Forgiveness – Give an Enemy a Cup of Cold Water

There is a story related in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov about an old woman who was quite wicked. She dies and goes to hell to the great distress of her guardian angel. The angel searches for any possible good deed to plead on her behalf and finds a rotten onion – something the old woman had given to a beggar. The angel takes the onion and, with it, begins to pull the old woman out of hell. The end of the story is less than successful, but its power lies in the importance and significance given to even the smallest act of kindness.

Christ gives a similar significance to a seemingly trivial action – giving a cup of cold water:

“And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

This small action, for me, offers a hint towards a way forward in the forgiveness of enemies (those who have caused us harm). Few things are more painful than the injuries we gather over the years. I find that most people do not have “enemies” in any classical sense. Rather, we have people with whom we’ve had painful encounters. Bitter words and actions, anger and insults, never seem to disappear on their own. If they go away, it is often because we find ways to emotionally block their remembrance. Reminders often bring a fresh or renewed sense of injury. It is thus rarely our “enemies” that give us difficulties so much as their remembrance. They become “psychic” enemies, collections of bitterness harbored in parts of the brain that, for some reason, seem to be primarily concerned with such things.

I have written about the importance of forgiveness over the years, including “forgiving everyone for everything.” It is invariably a subject that gets a bit of “push-back.” For some, the remembrance of an injury is part of the boundary that keeps them at a healthy distance. Thus, forgiveness feels “unsafe.” That kind of forgiveness for certain enemies might well be unsafe. Boundaries exist for a reason and they are not part of what forgiveness entails.

I want to offer two thoughts on the forgiveness of enemies. Both have been of use to me. The first is a prayer that I use myself, and have offered to others, when there is difficulty forgiving someone. It runs thus:

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

It is a prayer of “postponed” forgiveness – something that feels emotionally safe and which places vengeance where it belongs – with God. On the day of judgment, we ourselves will want forgiveness for all we have done. As we are taught in Christ’s parables, we should do the same. I have had any number of conversations with people who have found this approach to be of use when everything felt “stuck,” and immoveable.

The second thought is more immediate to the heart.

It is very difficult to do a “negative” thing. It is why when we struggle to quit an addiction, we find it difficult. It creates an absence that longs to be filled. The same is true of intrusive thoughts. Trying “not to think” something is nearly impossible. Again, it creates a negative which begs to be filled and the thought returns again and again. So, my second thought on forgiveness involves positive action. Positive action has life, beauty, truth, and being. It is strong and brings the might of reality to bear on the unreality of darkness.

In the struggle to forgive, if possible, find something (anything) from the offending person for which you can give thanks. It is to go, like their guardian angel, looking for an onion, even a miserable, rotten onion given as a small act of kindness. It is the cup of cold water in their life. It does not matter how small the matter was, how insignificant or trivial. It takes something from their life for which you can make the offering of thanksgiving to God. This doesn’t entail speaking to them, or renewing an unsafe relationship. It entails the difficulty of our own inner torment created by the pain of what remains unforgiven.

Finding such an action we pray: O God, I give you thanks for the kindness I received.

My experience with this approach is that it can make a profound change in the heart. Something softens that before was hard. While even this is not always possible, it is an effective balm of the soul when it is. We too often underestimate the power in very small things. That power, I believe, is the work of grace.

In the gospels, there are people to whom Christ says, “Your faith has made you well.” That “faith” seems to be His description of certain minor actions. The woman with an issue of blood simply touched the hem of his garment. We’re not told that she sold everything she had and gave it to the poor or that she made some profound profession of faith. She simply touched Him.

The tenth leper came to Christ and thanked him for the cleansing miracle. Christ told him his faith had made him whole. His act of thanksgiving was received as a “faith” that made him complete in a way unknown to the nine who gave no thanks.

The sinful woman who washed the feet of Jesus was told that her faith had “saved” her. He forgave her sins. It was a dramatic action, no doubt, one that would have required her to bear the shame of drawing attention to herself in a very public setting, but was, still, no more than a difficult evening. Even the Wise Thief, who spoke with kindness to Christ during their crucifixion, found that his faith brought him paradise “in a single moment” (as we sing in his hymn).

