salvation – for the path to being restored to the fullness of the image of Christ runs directly through the forgiveness of our enemies. It may indeed be the very key to our salvation (as it is worked out in us) and its most accurate measure.

Having said that, however, is also to say that this commandment to forgive is not of man – we do not have it in us to fullfill this commandment in and of ourselves. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.” Of course it is utterly and completely impossible for mud to do such a thing (unless God make it so).

Grace is the foundation of forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness to enter our heart. We beg for forgiveness to enter our heart. We importune God for forgiveness to enter our heart.

Even as a product of grace – we do not begin with the hardest things but with the easiest. We do not begin fasting by tackling the most strict regimen. We do not begin prayer with an effort to pray continually for forty days (or some other great feat). Such efforts would either crush us with their difficulty or crush us with our success.

These are a few thoughts on beginning the life of forgiveness:

1. Begin by struggling to form the habit of forgiveness in the smallest things. With a child, with traffic, with little irritations. Do not struggle in a small way but throw yourself into forgiveness. It should become a habit, but a habit of grace, a large action.

2. Use this prayer for the enemies who seem to be beyond your ability to pray: “O God, at the dread judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” This places forgiveness at a distance and even a hard heart can often manage the small prayer of forgiveness at such a distance.

3. Be always aware of your own failings and constantly ask for God’s forgiveness. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

4. As much as possible cultivate in your heart the understanding that all human beings are broken and victims of the fall. None of us enters a world of purity, nor do we enter the world fully fuctional as a human being. It is the gradual cultivation of mercy in our heart. Many will complain that our culture already has a “cult of victimization” in which no one takes responsibility for their actions. The same people will imagine that the world would be better if only everyone took more responsibility. But they themselves will not take on the responsibility that belong to us all. As Dostoevsky says, “Each man is responsible for everything before everyone.” Thus the complaint comes out of our pride. We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we were the world would be better. This is a lie.

5. The proper response to taking such responsibility is to pray and ask forgiveness. Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action and is not the same thing as asking forgiveness.

6. Make a life confession at least once a year – being careful to name as many resentments as you can remember (this last advice comes from Met. Jonah Paffhausen).

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:27-38).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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






53 responses to “Forgiveness – The Hardest Love of All”

  1. Karen Avatar

    Wonderful post. Father. Thank you!

    “Many will complain that our culture already has a “cult of victimization” in which no one takes responsibility for their actions. The same people will imagine that the world would be better if only everyone took more responsibility. But they themselves will not take on the responsibility that belong[s] to us all.”

    This, in particular struck me about our present culture and Christian subcultures—in itself a topic for a whole other post.

    The Solzhenitsyn quote is very apt and timely.

  2. Rebecca Carp Avatar
    Rebecca Carp

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    This is an excellent post; I especially appreciated point #2. So often we are exhorted to forgive, but not given any practical advice on how to go about it.
    I was wronged and deeply wounded by several people in my youth. In the worst case – a person I hated so much it nearly destroyed me, forgiveness came miraculously through a powerful dream. I was taken to visit that person on their deathbed, and saw that they had never been truly loved, neither had they ever loved anyone, and that they would enter eternity alone. I was overcome with pity and able to forgive.
    In two other cases it has taken years of chipping away at it. I used to read every book I could find about christians who survived grave persecution. In a book by Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor and Jewish convert to Lutheranism, he talked about how he spent years in solitary confinement under the communist regime. Many of his loved ones died under the Nazis, then the communists. One thing he did was pretend to be Stalin’s defence lawyer before the throne of God. He imagined every possible reason why Stalin became the man he was, all the extenuating circumstances, and made convincing arguments for clemency. It became a contest between him and the accuser for the soul of Stalin. This is perhaps a dramatic way of applying your 4th point. I have found it very helpful.
    All the best to you, and a blessed fast!

  3. Maria Avatar

    We have to keep in mind that while we forgive, including our enemies, we do not become doormats. We still much speak up in matters of abuse, crime and neglect.

    God bless…..(good post!)

  4. Rebecca Avatar

    What you say is quite true; forgiveness does not mean that we become doormats.
    I was in a relationship for years with an outwardly religious person who was privately violent and abusive. What does love look like in that situation? It took me a long time to realise that the “doormat” approach wasn’t love, but the opposite; it was enabling an addiction, letting a sickness go untreated, allowing someone to plow full steam ahead toward destruction without giving them a warning sign. When I finally drew a line in the sand, which they soon crossed, I did it not for my own rights or self-preservation, but for the good of that person, who blamed everyone else and simply couldn’t understand that actions have consequences. How quickly the dominoes fell; he was excommunicated from the church, abandoned me, and ended up homeless and on drugs. When I got on the plane to move away from the area, I was deeply depressed. I found a card under the milk carton on my lunch tray. It was a line from the psalms, “I will be glad and rejoice in the Lord.” I heard a voice say, “Do not worry about *name*, I will take care of him,” and the burden was lifted.
    It has since taken years of chipping away at fear and revulsion, if I allow myself to ruminate on bitter memories, but forgiveness is primarily an act of will. I can pray that he is not judged for my sake, that God will spare him. I believe the feelings will follow.

  5. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    …the complaint comes out of our pride. We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we were the world would be better. This is a lie.

