Resentment and Forgiveness

A talk delivered at the Annual Assembly of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California, February 28, 2003.

1. The Misuse of the Incensive Power

Since we are approaching Forgiveness Sunday, I’ve chosen, with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Longin, to speak on the subject of Anger, Judgment, and Resentment, and on their cure: Forgiveness and Reconciliation. First I will speak about the problem and then I’ll discuss the solution.

Anger, judgment, remembrance of wrongs, grudges, resentment: these are passions with which all of us struggle in one way or another. Why are we prone to them? According to the Holy Fathers of the Church, the power that causes anger was part of man’s original nature, which was created “good” by God (cf. Genesis 1:31). The Fathers say that man’s soul was originally created with three powers: the intellective or “knowing” power, the appetitive or “desiring” power, and the incensive or “fervent” power. Man was supposed to use his intellective power to know God, his appetitive power to yearn for God, and his incensive power to courageously repel temptation—beginning with the temptation of the serpent in the Garden.

Instead of using their incensive power to repel temptation, however, Adam and Eve succumbed to their first temptation: they ate of the forbidden fruit. According to the Holy Fathers, the essence of the serpent’s temptation lies in these words: “Eat of this fruit and you shall be as gods” (cf. Genesis 3:5). St. John Chrysostom says that Adam “expected to become himself a god, and conceived thoughts above his proper dignity.” [1] This is a key point which we’ll keep coming back to.


When the primordial Fall occurred, man’s original nature, created in the image of God, became corrupted. He acquired what the Holy Fathers call a fallen nature. He still had the image of God in him, but the image was tarnished: “buried,” as it were, under the corruption of his nature. Now he had an inclination toward sin, born of his desire to be God without God’s blessing. All of us share that fallen nature; there is a part of each one of us that wants to be God. In popular modern terms, that part of us is called the “ego.”

When man fell, the three powers of his soul became subject to corruption, along with his body, which became subject to death and decay. Now man used his intellective power to puff up with knowledge and be superior to others; now he used his appetitive power to lust after other people, after the things of this world, after sinful pleasures, wealth, and power; and he used his incensive power, not against temptation, but against other people, against things, and sometimes against life and God Himself. The incensive power expressed itself as sinful anger and wrath. The first man born of woman, Cain, got so angry and jealous that he murdered his own brother, Abel.

So, here we are, all members of the family of Adam and Eve, possessing a fallen nature that wants to be God, and a corrupted incensive power that gets angry at the wrong things.

Very clear teachings on anger and the incensive power can be found in the first volume of The Philokalia, in the teachings of St. John Cassian, a Holy Father of the fifth century. According to St. John Cassian, all anger directed at other people—all such wrong use of our incensive power—blinds the soul. He writes: “We must, with God’s help, eradicate the deadly poison of anger from the depths of our souls. So long as the demon of anger dwells in our hearts … we can neither discriminate what is good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life…. Nor will we share in divine wisdom even though we are deemed wise by all men, for it is written: Anger lodges in the bosom of fools (Eccles. 7:9). Nor can we discriminate in decisions affecting our salvation even though we are thought by our fellow men to have good sense, for it is written: Anger destroys even men of good sense (Proverbs 15:1). Nor will we be able to keep our lives in righteousness with a watchful heart, for it is written: Man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God (James 1:20)….


“If, therefore, you desire to attain perfection and rightly pursue the spiritual way, you should make yourself a stranger to all sinful anger and wrath. Listen to what St. Paul enjoins: Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking, and all malice (Eph. 4:31). By saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: Physician, heal yourself (Luke 4:23), or Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the beam in your own eye? (Matt. 7:3).

“No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of righteousness…. Whether reasonable or unreasonable, anger obstructs our spiritual vision. Our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. [2]

Here St. John Cassian is telling us that, when we use our incensive power against temptation—against impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts—we are using this power as it was originally intended to be used, according to our original, virtuous nature, created in the image of God. However, when we use our incensive power against anything else—especially against other people—we are misusing it, according to our fallen nature.