The grace that comes in such moments is always present for us as well. It makes sense for us to find small things of a good nature that we can offer as we wage war against the darkness that haunts our soul. A word of thanksgiving for even a small “cup of water” (or other random kindness) done by an “enemy” can set in motion the grace that made others whole. It may even allow us to enter paradise, in a single moment.

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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27 responses to “Forgiveness – Give an Enemy a Cup of Cold Water”

  1. Jordan Avatar

    “Positive action has life, beauty, truth, and being. It is strong and brings the might of reality to bear on the unreality of darkness.”
    There is such wisdom in this. Thank you for articulating it. Recently I had an opportunity to communicate an old hurt to someone that I had kept secret for a very long time. I felt strongly that I needed to tell them how they had let me down. I was expecting to be happy that the truth was told. I was not expecting how liberating it would be, nor how it would open up a possibility of reconciliation that I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.
    It baffles me how our bodies keep remembrance of these things, and how hidden the path of forgiveness can be.

  2. Allen Avatar

    Thank you so much, so many of us are in need of understanding and healing when using the word forgiveness. our vocabulary in this area can be so in error. I have said for a while my biggest struggle is redefining vocabulary for forgiveness and grace.

    For those of us who have left the protestant fundamentalist world, the words give so much pain. They have been used by those who crave power in order to place others in submission. They do acts which are very wrong, they order the victim “You have to forgive me”, placing the blame on the one who was hurt.

    Your words and prayer are very helpful.

  3. Santosh J. Samuel Avatar
    Santosh J. Samuel

    As almost always, very nice Father. Thank you.
    Quite amazed by your rate of output.

  4. Kristin Avatar

    Thank you for such comforting words, Father Stephen. Your post shows there is much room for the wounded, and there is a path for us that leads toward forgiveness that doesn’t threaten our being but protects.

    Allen, I hear you on the need to redefine vocabulary. When a friend used the word ‘predestination’ in a conversation with me recently, my whole body recoiled and I nearly had an anxiety attack. I realized I am not yet ready to tackle that one.

  5. Byron Avatar

    “Forgiveness is the beginning of our purification, not the result of it.”

    It’s a difficult first step and I think many people think of the statement Allen noted, “you have to forgive me” (that turns it into a weapon) when forgiveness is brought up. I’ve read before that it requires a renewal of relationship–but, very importantly, not of the same relationship as before. It may be that all we can do is pray as Father has advised, “O Lord, on the day of judgment, do not hold this sin against them on my account.”

  6. Xenia Avatar

    This post brings to mind two thoughts. Often in trying to forgive someone, I often find that first I have to understand why I or someone else said or did something that was so hurtful and damaging – just to make sense of the situation. One day in pondering something, the thought came to me, God is not going to ask me if I understand that person, but do I love him. Most of the time I cannot understand myself why do I think I can understand anyone else or expect them to understand themselves??? A totally different and slightly unrelated to the actual topic of forgiveness, but related to the cup of cold water. I visited Brazil years ago for a mission project with a Protestant church. The people and the churches were very, very poor and their mission emphasis for the whole area was titled “Shade and Fresh Water”. It was a challenge to each local church to offer, if nothing else, to the community, “Shade and Fresh Water” and they set up tables and chairs under shade trees with containers of fresh water and sat there and waited for people to come by and offered them a place of rest and refreshment and conversation. It was a very humbling experience to see the response of the community. How little it takes to start a relationship that can lead to healing and reconciliation. Saints and elders say forgive everyone everything – a very high calling indeed. I have a long way to go.

  7. Essie Avatar

    “Boundaries exist for a reason and they are not part of what forgiveness entails.” So often we confuse forgiveness with forgetting. “This doesn’t entail speaking to them, or renewing an unsafe relationship” is a crucial aspect of your counsel. A parable I once heard concerned some Hindu villagers who visited their guru for permission to kill a snake that had been terrorizing them. The guru asked them to wait, and then implored the snake to stop his biting to keep his life. Some months later, returning from a pilgrimage, the guru happened upon the snake, who lay in the dusty road half dead. What happened to you, my friend, he asked. The snake replied, I did as you asked, and as soon as they realized they didn’t have to fear me they began torturing me. You fool, said the guru. I told you not to bite – I didn’t tell you not to hiss.