    I remember thinking, “On Forgiveness Sunday, what will I be asking for forgiveness for, from so many of these people I barely know?” And your thought, something like it, hit me. It was a realization that I have failed everyone and that it impacts people I don’t know and it extends past my home and parish into the world. This is an aspect of sin that, I can’t think of your title, but really a moralist cannot internalize. Being the “light of the world” is more than being moral. So, so start things off, forgive me Father for any misguided zeal, and pride it in that is surely there sometimes, that I’m not aware of while posting on your blog. Thank you for spending the time and energy keeping these conversations going.


  6. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    On a second note…,

    I don’t know what was up with me a couple weeks ago, but I had the worst attitude/mood going in Liturgy. I had suspicious, negative thoughts about just about everyone. This is not normal for me, it was very unusual. I stared at our Mother and at Christ in the Church praying that my attitude would be broken. During and after the homily some repentance came over me and I was teary through most of the Liturgy. This is nothing profound about me, hardly, but God did what I asked and I was grateful. I remember asking God to “put me in my place.” This is why it’s hard to be gracious let alone forgiving. We are not “in our place” of realizing our faults enough to stop negative thinking towards others – and these aren’t just our moral faults, but all our faults as it relates to lack of becoming, lack of concern, lack of interest in others, lack of empathy, and our moral faults on top of all of everything else. I have been humbled a time or two where God forced it on me and it is a much more pleasant experience to seek humility than to have God do it to discipline you – and even worse if neither happens and we are hardened in bitterness.


  7. Maria Avatar

    Rebecca: I agree with you and many have experienced what you lived through. It takes a special kind of soul to forgive this type of treatment and behavior as well as move on knowing God will take care of the rest. I don’t believe God wants one person to drive another person crazy or to the point of despair and helplessness. Jesus drew a line in the sand too and we know about God’s wrath. So, enough is enough and thank God you have found grace and peace from the whole ordeal. God bless!

  8. Maria Avatar

    Rebecca: I always keep in mind when Jesus was on the Cross and he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    God bless…..

  9. Paul Avatar

    Whenever I think about the Commandment to forgive our enemies, I think of various examples from the great disaster of WW2, especially of the terrible acts done by the Nazis. Two always come to mind.
    The first is about Corrie Ten Boom’s and especially her sister. When they were standing naked in a Nazi Concentration camp, she saw a female guard beating a woman severly. Corrie’s sister immediately prayed and asked for God’s forgiveness for this guard. Incredible. The other story occurred after the war when Corrie was preaching to different groups about Christ’s great love for man and Salvation. During a coffee break a man came up to her and told her that he had recently become a Christian and was now saved ( he, like Corrie were Protestants) . He then said to her, “Corrie, I was a guard at your camp [ I think it was Mathausen], and am asking for your forgiveness for what I did”. Corrie was shocked. Here was a man who was in part responsible for the death of her sister and so many others. She said, at first she couldn’t, she felt a deep sense of anger and wanted to say no. She merely froze and glard at him. Then she looked at him again, she thought of Christ and said, “I forgive you!” The man was overjoyed as was she.
    The second story was recounted by the Catholic archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He tells of a Polish aristocrat who had a Nazi officer at their house. The Nazi liked to use the aristocrats o help keep things under control. During the dinner the talk drifted to Christianity and the nature of God’s forgiveness of man. The discussion hit a bad nerve with the Nazi officer. He said to the aristocrat’s wife, So, you believe in forgiveness do you. Well, we’ll see if that is tre. Did you know that I am the man responsible for the death of your cousins and uncles? And other whom you know. So, do you forgive me?” The woman looked at him in silence, and slowly approached him. She then threw her hands around his neck, kissed his heeks and said, ” As the living God forgives you, so I forgive you”. The Nazi pulled her arms from around his neck, staggered back, wiping of her kiss and with a look of fear and horror fled the room. The Nazi never returned nor did anything come afterward.

  10. Nancy Holloway Avatar
    Nancy Holloway

    Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When my son was a toddler we were at a parish gathering. There was another little boy who was intentionally bothering my son and my son was getting upset. So I asked him to try something: a couple of minutes later that other boy began his harassment again. My son did what I had told him with a child’s honesty and enthusiasm. He spread his arms wide and approached the other boy with a smile and genuine affection and gave him a big hug. The other boy looked afraid but took the hug and his harassing behavior stopped.

    I had been working with a man at my place of employment for several years, the son of my boss. He was dismissive, rude, aggressive and simply refused to do things he should have and I caught the flak when things went wrong. Resentment built up in my heart and one day I confronted him in his office in a loud and aggressive way. Not a good career move. Well, following the counsel here to “forgive everybody everything” and the intervening grace of God, I had a genuine metanoia. A couple of days later I went into his office and took 100% responsibility for my anger and asked that he forgive me. I also went to confession.

    Everything has changed between us — slowly — his rude, aggressive and demeaning behavior which was not just toward me, has stopped. I take the opportunity to tell him when I see good things. I kept my job. He has grown in his.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nancy, you are right but it is much more than that at the same time. It is a gift you give to all of those you have hurt yourself. Remember, as we forgive, we are forgiven.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I am having a hard time separating forgiveness and repentance. They seem to me to be almost the same thing. Is there a distinction or is it just that they are so complimentary that one naturally leads into the other?

  14. Rebecca Alexander Avatar
    Rebecca Alexander

    Very excellent & helpful article Father. Thank you & Bless You for your suggestions.

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Many thanks for this, Father.

    You say:
    “… a few thoughts on beginning the life of forgiveness”
    You choose a very appropriate word: “beginning”.

