Forgive Everyone for Everything

In Dostoevsky’s great last work, The Brothers Karamazov, the story is told of Markel, brother of the Elder Zossima. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he is dying. In those last days he came to a renewed faith in God and a truly profound understanding of forgiveness. In a conversation with his mother she wonders how he can possibly be so joyful in so serious a stage of his illness. His response is illustrative of the heart of the Orthodox Christian life.

 ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

As difficult as it may sound, the reality described by Dostoevsky can be summed up very simply: forgive everyone for everything. Stated in such a blunt fashion, such a goal is overwhelming. How can I forgive everyone for everything? This life of forgiveness, which is nothing other than the life of Christ within us, is our inheritance in the faith. The life of blame, recrimination, bitterness, anger, revenge and the like are not the life of Christ, but simply the ragings of our own egos, the false self which we exalt over our true life which is “hid with Christ in God.”

The rightness of a cause, or the correctness of our judgment do not justify nor change the nature of our ragings. For none of us can stand before God and be justified – except as we give ourselves to the life of Christ, who is our only righteousness.

The question of forgiveness is not a moral issue. We do not forgive because it is the “correct” thing to do. We forgive because it is the true nature of the life in Christ. As Dostoevsky describes it: it is Paradise. In the same manner, the refusal to forgive, the continuation of blame, recrimination, bitterness, etc., are not moral failings. They are existential crises – drawing us away from the life of Christ and Paradise, and ever deeper into an abyss of non-being.

I have lately spent some of myprayer-time each day with a modified form of the ‘Jesus Prayer.’ It runs, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, and forgive all those who hate me or do me harm. Forgive them freely without reproach and grant me true repentance.” I offer no great authority for this prayer – indeed, as I pray it, I find that it changes from time to time. But it is a way of offering prayer for my enemies – of teaching my heart to “forgive everyone for everything.”

There is a further thought that is of great importance. Forgiveness and unforgiveness are not private matters. As Christ taught the Apostles, “Whosoever sins you loose are loosed, and whosoever sins you retain are retained.” This, of course, has a particular meaning for the Apostolic ministry given to the Church. But it also alludes to another reality. My refusal to forgive is a force for evil in this world – binding both myself and others around me. It may not be an intentional binding – but bind it will. In the same manner, forgiveness is the introduction of Paradise into this world – both for myself and for others around me. Whether I intend it or not, Paradise comes as a fruit of such love.

Forgive everyone for everything. Will we not be in Paradise?

This week I have been in Dallas, Texas, for the funeral of Archbishop Dmitri, beloved Apostle to the South. At the conclusion of the funeral vigil (as is normally the case for all Orthodox Christians) the primary celebrant of the service comes to the open coffin of the deceased. Placing his stole over the head of the body, he reads the words of the final absolution (this same prayer is used in the sacrament of Holy Unction).

May our Lord Jesus Christ, by His divine grace, and also by the gift and power given unto His holy Disciples and Apostles, that they should bind and loose the sins of men (For He said unto them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). “And whatsoever you shall bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in Heaven” (Matt. 18:18) and which also has been handed down to us from them as their successors, absolve this my spiritual child, N., through me who am unworthy, from all things wherein, as a human, he has sinned against God, whether by word or deed, wheher by thought and with all his senses, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, whether by knowledge or in ignorance. And if he be under the ban or excommunication of a Bishop or of a Priest; or if he has brought upon himself the curse of his father or mother; or has fallen under his own curse; or has transgressed by any oath; or has been bound, as a human, by any sins whatsoever, but has repented of these with a contrite heart, may He absolve him also from all these faults and bonds. And may all those things that proceed from the infirmity of human nature be given over unto oblivion and may He forgive him everything, for the sake of His Love for Mankind, through the prayers of our most-holy and most-blessed Sovereign Lady, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, and of all the Saints. Amen.

We who expect to receive such great mercy at the time of our own death – should we not extend the same mercy to all while we are yet among them?

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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24 responses to “Forgive Everyone for Everything”

  1. Amy from Michigan Avatar
    Amy from Michigan

    This gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely beautiful. Absolutely necessary. This is the goal of our lives and one that I need to be reminded of daily if not hourly. Thank you Father for this, it is a treasure.

  2. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    A very timely reminder for me, Father. The Great Fast has had a rough start. Thank you for this!

  3. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    “We who expect to receive such great mercy at the time of our own death – should we not extend the same mercy to all while we are yet among them?” — Fr. Stephen

    We should and we must. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  4. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

    What is Markel really saying here?

  5. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I was in Christian circles for a season that had come to question the idea of forgiveness, even creating sort of a “Christian” cancel culture. There can be no such thing. I am so thankful for this article today.