2. Playing God

73323384Often anger is evoked in us because of our pride. This again is a function of our fallen nature: that part of us that wants to be God. As would-be gods, we want to be in control, we want things to go our way. When things don’t go our way, when other people don’t follow our lead and go along with our program, we get angry. This leads us to judge others. Judging others is one way of playing God.

God is King, and He is Judge. Of course, it’s best to be a King. Therefore, in trying to play God, our ego first of all tries to get above others and above life itself by playing King. We can try to be King in many ways. It may be by trying to run the show and get our own way. It may be by seeking acceptance, approval, praise, respect, popularity, earthly security, or an important position. It may be through our achievements and abilities, which are used toward ultimately selfish ends. It may be through vanity over our looks, our intellect, and so on.

Even if we were to have the world at our feet all the time, and thus confirm our King-status in our own mind, we would eventually feel conflict—for we’re not meant to be King. You can see this vividly in the lives of celebrities, many of whom, having risen to the “top” in the eyes of the world, are filled with inward conflict.

Most of us, however, find it impossible to play King all the time. The world is not at our feet. We try so hard to get our own way and make things work out exactly like we want, but it just doesn’t happen that way. People don’t want to cooperate with our own way of doing things. We don’t get enough of the respect and admiration we need in order to keep up the illusion of our Kingship. On the contrary, we often experience the exact opposite: rudeness, disrespect, neglect, abandonment, injustice.

What is the ego—our fallen nature—to do in this case? How can it still play God? How else than by judgment? As we said, God is King and He is Judge. When we can’t be King, we take the loser’s way of playing God: we become the Judge. No matter what happens to us, or what people have said and done to us, we can always seem to get above them by being their Judge. For a time it feels great! Other people and the circumstances of our life made us feel less like a god; they have hurt and humiliated us. But we can still be a god in our own mind by judging!

Judgment brings with it an exhilaration of false power. Its energy comes from the wrong, prideful use of our incensive power. But, like playing King, playing Judge eventually leads to inward conflict. If we are setting ourselves up in God’s place, our soul cannot fulfill its original purpose of worshiping, serving and loving God. Thus, each time we judge, we’re placing a barrier between ourselves and God. A wall immediately goes up.



3. Resentment

If left unchecked, anger and judgment will pass into what the Holy Fathers call “secret anger,” “remembrance of wrongs,” or “resentment.”

Resentment—prolonged anger—is deadly to the soul. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says: “Just as fire if it is not extinguished quickly will swallow many houses, so anger if it is not stopped right away will do great harm and will cause many troubles. [3] The Holy Apostle Paul tells us: Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil (Eph. 4:26-7). “If we take St. Paul’s saying literally,” writes St. John Cassian, “it does not permit us to keep our anger even until sunset. What then shall we say about those who, because of the harshness and fury of their impassioned state, not only maintain their anger until the setting of this day’s sun, but prolong it for many days? Or about others who do not express their anger, but keep silent and increase the poison of their anger to their own destruction? They are unaware that we must avoid anger not only in what we do but also in our thoughts; otherwise our mind will be darkened by our anger, cut off from the light of spiritual knowledge and discrimination, and deprived of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. [4]

Why is resentment such a deadly sin? 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. [5]

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. To help us not to lose our salvation due to resentment, God allows us to feel inward conflict. This inward conflict helps us to become aware of the fatal danger of the malady of resentment, and to seek to be cured by the Supreme Physician, Jesus Christ.

The inward conflict may take many forms. We may feel weighed down, unable to breathe lightly or freely, as if we are captives. We may experience irrational fear, commonly known as anxiety. We may become susceptible to physical ailments. In most cases, we will feel an inward emptiness. That emptiness comes from the fact that, by holding onto our anger and judgment, we have separated ourselves from God. We no longer have His Grace, His Life, inside us, and without that we are just hollow vessels.

Our spiritual emptiness may express itself in a generally dissatisfied and cynical attitude, in which we’re always attracted to negative thoughts and words about others. We may try to fill the void with drugs or the excessive use of alcohol. Interestingly, the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” says: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stems all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically. [6]

Sometimes our resentment hurts the person we are resenting, sometimes it does not. However, in either case we gain nothing; we only lose, for in either case we are the ones who are hurt the most. Let’s say someone has actually wronged us. If that person repents, he will be forgiven by God. But if we hold onto our anger, we will not be forgiven and will suffer the consequences.


