Today's podcast is entitled
“Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?” That Christians are
commanded by Christ to forgive their enemies is common
knowledge. We often take this at face-value only to discover
that it is very hard if not impossible, and then conclude that
the commandment is an unachievable ideal. For non-Christians
forgiveness of enemies may, in some cases, be a shared ideal
with Christians. Indeed, most people believe in peace; but many
if not most non-Christians would recognize immediately the
dangers involved in forgiving an enemy - after all, they are enemies.
Why does Christ give us such a commandment?
There are several things that can be stated up front as not
being reasons for this commandment. First off, Christ's
commandment to forgive enemies is not part of a global strategy
to bring peace to the world. Christ nowhere suggests that
obeying His commandments will make the world a better place.
Indeed, He warns his followers that taking the path He has taken
will quite possibly mean death.
commandment to forgive enemies is not given as an ideal for our
moral improvement. The impossibility we encounter within this
commandment is itself an indication that such behavior is a gift
from God. As Christ says, “with men such things are impossible.”
Thirdly, Christ's commandment to forgive enemies is not given in
order to help us all get along together. Indeed, He himself says
that His coming will also bring division, even within families.
Forgiveness of enemies is in practice, far less popular than we
might think. So why the commandment? Why would anyone want to
forgive an enemy?
answer to the question is given several places within the
gospels, most notably within Matthew
5:43-45 and Luke
In Matthew, Christ says (Fr. Stephen quotes from the New King
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love
your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your
enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate
you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute
you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes
His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the
just and on the unjust.
In Luke, He says,
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for
nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will
be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and
evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is
Now these passages are certainly parallel and occur
in a very similar context. In both cases, a similar reason is given
for the commandment. We are to forgive our enemies “that you may be
sons of your father in heaven” and “to be sons of the Most High”.
The forgiveness of enemies and the actions associated with it are
specifically given that we may be conformed to the image of God.
Indeed such forgiveness is a manifestation of that very conformity.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos once said, “You only know God to the extent
that you love your enemies.” This conformity is not a moral conformity;
we're not struggling to be like sons
of the most high, we're not struggling to be like sons
of our father in heaven. Within the commandment Christ is also
offering true union with
God, a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a
union as noted in the saying of St. Silouan. There are many who
point to experiences they have had and religious choices they have
made, but if they do not love their enemies there is still much
further to go on the road to salvation.
There are also some who seek to
draw a distinction between forgiving their enemies and actually
loving them. Now this is something of a legal distinction in which
people imagine themselves to be keeping the commandment while, in
fact, not keeping it. This is a spiritual delusion. The commandment
not only asks us to forgive our enemies, but to love them, and to do
good things for them. That this is hard and indeed often impossible,
simply points to the fact that we are saved by grace and this too is
not a legal notion. God does not pretend that we love our enemies
and then call it grace. In the understanding of the Orthodox faith
grace is not God's good attitude towards us, but is in fact the very
life of God, His “divine energies,” in the language of the fathers.
It is God Himself working within us that is our salvation. As it
says in Philippians “for it is God who works in you both
to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians
Thus, He who commands us is also
He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment
possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to
work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love
and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work
within us. In the face of sin we repent, that is we seek to yield
ourselves to God’s grace, to confess our sins, make communion, give
alms, make efforts to do good to our enemies. The work of grace
sometimes seems glacial in
its speed. A glacier moves but a few feet a year, but it changes the
face of the earth. And so the apostle tells us, “Let
patience do its complete work.” (James
A treasure for me is a story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko, and I ask
forgiveness for any inaccuracies that may have damaged the tale. In
his tale he describes someone who did not want to forgive, or repent
- my memory grows sort of fuzzy - he asked, “Well then, do you want
to want to forgive?” And the person thought and said, “I don’t think
so.” So Fr. Tom said, “Do you want to want to want to?”, to which
the person said, “I can do that.” It’s a place to start. Glory to