    Forgiveness is the central tenet of Christianity. We know the depth of its importance, for it is the very essence of God. It runs parallel with humility and is the substance of love. It is not abstract, as a ‘good idea’ or a ‘nice thought’, but an act…an act of forgiveness. Each act of forgiveness adds to the healing of our soul and body.

    Yet each year as we approach Great Lent and Forgiveness Vespers, it is very much like a ‘beginning’. Often in my prayers during Lent I ask God to help me remember throughout the year that which is ‘brought home’ so deeply during this Great Feast. Our hearts become aflame with the desire to forgive as we participate, share, converse about…live…these very special days of the year.
    Yet every year it is like a ‘beginning’. The flame, after a short time, starts to diminish. Imperceptibly, as we get caught up in our day to day life. Then the next year comes around, having gone full circle…and here we are again, head hanging low, asking forgiveness, that we may forgive.

    Our need for God’s grace is immeasurable. He knows what He’s doing with this constant repetition…cycles…our participation in His Life – our life lived in His Body, the Church – so that we may become fully human.
    Jesus’ words, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” are as equally profound as “forgive your enemies”. They are the same. It is the essence of God.

    St Paul reminds us that we were enemies of God at one time, and are reconciled by His death and resurrection…forgiving all in His timeless death on the Cross. He asks from us to forgive as we have been forgiven.
    It is profound. And profoundly difficult.

    So we ‘begin’…Father, thank you for that…we begin in small things. Yet the small things are not so small. Irritation, as frequently as it occurs, is more than a trifle to deal with. It appears small in comparison to those who endure severe abuse, murder, unspeakable crimes in concentration camps, and such. Those who conquer this, by the grace of God (I call them saints) bless us with their example. It is truly inspiring. Just as our martyrs. Still, we have to deal with the seeming trifles, which in reality are not so trifling. They can build a very impenetrable wall if left to fester. Patience…oh God!…is very much needed.

    Forgive me….

  16. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you dear sister Paula. You’ve spoken words from my own heart.

    The irritations…indeed. The things we are taught to ignore, but fester and poison.

    And here we are again having fallen down, we get up with God’s grace.

    Beginning again. We are taught to look for and claim ‘progress’. And where and when we see no progress we are taught to see failure, discouragement, and despair. We lose. We fall. We fail.

    For Christ entering into this failure, I hope. It is only through His entering my heart that I have any hope to forgive all and to be forgiven.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you so much for these suggested ways to begin a life of forgiveness. They are very practical and practicable steps that I needed to begin. I’ll print this up and keep it on my desk, next to my computer, a place where I frequently experience irritations and angst. (these are the so called ‘small stuff’ where I shall begin)

    Father Stephen and Michael Bauman,
    I might have shared this story in a past post, but perhaps it might be useful to mention it again.

    When I was a catechumen, my priest suggested that I learn the prayers of repentance that are said before receiving communion. The one that was particularly troublesome for me was the one that starts off with this:

    I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (or first in some versions)

    It bothered me that I really couldn’t say this prayer in sincerity because I knew I wasn’t as bad as others. After all Hitler, and others like him who tortured and torched children are and were ‘monsters’, whom I could never be like. I saw myself as a person willing to die for children and not commit such heinous crimes.

    Then I had a dream.

    In this dream I discovered an anger and a passion so strong that I could indeed do terrible things. So terrible that I cannot express the details, other than to say this: I know what it is like to be a person who could put a child into the ovens. When I woke, I was deeply horrified, and unfortunately at the same time, I noticed that horrible passion, that anger, was still in my heart even as I was awake.

    I went straight to my icon corner to pray that the Lord release me from such passion and anger. And now as I search my heart, it seems that it’s not gone. And so I learned that indeed I can say the pre-communion prayers with sincerity. When my confessor priest asked me what fruit I might have from my faith in God, all that I could say at the time was that indeed I know I am the first of sinners and sincerely ask for forgiveness and for a forgiving heart.

    But if this passion is the thorn that would continue to torment me, I ask the Lord that He might make good use of it, for my own salvation and the salvation of others.

  18. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh Dee! I tell you, if there is one person who I believe is telling the truth when they say they are the worst of sinners…it would be you. Yes. Most definitely.
    That dream you had, wow…you know, God has a way of driving a point home…I mean straight to the heart. He knows just how to do this with each one of us…He knew you would draw even closer to Him, rather than crumble and shrink away, with that stark reality.
    May I say, there has been a time or two in my life when I have been “beside myself” in rage, and the result of it was very very scary. Because in reality, you are not “beside yourself” at all. No, it is you doing the damage. Oh Lord have Mercy!!!
    So,I get what your saying, Dee. Pretty close, at least….

    Too, we pray that God grant us repentance…just like tears of contrition. You just can’t make this happen. I couldn’t begin to. And so we look to God…just as it is He who enables us, by the grace of the Spirit, to even have Faith!
    Without Him we can do nothing…

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you dear Paula. Your words brought tears. Lord have mercy on us.

  20. Mario Avatar

    Thankyou Father for another beneficial post.
    Indeed as we enter into lent we increase our efforts in being kind and merciful to all. We remind ourselves to an even higher degree that a true christian recognises his unworthiness before the risen Lord. And cannot but only forgive his brothers and sisters in Christ, but also his enemies.
    As the Holy Spirit reveals to us our mis-givings, how can we condemn others, since we are compelled to condemn ourselves first. Then we realise that our real enemy is our ego, and those who we thought to be our enemies are in fact our brothers and sisters.
    Even so, and I speak for myself, it is sometimes easy to forget our noble calling to be Christ like, and a wretched stubborness sets in, but when we pray sincerely, recognising our unworthiness, somehow we are released again from this dreadful malady, and forgiveness of enemies becomes easy.
    We recognise the foolishness of our unforgiving nature, and ask God to soften our hearts.
    Quite often I pray to the Lord to teach me love and humilty, and then I become complacent with situations concerning others, only to realise that through these situations in life, I have been given the opportunity to practice the very things I have prayed for, love and humilty!
    Pray for me.