4. Forgiveness

Having looked at the malady of anger, judgment, and resentment, let’s go on to look at the cure. What are we to do to be freed of this sickness?

Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us clearly: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. And to him who smites you on the one cheek, offer also the other (Luke 6:27-29).

Rather than resenting those who wrong us, we are to love them, and we express this love by blessing them and praying for them. We do this because we are commanded to do so by Christ. He has commanded this for our own sake, for our own salvation, because He loves us; and we do it for His sake, because we love Him. Our fallen nature rebels against this: “What? Bless and pray for that person who wronged me?” 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.

Abba Dorotheus, a Desert Father of the sixth century, says that we can be healed of the sickness of resentment “by prayer right from the heart for the one who has annoyed us. We can pray such words as, ‘O God, help my brother, and me through his prayers.'” “In this,” says Abba Dorotheus, “we are interceding for our brother, which is a sure sign of sympathy and love, and we are humiliating ourselves by asking help through our brother’s prayers. [7]

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.

Again our Lord has told us: Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37).

The cure for anger, judgment, and resentment is forgiveness, pure and simple. No matter what terrible afflictions and unspeakable injustices have befallen us, we can be free of their negative effects on us through forgiveness.

Father George Calciu (1925-2006)

Father George Calciu (1925-2006)

I once asked a Romanian Orthodox priest named Fr. George Calciu about this. For twenty-one years he had been locked in Communist prisons, where he had endured the most unimaginable horrors ever perpetrated by human beings. And yet when I met him here in America, he was happy, joyful, like a child, totally free of any negative effects of this torture on his soul. He had found the secret of forgiveness. I asked him, “How can people overcome judgment?” He looked at me, almost with astonishment, and answered, “It’s simple. Just don’t judge!”

It’s truly simple. But we must keep in mind that we can’t do it on our own: We need God’s help to heal our fallen, wounded nature, to humble our pride. Therefore, as we pray for those who have hurt us, we should pray that God will help us to forgive, that He will soften our hard hearts, warm our cold hearts, and grant us a loving, merciful, and forgiving spirit.

Elder Sampson (Seivers) of Russia

Elder Sampson (Seivers) of Russia

Elder Sampson (Seivers) of Russia, who reposed in 1979, was a man well-equipped to speak on the subject of forgiveness. As a young novice monk, he was arrested by the Communist authorities, shot in a mass execution, and thrown into a common grave. By Divine Providence he survived the shooting, and was pulled out of the grave still breathing by his brother monks and nursed back to health. Later he was arrested again and spent nearly twenty years in Communist concentration camps. But he never held onto bitterness and resentment: He completely forgave both his executioners and his torturers. In his later years, when he was serving as a spiritual father to many people, he was especially tough when his spiritual children refused to forgive someone, even for some petty annoyance. He said: “I’ve always concluded: this means that they still have not gotten the point, that the whole secret, that all the salt of Christianity lies in this: to forgive, to excuse, to justify, not to know, not to remember evil.

“The Holy Fathers are the children of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. The result of this action of Grace is when the heart excuses. It loves, it can speak well of someone and pray for him. It does not remember offense or evil.

“Therefore,” said Elder Sampson, “it is impossible to forgive and not excuse. This is a psychological fact. The heart is made this way. It was not the brain, not the nervous system—as science attempts to teach, and the psychiatrists especially—but it was the heart that was made this way by God. It is called a Christian heart. It excuses, it does everything possible in order to justify and excuse. Isn’t that so?! That is a Christian quality!

“The pagan or the Moslem does not know about this … the action of the Grace of the Holy Spirit…. Try telling a Moslem to justify and excuse, to love his enemy. He will kill you. [8]

Once Elder Sampson was asked, “What can an angry person do?” He replied, “He must pray and pray for healing. For the sake of his faith, for the sake of his insistence, the Lord will change his heart.” [9]


5. Watchfulness and Prayer

The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers affirm that, as we pray for spiritual healing from passions like anger and resentment, we must also practice constant watchfulness or attention over our thoughts. Christ spoke much about watchfulness, both directly and in parables. At the conclusion of one such parable, He said: What I say to you I say to all: Watch (Mark 13:37). Later, as He was going to His final Passion, He told His disciples: Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation (Mark 14:38).