  8. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Forgiveness is indeed difficult when a person or group of people—often family, perpetuate or enable hurtful behavior.

    One approach toward forgiveness I have tried is to look for a bigger picture or frame to see the hurtful behavior in a larger context. For example the person who hurts others were likely themselves hurt at one or more points in their lives. And they may be responding to others in a way of acting out their shame.

    Yet sometimes this approach fails and it is all that I can do to pray as Father suggests:

    O Lord, on the day of judgment, do not hold this sin against them on my account

    Allen I’m very empathetic to your experience. I suspect there are many people who have suffered similarly. May God help us and grant us peace and a forgiving heart.

  9. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen and I agree with all your words here (and I’m also familiar with the story about the onion.) Your encouragement here represents a gift that Orthodox Christianity has given to me, the encouragement to pray for everyone and everything in my life with a thankful and grateful heart. I so very much appreciate your assertion that boundaries stay safe while dealing with personal hurtful circumstances. Thank you for your clarity and examples from Our Lord. I listened to the Akathist of Thanksgiving recently and it reminded my heart of these truths yet again! Glory to God for all things!

  10. Tabitha Sherman Avatar
    Tabitha Sherman

    Father, bless,

    Finally, in a talk on forgiveness, there is acknowledgment that some relationships are not ‘safe’ and that forgiveness doesn’t mean we welcome them back into our circle. We have a family member by marriage who perpetrated a great crime against a member of my immediate family. He served 8 years in prison for it (that’s how serious it was). The devastation it wrought on my family will reverberate for generations. I have been trying to forgive him, but that prayer “O Lord, on the day of judgment, do not hold this sin against them on my account” is doable, when I reflect that I also want to be forgiven.

    Thank-you for this wonderful blog. I don’t comment often, but I read every one and gain something from it. I’ve also been working my way through the blog archives.


  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To all,
    The world is full of injuries and injustice – some of which are horrific in the extreme. There are a number of post-modern movements that seem to revel in discovering ever-more such injuries. The burden of “oppression” created in the minds of many, especially the young, becomes a very powerful psychic energy – scapegoating and many other dark outcomes are becoming ever more common. Forgiveness is actually the only way forward, particularly when it comes to the past – which can never be changed, nor can any action ultimately create “justice,” no matter how much it is discussed.

    I observe that the first and greatest victim of my own inability or unwillingness to forgive is myself. The bitterness and anger that go with it are a poison to the soul.

    What I suggest in this article is a “little way” or a “lesser way.” I recognize how hard these things can be. Thus, I am suggesting two strategies there are exceedingly modest – more fitting our weakness and our brokenness.

    1. Offer a prayer for their forgiveness on the day of judgment. Cancel the debt, even if it is on a date that none of us knows.
    2. Find even the tiniest thing of goodness this enemy might have done – for you or for someone else. Make of it an offering of thanksgiving.

    In these things, we are not trying to do something fantastic within ourselves. We are doing some tiny and insignificant. These are things we offer to God, whose grace does what we cannot do. But our tiniest efforts are deeply expansive in their consequences.

    Fight back. Bitterness is the deeper enemy.

  12. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    For this blog, I will not remain silent. As soon as I finished reading it, I prayed with many tears, although I long ago forgave some people who did unspeakable things to me when I was a child. One is still alive and I had a chance to confront him after long therapy. He apologized, and we have a close relationship now. The other had died before I could process the hurt, and it has always bothered me that I could not resolve the issue with him. I immediately thought of a multitude of things to thank God for with regards to both of these persons. This has lifted a huge weight off of me that I did not realize was still with me! Thank you so much for this blog, Fr. Stephen!