  21. Ziton Avatar


    One of my issues with forgiveness is that I know it is something I “should” do. I am not at all good at it (as with many things). How do we stop this particular “should” from turning toxic? I am thinking that the problem with having been wounded by a person or situation can often be akin (or be) a trauma, and certainly something that may already make us feel ashamed, or angry or resentful or all of the rest. If we then have this feeling on top of “I should be able to forgive” then isn’t there a risk that this can amplify that negativity and even turn it in ourselves in a way that is harmful? If we were all thinking straight then maybe this would not be as much of an issue. But when we are traumatized, or even just have lots of unprocessed anger, then we can’t – almost by definition – think straight. It’s like unravelling a knot or something, and all these injunctions to forgive surely need to be handled with sensitivity? I’d appreciate any further wisdom/light you may be able to shine.

  22. Jonathan Avatar


    I’ve had to play “catch up” with your posts and just read this article and the previous one.

    As someone who grew up a Protestant, I find myself struggling with forgiving myself more than I struggle with forgiving others. I can (usually) forget what someone else has done to me. It is my self-knowledge of my own failings that keeps me up at night.

    Can you elaborate on point 3-5 above in a future post (or if you already have previously, provide a link to the article)?

    Your words are always a cause for consideration and a careful review of how I see the world.

  23. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Wow. Michael has been telling me about this post and had me read it today after church. I said i could pray for God to forgive everyone but I kept adding “except pedophiles and human traffickers” . After reading Dee’s post about her dream I realize I have to pray for the most evil people I can imagine
    too. Knowing the love Jesus and Mary have for children, I thought they must have a special place in Hell for people who torture, rape, and destroy children. I don’t get to judge anothers sin. Dee,I know that level of anger and hatred you describe too. I felt it working in an emergency room and seeing raped babies and toddlers. Innocent little victims of monsters! I was so full of rage at the monsters it was finally my reason for leaving. I wanted to take a rusty knife and castrate each evil monster who had brutally raped,beaten,and for some- ultimately killed – those precious little ones. . (I grew up on a ranch and was well aware of how its done! ) Asking me to pray for monsters? And the people who steal other people’s children to sell them to monsters? I don’t know how to do that. Should I ask God to forgive demons too? When we are asked to pray for God to forgive everyone, aren’t we doing just that? How do we pray that with total sincerity? I need some direction please-to help me understand what is needed. Thank you all for your insightful comments.

  24. Nikolaos Avatar

    Merry I share your feelings. Criminals need to be locked up first, to prevent further crimes against innocent people, before we attempt to forgive them. Forgiveness itself is a long process and dependent on the repentance of our enemies.

    I am not sure what forgiveness accomplishes when there is no willingness to repent. The story of St Dionysios of Aegina island (his incorrupt relic is in the island of Zakynthos and is celebrated on 17th December) comes to mind. He helped the killer of his brother to escape, when his family were in his pursuit. But he only did this having counselled the killer to repentance.

    I hope Christ will “open our eyes” like the disciples in Emmaus, so we can understand the mysteries of repentance and forgiveness in their fulness.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nikolaus, forgiveness that is contingent on someone else’s repentance is not forgiveness, it is barter.

    Forgiveness is not about what the other person does or does not do. It is about being free of the hateful act and not allowing it to cause you any more harm. It allows God’s mercy to act feely.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Merry, Nicholas, et al
    Forgiveness, as I noted in the title, is the “hardest love of all.”

    Forgiveness does not fix things or make things better necessarily – not will it create justice. Forgiveness, however, makes us to be like God Himself, who makes His sun to shine on the evil and the good. It is an invitation into true agape – the love of God. St. Isaac called it God’s “crazy love” (eros manikos). It is an invitation to be crucified – and, in being crucified, to know the depths of the love of God in a manner that can be revealed in no other way.

    I suggest people start slowly. But the easy forgiving only gives us the very least taste of this knowledge. When I read the insane generosity of Gulag victims forgiving their jailers and such – I see angels and the skies open.

  27. Maria Avatar

    Matthew 5:7 – Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
    The important thing to understand in this scripture passage, is that when we show mercy and forgiveness to another, we are Blessed. We receive this Blessedness through God’s grace who knows all and sees all. He will give it to us as He sees how it will benefit us. It is not in mercy and forgiveness that is tit for tat, you did this so I will do that, or even Stephen. No, it is in the Blessedness that we receive. It doesn’t matter who shows mercy and forgiveness first, the important thing is that we are Blessed in doing it.

    God bless!

  28. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    Your comment sparked a quick thought experiment. Since we are all sinners, wouldn’t we all get locked up? What would that look like? It would involve total isolation—for we might sin against someone in thought or word! It would look a lot like CS Lewis’s grey town (from The Great Divorce), though we could debate whether it would be locked from the inside or out. In short, I think it would be the very Hell which Christ entered into and rescued us from. I don’t see any justice—much less restoration—in that.