Watchfulness and prayer are closely connected. St. Symeon the New Theologian explains this connection as follows: “Watchfulness and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Watchfulness first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which watchfulness has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. [10]

The evil one wants to trap us. He tempts us with evil thoughts against our brothers and sisters, trying to sow the seeds of judgment and resentment against them, inciting our fallen nature so that we will stray far from our first-created image and be separated from God. We must not take the bait. Whether our anger arises from our own fallen nature or from the suggestions of the evil one, we need to cut it off at once. And to recognize it at once, we must practice watchfulness over our thoughts.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “The passions and desires rarely attack by themselves—they are most often born of thoughts. From this we can make a rule: cut off thoughts and you will cut off everything. [11]

In The Philokalia, the growth from a thought to a passion is described with scientific precision. First comes the provocation of the thought, then the conjunction of the thought with emotion, then the joining or agreement of the will with the thought. If the soul does not pull back at this point, the thought becomes a habit, and the mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of the passionate urge. Finally the person falls into thecaptivity of the urge, and rushes to satisfy it. [12]

From this it can be seen why it is so important to cut off angry and judgmental thoughts at the time of their provocation. St. John Cassian writes: “If we wish to receive the Lord’s blessing, we should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue in a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancor and not harboring malicious thoughts against our brethren. The Gospel teaches us to cut off the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. [13]”

The more we entertain thoughts of anger, the more they will grow and harden inside of us, making it harder to uproot them later on. Abba Dorotheus uses the analogy of a tree to explain this: when the tree is young and small, it is easy to pull out of the ground; but when it matures, it is much more difficult to uproot. In another place, Abba Dorotheus uses the analogy of a spark on tinder, which, if it is not put out, can grow into a raging flame. He writes: “Someone who is lighting a fire first sets a spark to the tinder. This is someone’s provoking remark, this is the point where the fire starts. Of what consequence is that person’s remark? If you put up with it, the spark goes out. But if you go on thinking, ‘Why did he say that to me, and what should I say back to him?’ and ‘If he did not want to annoy me, he would not have said that,’ then you add a small bit of wood to the flame, or some bit of fuel, and you produce some smoke: this is a disturbance of the mind. This disturbance floods the mind with thoughts and emotions, which stimulate the heart and make it bold to attack. This boldness incites us to vengeance on the person who annoyed us…. If, therefore, you put up with a sharp retort from someone, the little spark is extinguished before it causes you any trouble. Even if you are a little troubled and you desire promptly to get rid of it, since it is still small, you can do so by remaining silent with a prayer on your lips and by one good heartfelt act of humility. But if you dwell on it and inflame your heart and torment yourself with thoughts about why he said that to me, and what should I say to him, you are blowing on the embers and adding fuel and causing smoke! From this influx of thoughts and conflicting emotions the heart catches fire and there you are—in a passion.” [14]

When a thought of anger or judgment arises in our mind, therefore, we are to cut it off or repulse it at once. In this way we use our incensive power in the way it was intended to be used: to cut off temptation.

Cutting off thoughts does not mean arguing with them or struggling against them. St. Silouan of Mount Athos affirms: “It is best of all not to argue with thoughts. The spirit that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after. [15]

Our struggle should not be against thoughts, but towards remembrance of God. It is enough just to observe our thoughts through the practice of watchfulness. We will thereby recognize our angry and judgmental thoughts right away. We see them, we know that we don’t want them because they separate us from God, and we simply let them go. If we do not align ourselves with the thoughts, they will naturally disappear. The fifth-century Desert Father, Abba Pimen, says: “If we do not do anything about thoughts, in time they are spoiled, that is to say, they disintegrate. [16]

The thought may come again and again, but each time we are to cut it off in the same way. When the thoughts are continual, it is especiallyimportant to turn to God in prayer, asking for His forgiveness and for deliverance from the continual thoughts. This prayer, as mentioned earlier, should include a prayer of good will for the person at whom we are angry or irritated.