  13. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    You suggest doing simple things; that God can take them and magnify their consequences. That’s one reason I’ve always liked the parable of Jesus taking a few small fish and loaves and with them feeding thousands. Fr. Hopko, in his maxims, counsels that we be small, hidden. I can recall countless times where others have given me “a cup of cold water.” A token, small, a word, a smile, yet something I remember years later. I’m almost 75 and still remember kind Mrs. Ellis. Last I saw this poor lady, I guess I was only 5 or 6. She was being placed into an ambulance after being strait-jacketed. They did that in the 50’s. She was screaming (I would have too!). We never saw her again. Yet this little lady was always friendly and kind to me. Oh Christ, have mercy on this dear one.

  14. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes, Father, bitterness is indeed the deeper and soul destroying enemy. Sometimes we hold onto anger without realizing the destruction. And sometimes our coping mechanisms (and we tend to be blind to what these are) are equally destructive not leading to healing.

    I’m grateful for these two strategies you mention. The strategy to find some good in the injurious person and to be thankful for that is also healing. Indeed in our brokenness these strategies are significant acts, in themselves.

    Our humility is also key to such healing, to be willing to take on these strategies and the remembrance that we too have hurt others and desire forgiveness. We have a tendency to place a rubric of bad to worse on sin in a moralistic or legal fashion. And then ascribe to ourselves the ‘lesser evil’. Any turning away from Christ in passion, blindness, anger or bitterness is death. Fostering a lack of forgiveness in ourselves is a self-inflicted killer. May God help us to find that small good and to be thankful for it.

  15. Subdeacon John Avatar
    Subdeacon John

    So very freeing!

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Then, Father, there is the rememberance of wrongs we think other people did to us, put were simply one’s own passions run amok. Case in point, I got really offended at person 30 year ago, who has since go on to become an Orthodox priest. I have held this against him all these years. Today, it occurred to me that what really happened is that I was jealous of him. I have contacted him to repent but in the process I learned that he now has early stage Alzheimer’s. I never realized until today what the root of the problem was. It is unlikely that it hurt him a bit but God know’s what it has done to me.

    This is going to be one interesting Lent. Lord, have mercy.

  17. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Michael Bauman, I have done this repeatedly, misinterpreting a situation. Most of the people I have no way of contacting or they are dead, or I cannot even remember their names anymore. I have had many tearful prayer sessions. Many more to come, I am sure. I am so thankful that I have been pulled into Orthodox Christianity. It has helped me deal with all the hurt people have done to me, and all the hurt I have done to people.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kathleen, yes indeed, healing is always possible through His mercy.

  19. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you for another good article. I agree with what others have said about how crucial humility in forgiveness. It is a major struggle for me to remember that I too have likely hurt far more people than I think I have. I am no better (and quite possibly worse) than the people who have hurt me.

    It is also important in our struggle, I think, to recognize that we are hardwired to remember the people and events that hurt us. The more primitive parts of our brains take seriously their role in helping us survive so they do not want to let go of any memories of danger, actual or perceived. When a person experiences trauma, this tendency is greatly heightened on a biological level. Further, there is also evidence that about 20% of people are born with high levels of sensitivity which may lead to them feel more easily hurt (I have this tendency). This leads to lots of little things being falsely perceived as dangerous so that they are unnecessarily stored to protect me (according to primitive brain).

    I note these biological influences because awareness can help us recognize our brokenness without engaging in excessive self blame. Responsibility, yes, but less self blame when we realize that we’re fighting an uphill battle. The small steps you recommend, Fr. Stephen, are so helpful in this regard. If we take a step toward forgiving, Christ will carry us the rest of the way.

  20. (another) Elizabeth Avatar
    (another) Elizabeth

    I pray for a woman whose humility in begging forgiveness still amazes me and humbles me and inspires me. Her son was convicted of the gruesome and cold-blooded murders of several people such that the detective who responded to the scene still had almost PTSD-type associations with even driving past that street where the murders occurred.

    According to the newspaper account, at his sentencing, the guilty man was stone-faced, remorseless, and silent. But this poor, brave mother spoke: she told her son that she loved him, and she begged the victims’ families for forgiveness.

    I have no doubt this woman is praying fervently for her monster of a son, and so I pray for her, that she not give up on him, because if she does, he will truly be lost.

