You have already asked what love is. Forgiveness is just as difficult. Learn to pity, and find, if not justification, then an explanation for the actions of those who have hurt you, and always put yourself in the place of these people. Hatred only burns you. Do not seek justice from God, but seek mercy. If we are to be judged, we are all condemned. But through mercy and grace we are forgiven and loved.
– Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003)
To forgive means to restore a bond of love and communion when there has been a rupture. Sin ruptures our relationship with God and others, as also do offenses taken and given among people. When the bond is broken with other people, we tend to objectify them and judge them, not seeing them as persons, but only as objects of our anger and hurt. This is our sinful reaction. We categorize people in terms of their transgression against us. The longer we nurture the anger and alienation, the more deeply the resentment takes hold in our heart, and the more it feeds on our soul.
Reconciliation presupposes forgiveness. If we forgive someone, we need to be open to reconciliation, if possible. Reconciliation is forgiveness in action—the actual restoration of the interpersonal bond between two people, in mutual acceptance of each other for who each one is. Forgiveness and reconciliation can lead to a stronger bond than previously existed. Each time an offense occurs, we can learn more about both the other and ourselves. This can lead to a deeper knowledge and understanding of each by the other, and thus can also lead to a more authentic bond of intimacy. Reconciliation should always be the goal.
– Metropolitan Jonah, then a hieromonk and Abbot of the monastery of St John near Manton, California, in an interview with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation”.
As my spiritual mother and father have both said to me: what is the Gospel without forgiveness? The very incarnation of the Lord Himself stems from it — it’s right there in John 3:16. Christ forgives all-comers again and again and again in all the Scripture accounts we have of His life — and married, inextricably, to that forgiveness, that absolution, is redemption and healing of soul, mind, spiritual core or consciousness (nous), and body. The entirety of the Church’s message — which always has been, and remains, Christ’s message — is of forgiveness for sins. But what is needed before forgiveness to occur is repentance — the Greek word is “metanoia” (μετάνοια), literally “to change one’s mind” or “to turn around”. So, true forgiveness is completely married to and inseparable from true repentance. For the wronged person to be able to forgive the offense(s) against him or her, the person who wronged them must sincerely regret what they have done, turn from such behaviour, and, literally, turn away from the sinful deed or thought or mentality, and to God. The wrongdoer must appeal to God for mercy and absolution, but also to the person he or she has wronged.
Only in a mutual, self-sacrificing love for God can true forgiveness occur between two people. When one party refuses to repent, no real forgiveness can occur, and without repentance and forgiveness, no real reconciliation can take place — and thus, no true healing. The entirety of Christ’s ministry was a mercy to the world — not just His voluntary death and harrowing of Hell, so that we might live eternally, but, indeed, His entire earthly effort was to preach repentance and forgiveness so that the whole world might know healing reconciliation, the overcoming of sinful passions, and true redemption and liberation from being in bondage to these passions to freedom in, through, and by Christ.
Think of one of Christ’s most well-known examples of forgiveness — He saved the life of the guilty woman about to be stoned to death for adultery, but after He saves her, He doesn’t just tell her “what you did is fine, keep on sinning”! No, instead, He says “Go and sin no more”. This is the kernel of this particular Gospel story. Christ gives her life, he allows her to physically live and carry on, so that she, in gaining earthly freedom, might undergo real repentance and transformation and flee from her sins. Thus, dying to our sins, so to speak, we have, in Christ, especially through His sacraments/Mysteries in the Church, the freedom and grace to rise anew and repent, and cleave instead to Him and all that is holy and saving.
Think of confession and the abundant, palpable grace we receive in our souls. Then the grace we receive in all the other sacraments — Baptism, Chrismation, and especially the Lord’s own Body and Blood. So, if we hope for the Lord to forgive us, how can we hold anger and hatred in our heart? We must forgive out of genuine Christlike love if we ourselves hope to be forgiven.
That being said, abuse of any kind is never justified or justifiable. Certain cases of abuse — physical, emotional, etc — are cases where we can choose to forgive and not allow ourselves to become consumed with hate for the person who has abused and hurt us, but that does not mean we can or should accept abusive treatment. Trust in any human relationship must be earned, and once lost, the person who was in the wrong needs to earn it back gradually if she or he wishes for any kind of reconciliation. Ultimately, the decision to forgive is not a right the abuser has, but a gift, an honor, and a grace only the wronged person can ever possibly bestow with their own healing and God’s grace and mercy. An abuser has no right for automatic forgiveness, especially when they repeatedly hurt the person.
An abuser must ask for forgiveness, and only with genuine repentance can they ever hope to earn it — above all by stopping any abuse, and letting the victim leave if she or he wishes. Any abusive treatment blasphemes God Himself, since He made every man and woman in His ineffable image. So, if a man hits his wife, for instance, he has committed a kind of blasphemy against God by spitting in the face of his marriage — he attacks the woman he has sworn to love, honor, and protect, and therefore attacks himself, since he and she have become one flesh. There are so many reasons the Church in her mercy sanctions and blesses divorce as a sad but sometimes necessary thing — she is not so barbarous as to try to preserve as a fiction what no longer exists. But likewise, she urges the abuser to repent and change, and prays that the wronged person will not hate, and will be able to ultimately forgive. She urges reconciliation where possible, and, where this is impossible, she blesses separation for the preservation of the dignity, spiritual life, and often the physical safety of the abused person in the marriage. This is the definition and very embodiment of therapeutic, salvific, and healing — of true and careful stewardship of human souls and bodies.
Whether you, reader, are married and suffering in an abusive marriage, or, God forbid, you are reading this and realize you yourself are the abuser, run to the Church and in her mercy she can and will help you, above all else in the sacramental life. Whether you are an abusive parent, a wayward child, or a dishonest boyfriend or girlfriend, you are not beyond redemption. We all need the same redemption through Christ. Seek the Church’s timeless wisdom in the counsel of her priests in confession. Do violence to no one, and if you have done violence, repent of it with all your heart and soul. Value the other — whether the ‘other’ is your husband or wife, your child, your co-worker, your mother or father — and see above all else in them the ineffable image of the God who made us all. Learn to practice and live out, as far as you are able, Christ’s all-merciful co-suffering love. Tremble to inflict even the most minor of suffering on your fellow icon of God. Strive in all your relationships to follow in the footsteps of that “great cloud of witnesses”, the triumphant saints of the Church, in practicing the highest, ancient Christian virtues, whose purpose is to bring us to God in noetic ascent, to manifest His love for all people and all the world, and to heal all our relationships by our active cooperation with His saving grace. As one of the greatest modern Serbian saints and elders wrote on how to bring “divine love” — the love which radiates as the energy of the Holy Trinity — into all human relationships:
Patience, forgiveness and joy are the three greatest characteristics of divine love. They are characteristics of all real love – if there is such a thing as real love outside divine love. Without these three characteristics, love is not love. If you give the name ‘love’ to anything else, it is as though you were giving the name ‘sheep’ to a goat or a pig.