    That then made me think of justice. Justice as we commonly understand it is plain wrong, as has been noted in any number of the posts and comments here. We conceive of it as the protection of ideas, when you really break it down: laws, property, and that which we consider to be ourselves (in body or soul). Thus, our understanding of justice is based upon preservation of a frame of mind or feeling. And that, in turn, is based on vainglory, pride, and just plain paganism; how “natural” a progression from preoccupation with the reality of the [false] self to theories of the satisfaction of honor or “necessity” in order to protect it! Then that gets projected on God…

    If you try to add in restoration, that is better but still lacking. That gets us out of the modern prison system, which doesn’t work: you don’t teach what is right with punishment but by practicing what is right. Punishment, as we conceive of it, creates anger and/or fear related to the punishment and/or punisher but, in itself, is incomplete. There has to be something to go along with it, something to which the punishment is but an optional appendage. But what is that “something”? The only “restoration” in this system of “justice” would be an undoing or overcoming of the other person, in action or freedom. Perhaps that can get us back to where we were—or a close approximation—but it does not address the real questions of life and death and love and eternity. It gets us from cartoon Hell to cartoon Heaven but that still isn’t where we should be.

    It only makes sense when we accept Christ—and not generally, but Christ Crucified. The restoration must center us around us becoming like Him, partaking of Him, being restored *to* suffering(!) by Him, in Him, and with Him. That then allows us to consider justice correctly: it is meant to draw us into that restoration, into salvation. I think we’ve puzzled out as much here before. But what of OT law? Sure, it is a shadow, but I think there is more to it.

    Specifically, why “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24.20, OSB/SAAS)? It can’t be punishment in the popular sense, for that makes no sense: nothing is restored, nothing is healed, and it *does not teach the right way to live*, only instills fear of punishment for getting it wrong. It isn’t [popular] restoration, either: the victim doesn’t get the eye of the offender, doesn’t get his tooth back, etc. I’ll have to systematize this more later but I think it is about communion. And I don’t just mean communion with the injured person, a sharing of the same misfortune to come to some emotional reconciliation. I think that it is about allowing the offender to be restored to something they lost—the possibility for innocent suffering—through the very person who suffered innocently through them. And it allows the offender to enter into it voluntarily, thus completing what was lacking in the victim’s innocence (which was yet an involuntary [for the victim] violation of them). Through this, the chain of death becomes a bond of unity that binds them both together and to Christ.

    So back to my little thought experiment, if a prison exists on this earth, I believe it must not be a place to isolate “criminals” but a place to visit them (cf The Gospel) and *further* partake of voluntary suffering. It cannot be about separation but union, and it will ironically be less about crime prevention and more about victimization prevention. No wonder the OT Law was not civil but rather religious—real, Orthodox justice and restoration could not be given out by the state or by some passer-by but only through one who had lived a life dedicated to worship of and communion with the suffering Christ and who could bring victim and offender together in that Mystery!

  29. Nikolaos Avatar


    As I said forgiveness and repentance are mysteries that we do not understand in their fulness and I pray to God to “open my eyes”.

    I agree with visiting the prisoners and trying to help them into repentance, but this only follows after their arrest and application of a legitimate process which exists to protect and serve an organised society.

    Life on a daily basis involves practical decisions, not just an idealistic, unattainable kind of notion of love and forgiveness. We see a crime, we try to stop it, not forgive instantly. We lose our freedom from invading nations, we fight and we kill for our faith and country ( I think of Theodore Kolokotronis and the heroes of the Greek revolution against the Ottomans in 1821, who were more Orthodox than I will ever be).

    I cannot see how St Dionysios would have let the murderer go, if he showed no repentance and assured him that he intended to kill the rest of his family. I understand that Christ forgave Judas and his murderers, but if they did not repent like Longinus, they are not sharing the presence of God in His kingdom, so this act of forgiveness remains a mystery to me, also as we see what was the end of the unrepentant people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

    Fr Stephen’s comment that “Forgiveness does not fix things or make things better necessarily” is the most helpful, practical way for me to start thinking about this.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In no way do I mean to suggest that there be no restraint of evil – there are people who need to be restrained (prison, etc.). It’s also possible to forgive someone, even though they are going to be restrained. Prison is “punishment” but it is not justice. I don’t think prison to be a tool of justice. It is a tool of safety – foremost.

  31. maria Avatar

    I like to think of imprisonment as a place to remove an individual from society so they can be rehabilitated to be put back into society. This is of course, unless they are too far gone or too deep in their crime, then they need to receive help in learning how immersed they are in it and if they are well enough to go back into society which also needs to be kept safe. I think this is where the term “Correctional Services” comes from – not punishment services.

    God bless…..

  32. Byron Avatar

    It doesn’t matter who shows mercy and forgiveness first, the important thing is that we are Blessed in doing it.


    Your linking of mercy with forgiveness is spot-on, I believe. These things are commanded to shape our hearts (and lives) as God’s heart (and Life). There is no justice in forgiveness because the cross is not a way of justice, but of mercy. First and foremost, it is a mercy to ourselves. “God (first) forgives and so I (we) forgive”. There is no mention of the other person…we make no requirement upon them by forgiving.

    I am reminded of my priest’s advice concerning those begging by the street. Give them money whether they are honest or not. Almsgiving is done for your own heart’s benefit. The money we give does not make them rich (even as it does not make us rich) and it is not the reason for giving.

    forgiveness that is contingent on someone else’s repentance is not forgiveness, it is barter.

    Forgiveness is not about what the other person does or does not do. It is about being free of the hateful act and not allowing it to cause you any more harm. It allows God’s mercy to act freely.