In the practice of watchfulness 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.

Since the Jesus Prayer is so short and single-pointed, it lends itself to the practice of watchfulness. We can keep our attention on the words of the Prayer more easily than we can with other prayers. This helps us to learn how to repulse or cut off intrusive thoughts, and to keep our attention raised to God. It helps us to develop the habit of inward attention. At the same time, by means of this Prayer we are calling down Divine Grace into our hearts, for we are calling upon the Source of Grace, Jesus Christ.

As we seek to forgive people for whom we feel bitterness, we should also call upon the Mother of God to help us forgive. When Elder Sampson was once asked how he was able to forgive his executioners and torturers, he said: “One need only pray to the Mother of God and the offense is taken away. It is taken away if you only ask the Mother of God. It is enough for your heart to have some kind of direct contact with the Mother of God, and that horror, offense, injury, sorrow and slander will be taken away.” [17]


6. Reconciliation Through Self-Accusation

Now we’ve looked at the sickness—anger and resentment—and we’ve looked at the cure: forgiveness and the cutting off of angry thoughts by means of watchfulness and prayer. But what if anger and resentment have already poisoned our relationship with someone else? What then are we to do? Both the Gospels and the Holy Fathers tell us that we are to humble ourselves and seek reconciliation. Christ says: You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother will be in danger of the judgment…. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:21-24).

The Holy Fathers tell us that, in order to be reconciled to someone with whom we are at odds, the first thing we are to do is to accuse ourselves,not the other person. If we do not accuse ourselves, we will never find rest, and we will never make true and lasting peace with our neighbor. We will always be holding onto our pride. Abba Dorotheus provides us with a good example of this from his own experience as the Superior of a monastery. He says: “Once there came to me two brothers who were always fighting. The older one was saying about the younger one, ‘I arrange for him to do something and he gets distressed, and so I get distressed, thinking that if he had faith and love towards me he would accept what I tell him with complete confidence.’ And the younger was saying, ‘Forgive me, reverend father, but he does not speak to me with the fear of God, but rather as someone who wants to give orders. I guess this is why my heart does not have full confidence in him, as the Holy Fathers say.’ Notice that each blames the other and neither blames himself. Both of them are getting upset with one another, and although they are begging each other’s pardon, they both remain unconvinced ‘because he does not from his heart show me deference and, therefore, I am not convinced, for the Fathers say that he should.’ And the other says, ‘Since he will not have complete confidence in my love until I show him deference, I, for my part, do not have complete confidence in him.’ My God, do you see how ridiculous this is? Do you see their perverse way of thinking? God knows how sorry I am about this; that we take the sayings of the Holy Fathers to excuse our own will and the destruction of our souls. Each of these brothers had to throw the blame on the other…. What they really ought to do is just the opposite. The first ought to say: ‘I speak with presumption and therefore God does not give my brother confidence in me.’ And the other ought to be thinking: ‘My brother gives me commands with humility and love, but I am unruly and have not the fear of God.’ Neither of them found that way and blamed himself, but each of them vexed the other.

“Don’t you see that this is why we make no progress, why we find we have not been helped towards it? We remain all the time against one another, grinding one another down. Because each considers himself right and excuses himself, all the while keeping none of the Commandments yet expecting his neighbor to keep the lot!” [18]

Abba Dorotheus points out a possible objection to this teaching on self-accusation. Someone might say: “Suppose a brother troubles me and I examine myself and find that I have not given him any cause, how can I accuse myself?” To this Abba Dorotheus replies: “If a man really examines himself, in the fear of God, he will usually find that he has given cause for offence, either by deed or word or by his attitude or bearing. But if, in scrutinizing himself, he sees that he has given no cause in any of these ways at that moment, it is likely that at another time he has offended him either in the same circumstances or in others, or perhaps he has offended another brother and he would want to suffer on that account or for some other wrongdoing. If he examines himself in the fear of God and gropes about diligently in his own conscience, he will always find cause for accusing himself.” [19]

