Chaplains's Corner: Forgiveness, the Core of Godliness
One interesting thing about people: we have a tendency to want others to treat us with understanding and compassion. The cry for mercy can be heard everywhere around the globe. Unfortunately, this cry is often one-sided. We want what we consider fairness, mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, but are reluctant to apply the same to others. However, the absolute necessity of forgiveness is probably one of the most misunderstood teachings of the major world religions.
Gandhi said: "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."[i] In the Islamic tradition, the Koran (39:53) records God's words about Himself: "O my servants who have transgressed against themselves, despair not of the Mercy of God. For God forgives all sins, He is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." Buddhism describes the characteristics of the wise: "By three things the wise person may be known. What three? He sees a shortcoming as it is. When he sees it, he tries to correct it. And when another acknowledges a shortcoming, the wise one forgives it as he should." (Anguttara Nikaya I - 103)
Christ's teaching on forgiveness is made very explicit in the Parable of the Wicked Servant (Mt 18: 23-35). The servant implored his lord: "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." His lord did so and much more: he "...released him and forgave him the debt." But when the servant’s fellow servant asked for patience to pay back his much smaller debt, the wicked servant "refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt." Jesus relates the lord’s reaction to the deed of the wicked servant: "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" The wicked servant was delivered to the "jailors."
The hypocrisy of imploring mercy and forgiveness for oneself and not for others is discussed by our Eastern Church Father St. John Chrysostom,[ii] who urges us to reflect on the kindnesses of God: "He made us when we did not exist, and created all visible things with us in mind -- sky, sea, earth air, everything in it... we have to be brief in view of the ocean of His works...." We could ponder the fact that our ancestral parents rejected God's gift of Paradise and all good that would have been passed on to us. By disobeying Him they literally threw the gift of Paradise back into His face. But out of love He continued to care for us even after. From a human viewpoint, such a rejection of a gift is the ultimate mocking insult. Picking up again the words of the holy John Chrysostom: "He [God] even sent His one Son [Jesus] for these objects of His beneficence who hated Him...." Some rejected Him and killed Him, as we do as well, by our own lack of mercy and forgiveness.
Christians pray 'The Lord's Prayer: "...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us...." (Mt 6:12). Members of many faith traditions cry out: "Lord have mercy!" Are these petitions vain utterings or do they come from the depths of our hearts? We should recall Jesus' instruction: "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt 6:7).
Let us be clear about what forgiveness is not. It is not condoning an inappropriate action or atrocious crime committed by ourselves or another. It acknowledges misdeeds and injustice, but overrides vengeance and retribution with beneficence; that is to say, that we want what is for the good and welfare of the malefactor. This is beautifully illustrated by the life of Orthodox priest, prisoner and Spiritual Father Hieromonk (priest-monk) Arseny, who was imprisoned in a horrific Soviet gulag from 1933 to 1958 (Alexander, 1998). A life among the most bestial of guards and the worst of criminals he describes as consisting of unrelenting "exhausting labor, chronic hunger, fights, beatings, the cold... and [making] you think only of your unavoidable death." Fr. Arseny's message to all, guards and criminal prisoners alike: "Remember and have no doubt! ...[God] in His limitless mercy [can] absolve us from our sins. There is no heavy sin or curse that cannot be redeemed by deeds and prayer." In the depths of this physical, psychological and spiritual misery, Fr. Arseny modeled Christ's love by his forgiveness of the brutal guards in the camps: "Only by goodness can you win over evil."
We can ask ourselves: Is there any person, group of people, country, nation, criminal, or sinner, to whom we have not shown mercy, or to whom we would not be willing to show mercy? Could it be someone who vilified or mocked us; or did worse to any of our loved ones; or committed a certain type of sin or infraction? Are we in some way like the wicked servant in Christ's parable who was asked by his fellow servant who owed him money merely for patience, but who instead refused him and threw him in prison? How many have we 'imprisoned' by lack of forgiving love for them? Jesus also told us what is in store for failing to show mercy and forgiveness: "So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” As another contemporary Orthodox spiritual father, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, has said: "For without forgiveness of [others’] sins there is no salvation."[iii]
Alexander, Servant of God. (1998). Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
[ii] Homily 61 on the Gospel of St. Matthew.