  21. Laura Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this post provides the prayers and opening for the beginning of healing for two of the three half-siblings I am mostly estranged with. However, I am stumped about finding one single ‘cup of water’ for my half-brother, and we are locked in a corrosive, downward spiral of mostly silence, punctuated by infrequent but nasty exchanges. He has hurt me deeply and I know that I have also hurt him. I was much younger in the birth order, so I don’t have knowledge of a single redeeming story from our growing up years. As adults, we have lived in separate countries and have had no meaningful interaction, really, since about 2006. He comes off bitter, caustic and sarcastic which I realize may also be a protection mechanism from pain. Our politics are polar-opposite and this was the cause of our latest, brief encounter when he unfriended me from social media. Now that I am a new Orthodox Christian, this estrangement over long-standing family issues that are too convoluted to retell cannot go on. Yet I see no way out of the impasse that 30+ years of mostly silence between us. I fear that I may be more the problem than him in this matter and he may be more wounded from my past verbal assaults than I am from his attacks. In this situation of me not wanting to be the stumbling block in his life but also seeing that I am stuck in the ‘blame and shame’ loop from our infrequent interactions, how can I pray for his forgiveness when he wants nothing to do with me? I feel this needs to be my focus of prayer during Lent. Not expecting a reconciliation in this lifetime but I do pray that both of us find peace.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you! I had the primitive brain issue in mind when I spoke of part of the brain hanging on these wounds. You described it very well. Grace makes possible what would otherwise be impossible. These small efforts I’ve suggested (and I’m sure there are more, and probably better ones) have the shared characteristic of being “safe” – allowing us to make an effort towards forgiveness that does not necessarily ring the bells of danger. My experience in using them has been that the carillon has been reduced from about a dozen bells to only two or three. May God give us grace.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You may be at a place where only the prayer of “do not hold this against him on my account on the day of judgment” is all you can manage. You describe a situation where both of you have spoken harshly, etc. In that, you might pray during Lent, “O God, soften my heart.” But, more than that, I strongly recommend the hymn/prayer:

    Beneath your compassion,
    We take refuge, O Theotokos!
    Despise not our prayer in our necessity,
    But deliver us from harm.
    O only pure, only blessed one.
    Most holy Theotokos, save us!

    You said that you are new to the Orthodox faith. Many times, devotion to the Theotokos is new and uncomfortable. But, if you are comfortable in praying this before her icon, you may find her to be a deep, comforting aid in this struggle. You’ve described a “stuck” situation which is so common for us all from time to time – and this is a large one. We need help. I particularly find the saints to be just that sort of help.

    I do not understand the mystery of the saints – why doesn’t God just do everything without them – but I think we are not constructed in that manner. The helpful intercession of the saints breaks down the isolation that so easily takes control of our hearts (especially in our culture).

    God give you grace!

  24. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,
    As I was reading your response to Laura (8:18 AM), it occurred to me how seldom I think about how the Theotokos was faced with a seemingly impossible task of forgiveness. Because of our belief in her holiness and unwavering faith, we might imagine that this was not hard for her. But she was human and a mother. She witnessed up close the profound suffering and unjust execution of her only child. Although Scripture does not specifically tell us that she forgave, we know that she did. We could not experience her love and help in times of trouble if she had not. I will try to remember to turn to her when I am faced with struggles to forgive.
    (Laura – I will say a prayer for your struggle to find forgiveness. All is possible with God.)

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton,

    Forgiveness leads to life as described by St. Athanasius in his treatise “On the Incarnation”

    “Before the Divine Sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish., But now that the Saviour has raised His Body, death is no longer terrible but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ knowing full well that when they die, they do not perish, but live indeed and become incorruptible through the Resurrection. But the devil, who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead.”

  26. Chris S Avatar
    Chris S

    Fr. Stephan “Forgive everybody everything”

    Mother Gavrilia “Make excuses for those who sin against you and for those whose sins you see”

    Elder Paisios (Arizona) “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on the soul of Dean” (insert name as needed)

  27. Alan Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, and to all who commented here. So much pain and hurt in our world….and so many wonderful comments and in this post. Thank you to all.

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