    Michael, what a wonderful statement! Many thanks for this.

  33. AR Avatar

    “We do not begin fasting by tackling the most strict regimen.”

    Father, I’m not Orthodox, but I want to try following the Lenten fast this year. I want to refocus myself and try to recover my faith. Or at least temper my apathy. I thought following the fast might help, but it seems so daunting. However, your line I’ve quoted above gave me some relief. Is there a fasting rule (or rules) would you recommend for a beginner?

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Look this over – particularly what is described as Level I

  35. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I’m attempting to respond to your question about forgiveness vs. repentance and how they seem to be the same. Here is my explanation…

    Forgiveness is something which the trespasser needs but which can only be accomplished by the person trespassed against. It is a re-opening of the pathways of communion between the two people.

    Repentance is the work of the trespasser. When forgiveness has been granted, then communion has been restored but nothing has yet changed in the life of the trespasser which would stop them from sinning again in this way. Repentance is a changing or turning or reforming of the trespasser into a new way of being, a new habit which will be bring life and communion instead of death and seclusion.

    Hope this helps.

  36. Dino Avatar

    The great thing with fasting is that one can do a minimal amount and the discipline’s effect still has a certain secret benign effect. Especially in a non fasting world where, a type of separation from it is required.
    The ‘top level’ fasts (to be perfectly honest) are less a problem of gluttony/self-control and more a matter of decisiveness and bravery.
    Once somebody really decides to do it they can. (And it affects all our spiritual life as few things can.) The proof of this is that many unbelievers do even greater fasts these days for health reasons or far Eastern spirituality reasons once they’ve put their minds to it…

  37. AR Avatar

    Thanks, Father!

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, they are separate things, sorta, but they are complimentary and intertwined

  39. Mario Avatar

    Saint John the Baptist said repentance produces fruit.
    Within repentance comes a whole spectrum of gifts from God. We could argue that forgiveness is part of that and a result of repentance.
    In his 5 paths of repentance, St John Chrysostom in one of his homilies explains it thus:

    Would you like me to list also the paths of repentance? They are numerous and quite varied, and all lead to heaven.


    A first path of repentance is the condemnation of your own sins: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be justified. For this reason, too, the prophet wrote: I said: I will accuse myself of my sins to the Lord, and you forgave the wickedness of my heart. Therefore, you too should condemn your own sins; that will be enough reason for the Lord to forgive you, for a man who condemns his own sins is slower to commit them again. Rouse your conscience to accuse you within your own house, lest it become your accuser before the judgment seat of the Lord.


    That, then, is one very good path of repentance. Another and no less valuable one is to put out of our minds the harm done us by our enemies, in order to master our anger, and to forgive our fellow servants’ sins against us. Then our own sins against the Lord will be forgiven us. Thus you have another way to atone for sin: For if you forgive your debtors, your heavenly Father will forgive you.


    Do you want to know of a third path? It consists of prayer that is fervent, careful and comes from the heart.

    If you want to hear of a fourth, I will mention almsgiving, whose power is great and far-reaching.


    If, moreover, a man lives a modest, humble life, that, no less than the other things I have mentioned, takes sin away. Proof of this is the tax-collector who had no good deeds to mention, but offered his humility instead and was relieved of a heavy burden of sins.

    Thus I have shown you five paths of repentance; condemnation of your own sins, forgiveness of our neighbor’s sins against us, prayer, almsgiving and humility.


    Do not be idle, then, but walk daily in all these paths; they are easy, and you cannot plead your poverty. For, though you live out your life amid great need, you can always set aside your wrath, be humble, pray diligently and condemn your own sins; poverty is no hindrance. Poverty is not an obstacle to our carrying out the Lord’s bidding, even when it comes to that path of repentance which involves giving money (almsgiving, I mean). The widow proved that when she put her two mites into the box!


    Now that we have learned how to heal these wounds of ours, let us apply the cures. Then, when we have regained genuine health, we can approach the holy table with confidence, go gloriously to meet Christ, the king of glory, and attain the eternal blessings through the grace, mercy and kindness of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

    St. John Chrysostom’s outline of the five paths of repentance is taken from one of his homilies (Hom. De diabolo tentatore 2, 6: PG 49, 263-264).

  40. Maria Avatar

    Thankyou so much for the “5 Paths” from St J Chrysostom! Lovely…..

    God bless!

  41. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Yes ideally forgiveness and repentance are the 2 parts of 1 conversation, but the danger of linking them too closely is to think that they depend on each other. They don’t. If you are the forgiver, you need to forgive – regardless of whether or not the other person ever repents. If you are the sinner, you need to change/repent, regardless of whether or not you are ever forgiven.

    While the two are connected, I have found that it’s best for each person in the conversation to focus on their own role instead of watching to see if the other person is going to fulfill theirs.

  42. Maria Avatar

    Drewster: I understand what you mean – forgiveness is a 2-way street and repentance is our own street.

    Tks and God bless!

  43. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Thank you so much for being brave enough to share your dream. It was a wonderful mental picture for understanding what it means for each person to think of themselves as chief of all sinners. For surely what you shared was simply a revealing of a darkness in your heart, the intensity of which can be found in everyone’s heart, though the form and content would be different according to each one’s struggle and damage.

    Thank you for this and all the ways you share your heart here. I’m richly blessed by it.

  44. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Maria, God bless you in Southern Ontario! (grin)

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, I am talking only about myself. If I forgive, I find it easier to repent. If I repent I find it much easier to forgive. Indeed there have been many times that I have not been able to forgive until I repented.

