Learning how to forgive

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Learning how to forgive
Saturday of the 32nd Week after Pentecost
16 January, 2010
1 Thessalonians 5:14-23 ; Luke 17:3-10


[This audio file has been edited since audio and written styles are not the same but very different ways of communication.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The words that our Saviour is giving us today are very important, because they are reminding us of what are the fundamentals of our life. Of course, loving the Lord above all things always has first place in our life, and it is the foundation of our life. After this, forgiveness comes immediately. The Christian way is characterised by forgiveness. That is why, when the Lord is giving the example today, the apostles, recognising their own limitations, say to Him : “Increase our faith”. They understand how difficult this project of forgiveness is. Yet, our Saviour does not allow forgiveness to be an option for us. It is a fundamental necessity for us who are Christians to learn how to forgive. So much is this the case, that we say every day in the “Our Father” : “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.

As much as we are forgiving others, we ask the Lord to forgive us. In other places the Lord has said very clearly : “‘If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in Heaven forgive your trespasses’” (Mark 11:26). Why is this so ? It is partly because (and even greatly because) if we have not come to the point of forgiving other people, our hearts are therefore hard. If our hearts are hard, we are not going to accept God’s forgiveness for us even if He is giving it to us. There are many persons, sad to say, whom I have met in my life who are in exactly this condition. They are so broken by life, and so bitter because of the pain of life, that they will not forgive ; they cannot bring themselves to forgive. It is partly because the habit of not forgiving is a very familiar habit, and they are afraid of what life might be like without this grudge that is always there in the background of their lives. This is a sort of insanity, but human beings are not especially known for sanity.

Where is this forgiveness coming from ? Forgiveness can only come from love. It can only come from loving the Lord above all things, and living in communion with Him at all times. As we have been taught by many elders, this forgiveness is found in praying for the person who has hurt or abused us, even if it happened unintentionally. Today, our Lord gives us the example, saying : “‘If he [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, “I repent,” you shall forgive him’”. Although our Lord gives this example today, on another occasion (see Matthew 18:22), He does not add this condition that the persons say : “I am sorry”. Nevertheless, we are to understand that before the other person (who may be difficult for us) even asks for forgiveness, it is important that we have already forgiven. The Lord says to us that the foundation of our life has to be that of forgiveness — forgiveness without any conditions attached.

We are always praying for those persons who are difficult. How do we pray ? As Archimandrite Sophrony taught (and I believe that he is right), following his spiritual father, Saint Silouan, we simply say : “Lord, have mercy”. We ask the Lord in His love to be present to the other person. The more that I say “Lord, have mercy” for the other person, the more my own heart is straightened out towards the other person. I cannot make the other person change, but the Lord’s love can change my heart. This is what is important : how I am towards the person who is so difficult for me because of pain inflicted or feelings hurt by so-and-so or whatever. It is I who am responsible for me. I am responsible for how I react.

When it comes down to it in the end, the Lord is not going to be asking me (as I am grumbling about this other person) : “What about this other person here ?” The Lord is going to say : “All right, that is between that person and Me ; but what about your heart ? Is your heart bitter ? Is your heart angry ? Is your heart hard ? Do you still love Me ?” This is what the Lord is going to be asking us, as He does ask us all the time. This is our way of life.

This underlines the lesson that I keep repeating, the lesson which I was taught many, many years ago by a nun. When I tried to thank her for her hospitality, she insisted very strongly that I must thank the Lord, and not her. In my stupidity I tried to teach her, but she said : “It is THE LORD”. This is what is behind the Lord’s words at the end of this encounter with Him this morning. He says that we should not be expecting thanks for anything at all, because “we are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do”. Our duty as Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, as carriers of Christ, is to live love, and to live in forgiveness. That is our duty. That is who we are. If we are not living like that, it is difficult for us to brag that we are Christians, let alone Orthodox Christians.

When the Apostle Paul is talking to us today about praying unceasingly, he is not saying that we should be asking for things. Many of us in our lives have naïvely thought that in prayer, we should be asking for something. It is too popularly misunderstood that the conversation between us and the Lord is similar to that of a two-year old child with his father or mother : “Gimme this ; gimme that ; gimme, gimme”. This is not at all what the Apostle is speaking about. “Praying unceasingly” is referring to the communion of love which is prayer in its best form, and which has no words at all. I still remember the story I heard as a child about a person who spent a great deal of time alone in the Temple. (This was obviously at a time when our Temples were open most of the time.) The priest came to him, and asked him : “You are here almost all the time. Do you like it very much ?” The man replied : “Yes, I like to be here”. The priest asked further : “Then what are you doing all this time ?” The man responded : “Nothing”. The astute priest inquired further : “Are you praying ?” The man answered : “No, I do not think so”. The priest asked once again : “What are you doing, then ?” The man replied : “I look at Him, and He looks at me, and we are happy”. That is a simple way of speaking about it ; but ultimately, that is precisely the nature of the relationship of love between us and the Lord (and between ourselves, too).

I know of couples who have been married for sixty or seventy years, and their lives together appear to me often to be mostly wordless. They do not seem to need to say anything to each other, because they simply live in this community of love with each other, and everything is “just fine”. They are happy together. I still remember one little couple I used to know many, many years ago. I can still see them sitting outside the seniors’ residence in which they were living. It was a sunny day, and they were just sitting there in the sun holding hands, leaning on each other. It was very touching. That is what I am talking about. Our relationship with the Lord is like that. Our relationship with the Lord consists of love which is beyond words. We do use words ; but ultimately, the love between ourselves and the Lord is beyond words. Such love is completely inexpressible. We use words to help it grow, but then words become completely useless after a time.

This is what the Apostle is referring to. When he is saying : “Rejoice always”, it cannot but be the fruit of that relationship with the Lord. We rejoice perpetually because this love is so alive, so inexpressible, so life-giving. The Lord is giving us plenty to digest today ; and I pray that we will be able, even in a very small way, to live up to His words, His way, His life, and His love. Ultimately, may we come into His Kingdom, and glorify the All-Holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.