One is Free When One Forgives

One is Free When One Forgives

Fr Luke A. Veronis

The year was 1949. Greece had been devastated by the German occupation during WW2 followed by the horrors of a cruel civil war between the Greek communist and anti-communists. The village priest, Papa Stavros had two eldest sons who took part in the Resistance during the German occupation. Some villagers, however, betrayed them during the war and the Germans took them away, never to be seen again. Papa Stavros’ presbytera died from starvation during the conflict. Then during the Civil War, Papa Stavros lived with one of his married daughters and her baby son. She was expecting her second child in a few weeks when the Communist set their house on fire, pulling the pregnant daughter out of the house only to kill her, shooting her numerous times in the stomach, and then shooting her little boy right in front of the priest. What made it even more unbearable was that these communists weren’t strangers from a foreign land but local villagers who Papa Stavro knew.

What would have made many people go insane didn’t make this priest go mad. Despite all the tragedies and unimaginable horror he witnessed, he continually preached to his fellow villagers about the need for forgiveness. “There exists no other way than to forgive,” he would tell them. Most of the villagers laughed scornfully and with anger because of their bitterness and desire for revenge against their enemies, yet he remained adamant. “One is free only when one forgives.”

“There exists no other way than to forgive. One is free only when one forgives.” Saint Silouan the Athonite said similar words: “Where there is forgiveness … there is freedom.”

Sometimes we may wonder why we should forgive others who have deeply hurt us? Why does forgiveness play such a central part of our Orthodox Christian faith? Precisely because only in forgiveness will we discover freedom!

First, our freedom begins with the scandalous forgiveness and mercy that God offers us. We catch a glimpse of this outrageous grace in today’s Gospel story of the Forgiving King and Unforgiving Servant. A lowly servant owes an insurmountable, unimaginable debt to a king, an amount he could never possibly repay. Yet when the servant begs for mercy, instead of being sent to prison for what he deserves, the King unabashedly shows extreme mercy and forgives the entire debt. The servant doesn’t deserve such mercy, yet the King offers forgiveness because this is the nature of divine love. This is who the King is. And the servant is free.

Yet, this same servant goes away and encounters a fellow servant who owes a meager, payable debt. When his fellow servant begs for similar mercy, the first servant remains arrogant and unforgiving. He doesn’t show mercy and as a result ends up a slave, imprisoned by his own unwillingness to forgive.

We forgive because this is our nature as “a new creation” in Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God is one of extreme mercy and grace. When we cultivate a living and vibrant relationship with God, we develop a spirit of divine mercy within ourselves. We learn to love as Jesus loves; to forgive as Jesus forgives; to show mercy and grace as Christ did. We become more and more like Jesus. This is our nature as “a new creation” in Christ.

Our ability to forgive and show mercy most clearly reveal how much we have truly adopted the “mind of Christ.” When we struggle to forgive other, this struggle reflects how we haven’t allowed God’s Spirit to dwell richly in us. We continue to remain enslaved in our fallen nature.

Fr. Vasilios Thermos explains that “there are four common reasons why we choose to forgive others. First, there is the Conventional forgiveness, which is pragmatic. We don’t want to turn life into a jungle of hatred. Second, we forgive out of empathetic mutuality: we remember our own sins and forgive others because we also want to be forgiven. Third, we forgive because we desire inner peace; we have to forgive as a way to find relief and serenity in our own lives. Fourth, we forgive because God orders us to forgive. We submit to the Lord’s commandment.

All four of these reasons can be steps in the right direction, yet each of these are motivated in some way by personal profit. We forgive because we benefit. Is there another way of looking at the essence of forgiveness not simply as a means for personal benefit, but as a part of our essence, our true identity?

The Church always sees the very essence of our existence as communion with the other. We are created in the image of the Triune God, who is a communion of three persons. Love for the other reflects our true essence. Hatred, indifference, or absence of forgiveness means a denial of our true self! When we don’t forgive another, we cut communion with the other! Absence of communion means death!”

St John of the Ladder bluntly states, “True forgiveness will come not when you pray for the one who offended you, not when you give him presents, not when you invite him to share a meal with you, but only when, on hearing of some catastrophe that has afflicted him in body or soul, you suffer and you lament for him as if for yourself”. True forgiveness comes when we feel the other as a part of ourselves.”

The very essence of who we are is bound in our communion of love with the other and this implies our readiness to forgive. Whenever we can’t forgive anyone, we deny who we are as children of God. St Sophrony highlights that we imitate Christ “to the degree that we pray for the forgiveness of the entire world, viewing and feeling all humanity as members of our own flesh.”

St Maximos the Confessor notes that “when we pray for forgiveness, we bring our human will into harmony with the divine Will. Conversely, when we withhold forgiveness, we self-destruct in our refusal to live in union with each other through mutual forgiveness. Failing such union, our nature remains self-divided in its will and cannot receive God's divine and ineffable gift of Himself.”

Thus, forgiveness reflects a central aspect of our identity as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. Yet, if we still have difficulty forgiving others, listen to Kallistos Ware’s four words of counsel about forgiveness:

(1) Do not delay: the time for forgiveness is always now. Maximize the moment. The devil's weapons are nostalgia and procrastination: he tells us 'Too late' or 'Too soon'. But, where the devil says 'Yesterday' or 'Tomorrow', the Holy Spirit says 'Today'. Be like the loving father in the story of the Prodigal Son. Take the initiative and run out to meet the other. Forgiveness comes first; it is the cause of the change in ourselves and in others, not the effect.

(2) Forgive the other but also be willing to accept the forgiveness that the other offers. It is hard to forgive; but sometimes it is even harder to acknowledge that we ourselves need to be forgiven. Let us be humble enough to accept the gift of another's pardon.

(3) Forgive others but also forgive yourself. How often have we said, 'I will never forgive myself for that'? Yet how can we accept forgiveness from others, if we will not forgive ourselves?

(4) Pray. If we cannot yet find within our heart the possibility of forgiving the other, then let us at least pray for them. In the words of St Silouan, 'If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you.' And if, as we pray, we cannot yet bring ourselves to the point of actually forgiving, then let us ask God at least for the desire and longing to forgive.

There exists no other way. One is free only when one forgives. It is in this freedom that that comes with forgiveness that we discover our true nature, our divine identity as children and heirs of God.

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