    It is not up to me what another person does. There seem to be 4 ways of forgiving: the toy for tat. I will forgive if you forgive. The praying at someone: ” Lord forgive that person and fix him. The praying for someone in which God’s mercy is entreated and one’s own judgement is realeased, and the fourth type where you actually pray with someone either physically or in your heart alone.

    The first two require nothing form me. The last two each involve an act of contrition on my part.

  46. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Well said, Michael.

  47. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    I have been thinking of Einstein and that gravity analogy, that a heavy object weighs down the fabric of space drawing others to it. So a basketball on a blanket held up at the corners would make tennis balls roll towards it

    Somehow it seems like an icon within nature of either the sequential effects of sin through the generations, like divots on a golf course, but also like acquiring the Spirit of Peace and others finding their salvation—-not because they were convinced, but because they were attracted.

    I have had deep realization of my own anger and capacity for anger but in the opposite manner. I can immediately love and pray for the salvation of a violent criminal I hear about on the news but realized I could not do that for my own dad a few years ago.

    Father, I have been studying anger as an emotion, how it signals that a boundary has been crossed potentially. But then there is a false anger of indignation. Any help separating out the two would be appreciated. I was so grateful a few years ago when you commented to me that it is OK to take time to forgive, it needn’t be instantaneous after an even. I have really had to slow myself down and look at things a bit more. I really came to peace with my dad and was able to forgive and see more of the nuances in the situation.

    I have been looking into both the walking on eggshells books and the most recent of Lindsay C. Gibbons who talks about intergenerational emotional trauma

    I had to do the Catholic Virtus training regarding prevention of sexual abuse of minors. It struck me what misresponse to beauty it is, how the person may not have updated their own identity, and brings sexual expression to the wrong context. The Medium blog of Mark Goulston had a finding neverland essay that pointed to this.

    Father, when you talked about the ‘banalities’ of life a modern prosperity gospel type Christian returns to after singing happy Sunday songs I think the essence if the error is that this person fails to see the opportunity to pray for the forgiveness of us all, so it is a squandered opportunity within his / her / my life

    The connectedness of humanity makes the intergenerational damage real but the capacity for repenting on behalf of all our chance not to kick people off the onion leaves, to borrow that metaphore

    That is how I see your Envy essay connecting to this one

    Thank you Dee and Merry and fellow commentor

  48. Mario Avatar

    God bless you too

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Pastor Richard Wurmbrand is an evangelical minister who spent fourteen years in Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania. In 1945, when the Communists seized Romania and attempted to control the churches for their purposes, Richard Wurmbrand immediately began an effective “underground” ministry to his enslaved people and the invading Russian soldiers. He was eventually arrested in 1948. Richard spent three years in solitary confinement, seeing no one but his Communist torturers. Pastor Wurmbrand was released in a general amnesty in 1964. Realizing the great danger of a third imprisonment, Christians in Norway negotiated with the Communist authorities and paid for his release from Romania. In May 1966, he testified in Washington before the Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee and stripped to the waist to show eighteen deep torture wounds covering his body. What follows is a small part of the many experiences he had while he was imprisoned.
    My former fellow-prisoner the Romanian-Orthodox Deacon John Stanescu, suffered in jail for his faith.
    Colonel Albon, director of the slave labor camp, was informed that someone had dared to preach in a cell. He entered the cell carrying a cane and demanded to know the culprit. When no one responded, he said, “Well, then all will be flogged.”
    He commenced at one end of the cell, and there was the usual yelling and rising in tears. When he came to Stanescu, he said, “Not ready yet?
    Stanescu replied, “There is a God in heaven, and He will judge you.”
    With this, his fate was sealed. He would surely be beaten to death. But just at that moment, a guard entered the cell and said, “Colonel, you are called urgently to the office. Some generals have come from the Ministry.”
    Albon left, saying to Stanescu, “We will see each other again soon.” However, the generals arrested the colonel (Communists hate and jail each other for no reason), and after an hour Albon was back in the cell, this time as a prisoner.
    Many inmates jumped to lynch him. Now Stanescu defended the defeated enemy with his own body, receiving many blows himself as he protected the torturer from the flogged prisoners. Stanescu was a real priest.
    Later I asked him, “Where did you get the power to do this?”
    He replied, “I live Jesus ardently. I always have Him before my eyes. I also see Him in my enemy. It is Jesus who keeps him from doing even worse things.” Beware of a faith without a cross!
    When I was in jail I fell very, very sick. I had tuberculosis of the whole surface of both lungs and four vertebra were attacked by tuberculosis. I also had intestinal tuberculosis, diabetes, heart failure, jaundice, and other sicknesses I can’t even remember. I was near to death.
    At my right hand was an Orthodox priest by the name of Iscu. He was Abbot of a monastery. This man, perhaps in his 40’s, had been so tortured he was near to death. But his face was serene. He spoke about his hope of heaven, about his love of Christ, about his faith. He radiated joy.
    On my left side was the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest almost to death. He had been arrested by his own comrades.
    And so it happened that the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest nearly to death had been tortured nearly to death by his comrades. And he was dying near me. His soul was in agony.
    During the night he would awaken me saying, “Pastor, please pray for me. I can’t die, I have committed such terrible crimes.”
    Then I saw a miracle. I saw the agonizing priest calling two other prisoners. And leaning on their shoulders, slowly, slowly he walked past my bed, sat on the bedside of his murderer, and caressed his head – I will never forget this gesture. I watched a murdered man caressing his murderer! That is love – he found a caress for him.
    The priest said to the man, “You are young; you did not know what you were doing. I love you with all my heart.” But he did not just say the words. You can say “love,” and it’s just a word of four letters. But he really loved. “I love you with all my heart.”
    Then he went on, “If I who am a sinner can love you so much, imagine Christ, Who is Love incarnate, how much He loves you! And all the Christians whom you have tortured, know that they forgive you, they love you, and Christ loves you. He wishes you to be saved much more than you wish to be saved. You wonder if your sins can be forgiven. He wishes to forgive your sins more than you wish your sins to be forgiven. He desires for you to be with Him in heaven. He is Love. You only need to turn to Him and repent.”

