“As We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors:” The Power and Necessity of Forgiveness

We’ve all been there: someone makes a rude comment to or about us; we are treated unfairly; we are abused, dismissed, or made the target. On some level, we all know how it feels to be mistreated and to suffer injustice. At first, the feelings we experience are surprise and shock, but if left to fester, they eventually evolve into anger, bitterness, and resentment. Such feelings can and will harden our hearts if left unchecked, or worse, if we periodically stir them up again and renew their hold on us.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s often easier to be consumed by anger than it is to forgive an offender and choose to love them. It’s easier to remind myself of the injustice, feel sorry for myself, and wallow in my own bitterness and self-pity. But if we let ourselves get to this point, the reality is that we are the only ones to blame for our continual suffering.

I recently read a talk from 2003 about resentment and forgiveness given by Christian monastic Hieromonk Damascene. The piece is a rather long exposition (certainly worth reading in full), but I was especially struck by Father Damascene’s language of sickness and healing in describing the relationship between resentment and forgiveness. “Why is resentment such a deadly sin?” Father Damascene asks, and then he goes on to answer:

“The Holy Scriptures tell us that God is love. Therefore, explains the Russian Holy Father St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, ‘Resentment or rejection of love is rejection of God. God withdraws from a resentful person, deprives him of His Grace, and gives him up to spiritual death, unless the person repents in good time so as to be healed of that deadly moral poison, resentment.’ If for whatever reason we do not forgive someone and hold onto our anger, it will truly be to our own destruction. It can poison our entire lives, make us the captives of the devil, and eventually prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

On a recent trip to St. Anthony’s monastery in Florence, Arizona, the abbot of the monastery counseled me similarly regarding forgiveness, saying that harbored hatred is a barrier to God’s love in our life and prevents us from fully loving God as well.

This all speaks to the core of why harboring resentment against those who have mistreated us only causes us further and deeper suffering: by doing so, we are in fact distancing ourselves from God and his love. A heart hardened by anger turns us away from God and sanctification and back to sin and our fallen nature.

This is where forgiveness comes in. If resentment is the poison, forgiveness is the cure. If resentment drags us back toward our fallen nature, forgiveness, as Father Damascene points out, tends toward the divine:

“But for Christ’s sake, we go against our fallen nature, and force ourselves to pray. We ask God to bless and have mercy on the person who hurt us, we wish good things for him, we wish his salvation, just as our Lord wishes his salvation. In this way we begin to become like God Himself, Who, according to the words of Christ, is kind to the unthankful and the evil (Luke 6:35). In going against our fallen nature, we return to our original nature—the image of God in us—and we grow in the likeness of God.”

Father Damascene also discusses how holding onto anger and resentment is an act of pride; because “part of us…wants to be God” (again, thanks to our fallen nature), we get angry when things don’t go our way, when situations are out of our control, and when others don’t act how we think they should (especially towards us).

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an act of love and humility that counteracts resentment. Father Damascene says that praying for our offenders is a crucial part of forgiving them. Prayer serves two purposes: first, it is an act of intercession for the offender, and therefore an act of love. Second, it is also an act of humility, because in praying for our offenders we are setting aside concerns for ourselves and remembering our own humble state before God. Certain prayers can especially help us do this, as Father Damascene explains:

“In the practice of watchfulness [against anger and resentment] and prayer, we have no better tool than the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ There is no more powerful name on earth than the name of Jesus Christ to oppose the proud fallen spirits. And, in the words of the Holy Apostle Peter, There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). When we ask Christ to have mercy on us, we are also humbling our proud fallen nature. We are admitting that we are not God, and that we need God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In seeking God’s forgiveness, we are acknowledging the infirmity of our nature, and this helps us to forgive and have mercy on others who share our fallen, wounded nature.”

I find his point about recognizing that we share our fallen nature with our offenders particularly compelling. By remembering that all of humanity is afflicted by the common disease of sin, and that it is because of this affliction that we mistreat each other, it alters the attitude of the abused heart. By adopting this perspective, we can begin to counteract the anger and bitterness and instead replace those feelings with pity, empathy, and love.

Of course, we must remember that as Christians, we are commanded by Christ to forgive:

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” — Luke 6:27-29

“Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven.” — Luke 6:37

St. Paul echoes Christ’s words in Romans:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” — Romans 12:14

In the Lord’s Prayer, which Christ teaches us in the Gospel of Matthew, there is yet another reminder of this commandment:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” — Matthew 6:12

Again and again, we are reminded of the necessity to forgive, and we are also warned that if we do not forgive others and instead harbor resentment, we will separate ourselves from God’s forgiveness, love, and grace.

Finally, while forgiveness may sometimes seem impossible, we must also remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Christ will help us, and he will soften and heal our hearts, as Father Damascene says:

“When we continually force ourselves to bless and pray for others in this way, we will find that our Lord Jesus Christ will change, renew, and refresh our hearts. It may take some time and persistence, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, we will be changed. The poison of resentment, by the Grace of Christ, will leave our system.”