  6. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise.

    Matthew, this strikes me as the restoration of communion and love. The very nature of our salvation (“Am I not in paradise…?”).

    The “Let me be culpable before all…” is likely to be viewed, in our modern society, as an issue but here is seems to be a humble acknowledgement, allowing Markel to see and live in the restoration of communion/paradise. There would be none, if he were to cling to his own self-justification because there is only broken communion there. Just my thoughts.

  7. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I like your version of the Jesus Prayer. In my life I seem to have created fewer enemies than most people, and so “basic” forgiveness (i.e., what might be thought of as a negative version in that I don’t bear much ill will to too many people at all) has never been a personal challenge as it is for those who others have truly wronged. People have not done bad things to me to warrant my having to forgive them.

    When expressed in a much more positive, pro-active way, however–loving others so as not to participate in their binding (as you describe it)–it is easier to see my inadequate forgiveness. Being uncharitable toward “them,” for example: those who do not personally cause me harm but are part of impersonal systems and factions that can stir my anger and even my hatred.

    It reminds me of a passage from CS Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”:

    “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours….Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Byron. I think you are correct about modern thoughts re: “Let me be culpable before all”. It´s how I first read it. Humble acknowledgement, as Markel seems to have experienced on his deathbed, may it come to all of us sooner rather than later.

  9. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Regarding your prayer, it sounds similar to something in a series of prayers written by a 12th century Armenian saint and Catholicos (Chief Hierarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church). Actually this particular saint worked closely with the Byzantine Emperor to unify the churches but alas the Emperor died before the process was completed. But I digress.

    Nerses IV Shnorhali (Gracious, or Grace-filled) wrote, among many other things, a series of 24 meditations for Lent, titled “I Confess with Faith.” Here is the 23rd in the series, which your prayer reminds me of:

    All-merciful Lord,
    have mercy on all those who believe in you;
    on my beloved ones, and on those who are strangers to me;
    on all those I know, and on those unknown to me;
    on the living and on the dead;
    even forgive my enemies, and those who hate me,
    forgive the trespasses they have committed against me;
    and relieve them from the malice they bear towards me,
    so that they become worthy of your mercy.
    Have mercy upon your creatures,
    and on me, a manifold sinner.

    https://shnorhali.com/english/

  10. Aaron Lechtenberger Avatar
    Aaron Lechtenberger

    The notion of binding and loosing sins is something I connected very strongly to an anime called Naruto, when the villain, Nagato, chooses to forgive the main hero, Naruto, and his village.

    Naruto’s village destroyed Nagato’s village many years ago (including killing his mother and father). So when Nagato destroys their village, he can claim an eye for an eye. But that isn’t Nagato’s own justification, he actually believes that he is on a path to end war and what he calls the cycle of pain and vengeance by making everyone suffer similar pain. Whether he thought that pain would bind them together by shared suffering isn’t important, his plan isn’t coherent, and it isn’t meant to be. As a story point, he is thwarting Naruto’s claim to bring about peace and justice by killing him, Nagato, by showing Naruto that this “justice” is a ceaseless cycle of suffering. But then he asks Naruto whether he could make a better world, which forces Naruto to concede that he doesn’t know but that Nagato is still wrong.

    After a long exchange of fighting, they agree to talk rather than fight further. Naruto tells him that he, Naruto, needs to know how Nagato could have become the person that he was when they both had the same teacher who was emphatic about teaching them to pursue peace in the world. Nagato, defines himself by his
    suffering, and describes how the havoc wreaked upon them by foreigners and betrayal within their nation led him to believe there was no such thing as peace. He still wants to know Naruto’s answer here, and Naruto simply responds that he can’t choose to walk away from peace because of the suffering he has to endure, otherwise there will be no peace. Nagato realizes that he hasn’t let go of his pain and decides he has to walk a different path in the hopes of finding something like true peace. Interestingly, Naruto hasn’t forgiven him; Naruto had only decided that he wouldn’t kill Nagato and act according to his desire for vengeance because it would mean there was no possibility of peace. In the end Nagato ends the cycle of pain and vengeance by choosing to forgive. For Naruto’s village, this is literally life-giving because Nagato releases the souls he has claimed/bound.

    The imagery of forgiveness being literally the sort of thing which restores a person to life feels proper, and I feel vindicated in saying this based on your post. In this sense I feel like this cartoon fiction depicts real life better than many shows and movies depict real life.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Aaron,
    Interesting story. I have never watched or read any Anime. Fascinating.

  12. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you for this critical reminder father. I’m the servant forgiven an unpayable debt out of sheer mercy. How can I then turn to my brother and shake my fist at his, comparably, trifling offenses? Your alternate form of the Jesus Prayer is a lovely one. It’s my understanding that, at the monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, after their practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer corporately (I love this) they conclude a final time with, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me…and on all the world.” I’ve tried to incorporate that into my own practice.