    In this prison cell in which there was no possibility of privacy, I overheard the confession of the murderer to the murdered. Life is more thrilling than a novel – no novelist has ever written such a thing. The murdered – near to death – received the confession of the murderer. The murdered gave absolution to this murderer.
    They prayed together, embraced each other, and the priest went back to his bed. Both men died that same night. It was Christmas Eve. But it was not a Christmas Eve in which we simply remembered that 2000 years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was a Christmas Eve during which Jesus was born in the heart of a Communist murderer.
    These are the things I have seen with my own eyes…

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is the true icon of Christian living. Glory to God!

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Pastor Wurmbrand started Voice of the Marytrs. An organization dedicated to publicizing the oppression of Christians around the world and trying to ease their plight. He reposed in 2001. It is also important to mention is wife, Sabina. When the Communists first took over, they held meeting with Christian and Jewish leaders offering them a chance to become collaborators. In one such meeting, according to Pastor Wurmbrand’s own account, his wife turned to him and told him that if he did not resist, she would no longer be his wife. She, I do not believe, was ever imprisoned, but she was a strong partner to her husband and never waivered.

    There is a militant aspect to the living martyrdom Pastor Wurmbrand and others experienced. The absolute refusal to deny Jesus Christ no matter what. However the sword they wield is one of forgiveness, love and great respect for each human person, even their torturers and murders. They refuse to see the evil they suffer as ultimately real because Christ is Risen!

    Another of Pastor Wurmbrand’s stories that I particularly like: He was in a prison, not in solitary. An Orthodox priest was brought in who had been stripped of nearly everything, his parish destroyed and all of his family killed. Yet he was always joyful. Pastor Wurmbrand asked him how that could be. He replied, I am not able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, but I rejoice for all of those who can. I no longer have a family, but I rejoice with those who do. We are locked up here in the dark, unable to see the sky and the beauty of God’s creation, but I rejoice with those who do.

    So all that he lost he turned into joy because the reality of our Lord Jesus Christ was so imprinted on his soul. How sad am I when I give my joy and peace away at the slightest provocation and suffer in angst because of mere possibilities of things not going my way. How sad am I that I cannot forgive.

    How sad am I when I read Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” and do not fall on the ground in tears at the hardness of my heart.

    Yet, I have not lost my hope for His mercy because He has extended it to me so often. The stories and instruction here, lead me in right direction.

  52. Dino Avatar

    “They refuse to see the evil they suffer as ultimately real because Christ is Risen!”
    The joy of the resurrection undeniably changes all suffering in a very real sense, for, in Christ, our entire being’s alignment becomes, not so much towards a ‘known future’, but to a ‘known eternity’, experienced in the present moment of here and now. It transfigures ourselves as well as how we see our conditions – to the degree we try to align to it at every moment.
    But, to do this, we need to want to ‘give; rather than to ‘take’ from God, expecting nothing, knowing rather, that we already have everything in Christ, no matter how dire our situation. We incite ourselves towards that joyous, eternal union, away from our self-absorbed hell and deep into a heavenly trust. It is worth noting here, that when saint Paul speaks of love he does not ever differentiate between the love of God and the love of neighbour. It is but one action inspired by the Holy Spirit. Our singular fixation upon the eternal, invisible God is proved by our union with His visible icons (no matter how distorted).
    “I no longer have a family, but I rejoice with those who do”.
    “The murdered gave absolution to his murderer.”

  53. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Great, encouraging stories; thank you!

    I was thinking about the difference between forgiveness and repentance lately as these issues have come up heavily in the last 2 weeks in what is, unfortunately, the opposite of your tales: reactions to reactions (and heavy rounds of gossip) all over some small, pure, Church-blessed thing. I believe forgiveness must be related to repentance: if our existence is conditional on God’s continued, moment-by-moment Grace, so must be our ability to repent. His forgiveness upholds the universe! And I think when we forgive, we partake in that. I don’t think forgiveness is reactionary, either, but proactive and even normative: it is the normal “state” for a person in union with Christ. We literally “fore give”, or give first, without expectation or measure. And we don’t just forgive sin, we live forgiveness in all things, which underlies the miracles of Christ, too (cf “What is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven?’ or…”). So forgiveness is absolutely the precondition for repentance, but not in a legal sort of way.

    As for repentance, I don’t know—I am still working on that! But I wonder if it is not simply a change that restores us to a place of forgiveness? So when we talk about being unable to forgive, we really mean being unable to repent, unable to restore communion from “our end” (as far as we are able). I think that ties it together well and turns our modern thinking on its head: as has been said here before, we not only *can* repent for others, we *must* do this—there is not forgiveness without it! And I think it recharacterizes our boundaries, too: they must not be put in place to “end suffering” but create a space where communion—forgiveness—is restored. Any repentance that does not have that forgiveness, that restoration as its end is false.

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

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