“Do we forgive our neighbors their trespasses? God also forgives us in His mercy. Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbors, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness, then, of your sins or unforgiveness, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself, man. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how terrible it is.”
-St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven
On the eve of Great Lent, many Orthodox Christians attend Forgiveness Vespers. We are reminded of the Lord’s teaching on fasting and forgiveness, and request forgiveness from each other. We ask: “Forgive me, a sinner,” and respond: “God forgives and I forgive.” This service is a helpful reminder for us to reflect on forgiveness and to follow the command and example of our Lord.
We all know that forgiveness is important, but often struggle to put it into practice. What does forgiveness mean to us as Christians? To understand this, we only need to look to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. One of the strongest defining characteristics of Jesus Christ is love. An extension to this love is his great mercy and forgiveness.
God loved the world so much, that he sent his only-begotten son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be incarnate as a human being here on Earth. In order to heal us from the corruption of sin, Jesus voluntarily gave up his life. He was betrayed, yet he forgave without being asked:
“Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NKJV).
Often, we hold grudges against our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Even when we ‘forgive’ them, we frequently do not let go of those thoughts. Forgiving those who hurt us and giving up our feelings and thoughts to God is the beginning of the process of healing. While our anger may seem impossible to give up, forgiveness is a decision we need to make in order to prevent the hurt from defining our lives.
Let us look to the example of our Lord Jesus and follow His example of forgiveness and love. He did not wish for revenge against Judas Iscariot, hate Pontius Pilate, or abandon us all who turn our backs on Him. Instead, He asked God to forgive us. He never gave in to anger or the desire for revenge, but rather showed the ultimate love by dying on the cross to save all the world, including those who abandoned and betrayed Him. If we wish to retain grace, we must follow His example.
Saint Silouan the Athonite explained this well:
“Christ prayed for those that crucified Him: ‘Father, count not this sin against them; they know not what they do.’ Archdeacon Stephen prayed for those who stoned him so that the Lord would not judge this sin against them. And so we, if we wish to retain grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not find pity on a sinner who will suffer in flames, then you do not carry the grace of the Holy Spirit, but rather an evil spirit; and while you yet live, you must free yourself from his clutches through repentance.”
May the Lord forgive us all and give us strength to follow in His footsteps and to forgive all who have hurt or offended us.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15 NKJV)”