“I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget!”
How many times have we heard (or said) something along those lines? We think we’re doing our part by forgiving a person, but that’s not what’s really happening in our hearts.
The Christian call to forgiveness goes much deeper than a nod to society’s expectations and a desire to keep up appearances. It’s more than saying “it’s okay” when we’re told “I’m sorry.” And it’s certainly more than acting like everything is okay without having resolved the problem.
That’s avoidance, not forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the watchword of the Christian life, and especially of Great Lent. It’s the defining attitude that we are trying to learn in relation to others, as we accept and experience the forgiveness of God. The Church even calls the last Sunday before Lent “Forgiveness Sunday” so we can start Lent on the right footing. And, by no accident, “forgiven” was the first word for the new Y2AM Instagram challenge called #JourneyToPascha (Learn more about that here).
So what does forgiveness look like for a Christian?
1. What Jesus taught
Over and over again, Jesus taught a radical form of forgiveness. But He didn’t just talk about it, He practiced it. After all, He forgave the ones who crucified Him. And He expected His disciples to follow suit, just as He calls us to this same forgiveness today.
We might be thinking: “But I’m only human, I’m not perfect. Jesus was God! I can’t be expected to forgive like He did…” Yet we as Orthodox Christians believe that our God became human so that we could become like Him. Jesus didn’t simply come as a teacher, a guru, or an activist. He came to make it possible for us to return to Paradise. And that return begins in this life.
That journey begins now, with forgiveness.
Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness are beautifully presented in the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer, He invites us to ask God the Father to, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After Jesus teaches this prayer, He goes on to say “for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” Matthew 6:14-15).
God forgives us, but it depends on our attitude of forgiveness.
When we say “forgive us AS we forgive” we are saying, “forgive us AS MUCH AS we forgive” those who have harmed us, angered us, or frustrated us. As we saw on the Sunday of Judgment, the things we do to people are things we do to God. Refusing to forgive people and pushing them away means that we’re pushing God away as well. We are essentially making it impossible for God to forgive us if we haven’t yet forgiven others. That’s tough medicine to swallow.
Yet, there’s hope. In Christ, we have someone to whom we can give all of our resentment. We have someone who can bear our burden willingly, and can take it away.
2. Giving up resentment
It’s all too easy to hold on to our hurt or anger when we are harmed. Remembering our pain, we either refuse to forgive, or we wait until the other person comes forward.
But what do we get from refusing to forgive? What good comes from resentment? The temptation is to look at forgiveness as an award we give to someone when we think they deserve it, when they have proven they are sorry. We might treat forgiveness as some sort of legal pardon, as something that we grant to someone when we feel they’re ready.
Is that fair on our part, though? What is the example that God has given us?
“God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103:12). “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
We have done nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness, and yet He died on the cross for us. There’s nothing we can do to repay that. So if we can ask God to forgive us, and we realize that His forgiveness is a gift that we didn’t earn, then why do we treat forgiving others any differently? Forgiveness is a gift, something we give without expecting anything in return. We forgive not because the other person deserves it, but because they don’t. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a gift.
When we don’t forgive another person, it’s like we have them on trial in our own hearts. We’ve become their judge, jury, and executioner. We become like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21-35. We forget the words of scripture, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). Unknown to us, resentment locks us in the chains we had reserved for the other person.
But more than that, resentment is a weight we aren’t strong enough to bear. Eventually, our resentment eats away at us and we become bitter, angry, and unhappy. It saps the joy from us, as we begin to live our lives as victims of real and imagined wrongs from nearly anyone and everyone.
In forgiving others, we free up space within ourselves to love, instead of closing ourselves off with resentment. And when we’re prepared to forgive, we’ll be quicker to ask forgiveness, too.
3. Asking forgiveness
The other side of the coin of forgiving another person is the humility to ask someone to forgive you.
Very rarely is a situation so black and white that the offended person did nothing wrong. As Christians, we are called to be introspective, to be aware of our thoughts, attitudes and words. We cannot go back and change the past, but we can learn from the past to live better in the present.
As Great Lent begins, the Orthodox tradition is to ask all of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to forgive us for anything we may have done that year. In response, we remind the person of God’s mercy when we say, “Christ forgives”. With that in mind, I ask for your forgiveness. Whether I know you in person, or if you are one of our readers here on The Ladder, please forgive me for my sins and shortcomings. Pray for me as I pray for you this Lent.
Forgiveness is not easy. It’s more than words; it’s an attitude and a way of living out our Christian life. Jesus taught us to forgive freely, without any expectations. And when we let go of our resentments, we’ll have the humility to ask for forgiveness from others whom we’ve hurt along the way.
Do you struggle with resentment? How does pride or fear of getting hurt keep you from forgiving others?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Chain of Resentment
The Meaning of Forgiveness Vespers