  13. SW Avatar
    SW

    Fr Stephen,
    You wrote, “The question of forgiveness is not a moral issue. We do not forgive because it is the “correct” thing to do. We forgive because it is the true nature of the life in Christ. As Dostoevsky describes it: it is Paradise. In the same manner, the refusal to forgive, the continuation of blame, recrimination, bitterness, etc., are not moral failings. They are existential crises – drawing us away from the life of Christ and Paradise.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. Such an antidote to legalism.

  14. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it….’

    Wow, what a powerful statement of the gospel. It sounds like Jesus announcing the Kingdom-close-at-hand. We are in Paradise already. But unforgiveness etc. obstructs our view. Only repentance clears away the clouds – only to find the Sun was shining all along.

    Thank you, Father. I must revisit this novel very soon.

  15. Job Avatar
    Job

    “Also remember: every day and whenever you can, affirm to yourself: ‘Oh, Lord, have mercy on all those who appear before You today.’ Because every hour and every minute thousands of people leave their lives on earth and their souls present themselves before God–and how many of them depart in solitude, in grief and anguish, and no one regrets their passing, or even knows who they are: did they live or not? And perhaps from the other side of the world your prayer for their repose will rise up to God, even though you didn’t know them and they didn’t know you. How poignant it must be to a soul standing in fear before the Lord to feel that someone is praying for him at that moment, that a human being is left on earth who loves him. God will look at you both more mercifully, because if you felt so much pity for him, how much more pity will He have, He who is infinitely more merciful and loving than you are. And He will forgive him for your sake.” (The Brothers Karamazov)

    Since reading The Brothers Karamazov, I have prayed daily that prayer (“Lord, have mercy on all those who appear before You this day”). Initially, praying the prayer seemed “the right thing to do,” particularly considering how many people die in solitude without any friends or family to mourn their passing. More recently, however, in light of certain news events, exactly what I’m praying for struck me with force. I started to feel sick to my stomach thinking about the heinous, evil acts committed by those for whom I pray for God’s mercy. Then I remembered Christ’s words on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” I cried, realizing how difficult it is for me to forgive minor trespasses against me, let alone pray in sincerity for God to have mercy on murderers, child molesters, and rapists whom I’ve never met. My heart felt far from God. I’m getting old and still know nothing. Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to learn and practice. It most certainly is existential. It’s easier to ponder in the abstract. I pray, and pray often.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Job,
    Dostoevsky has deep courage in his novels – and takes us to places we would likely never dare to go ourselves. God give us grace!

  17. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you P.Stephen for this timely post, and this passage from the Brothers Karamasov which touched me so much when I read it a few years ago and all the force of words and images is inexhaustible…
    In the Akathist to the Holy Spirit, there is this kondakion :
    It is the Holy Spirit who gives birth to eternal life ; the Holy Spirit who inspires the martyrs, who ordains the priests, who crowns the righteous, who consecrates the bread and the wine in the Body and Blood of God : Ô depth of the riches and wisdom of God ! Grant us the crown of your gifts : the infinite Love which forgives all, which suffers for enemies and which wants all to be saved. Then, in your light, becoming children of light, we will sing, Alleluia !
    May we receive something of this wonder….

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Helene,
    What a sweet prayer!

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I think I have a lot to learn about silence. Silence in the mind and heart. Silence to hear God’s words speak to the heart.

    My understanding of forgiveness is that to be forgiving, one must be humble and see one’s own sins. Forgiveness precedes hypostatic prayer and lays a path to love.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, silence, in the spiritual sense, is a bit like the music of the spheres and the atomic vibrations which you know better than I. It is an active love that taps into God’s Life.

    Many folks look at ‘silence’ as an unnatural deadness. It is anything but that, by the Grace of God.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is there any significant difference between forgiving everybody and repenting all things because one knows the darkness of all sins are in one’s own heart and submitting to Jesus’ mercy heals in a similar manner?

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    Just another thought on silence. By analogy, silence is identical to the Father. The Word is begotten from silence. So the Spirit of silence is also the Spirit of the Word.

    This has become increasingly meaningful to me. When we receive the Spirit of silence, we die with Christ – to the ever-tempting noise and distraction – into the bosom of the Father. The prayer of Jesus has been my gate.

    I pray you’re doing well.

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Dostoevsky’s language of being “guilty of everything” is unusual – and gives voice to the reality that all sin is my sin (because we are all one). Christ takes that burden on Himself – “He bore our sins.” But, in the same action, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think of both actions as united and don’t really try to separate them.

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