Here is a recent example of what Abba Dorotheus was writing about. It comes from the wonderful book Counsels for Life: the Life and counsels of a modern Greek Elder, Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropolos, who reposed in 1989. In this book we read: “A former spiritual child of the Elder, acting aimlessly and against the counsel of the Elder, was ordained. Fr. Epiphanios was deeply grieved and declared this to him. Of course, the Elder’s grief was misinterpreted by that youth. Thus, one day, the young man came to the Elder’s house and, full of anger, without controlling himself, started scolding Fr. Epiphanios and calling him passionate, bitter, envious, egotistical, etc. Bowing and speechless, the Elder listened to him. And while we awaited from moment to moment for the Elder to cut him off like a rushing stream and make him recover from this misbehavior, the Elder suddenly lifted up his eyes and in tears told him, ‘Thank you, my child, for all you said. And, furthermore, if you open my heart, you will see that I am worse than what you call me.'” [20]

From this account we see that, according to Abba Dorotheus, “The habit of accusing ourselves will work out well for us and bring us much profit, and nothing else that we can do will bring this about. [21]”

It sometimes happens that, after a quarrel, one person will come to the other and say, “Forgive me, but …” and then go on to justify himself. In other words, “Forgive me, but I’m right after all.” This is not good enough. Yes, the outward form of saying “Forgive me” is there, but behind that outward form is a heart that is still refusing to accuse itself. Our apology should rather be unconditional. We need to acknowledge our own sins, not call attention to the sins of another. We’re not responsible before God for the other person’s sins, we’re only responsible for our own.

As the above examples indicate, if we are at odds with another person, we should not wait for the other person to come to us in repentance before we ourselves apologize. It sometimes happens that a person who is older or of a higher rank will think that his inferior should apologize first. But our Lord Jesus Christ has never said that the lesser one should first ask for forgiveness. If the younger one does not have the sense to take the first step toward reconciliation, then by all means the one who is older or in higher rank should be the first to humble himself. A moving example of such humility is found in the Life of St. John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, who lived in the seventh century. Once, when St. John was serving the Divine Liturgy, he suddenly remembered that one of his subordinates from the lower clergy was angry with him for something. Then St. John, the Patriarch, left the holy throne, called the lower clergyman to himself, and fell at his feet, asking him for forgiveness. The clergyman was disturbed and ashamed by the great humility of the Patriarch, and himself fell at the Saint’s feet and cried with tears, “Forgive me, Father.” In this way, St. John showed by example that even those with higher status can ask first for forgiveness and that the humility of the greater affects their subordinates very powerfully. [22]

 Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropolos

Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropolos

Yet another example of the power of humility and forgiveness comes from the Life of the above-mentioned Greek Elder, Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropolos:

“Someone thought that the Elder had treated him unjustly. He did not want to accept his explanations for anything. So he went to the Elder, full of anger, and showered him with a storm of accusations and curses. As he peeled an apple, the Elder listened to him silently till the end. As soon as the angry one finished cursing, the Elder offered him a piece, telling him, ‘Would you like, my child, a little apple?’

“A second shower of cursing: ‘Not from you, hypocrite!’

“The person got up abruptly to leave. Then the Elder stopped him and told him: ‘I will only tell you one word. Life has many changes. If you ever end up in need and think that I might be able to help you, don’t hesitate to knock on my door, fearing that I will remember these things you told me today. I have already forgotten them. Go with God’s blessing, my child!’

“Sure enough, a few years later, the person knocked on the Elder’s door—a plain shipwreck of life. Not only was he then aided and supported, but, crushed and humble, he also became a frequent visitor of the Elder’s confessional.” [23]

7. Endurance

All of the stories I’ve related so far have ended in the mutual reconciliation of the parties involved. It happens in life, however, that no matter how many attempts one person makes to be reconciled to the other, the other person remains hardened in his malice and will not be reconciled. What is one to do in such cases? The Holy Scriptures and Holy Fathers clearly tell us: Endure. He that shall endure to the end will be saved, says our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 10:22). Our Lord has given us the ultimate example of endurance and forgiveness when He, the Incarnate God, suffered without complaining on Golgotha and prayed on the Cross for his enemies: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). St. Stephen the Archdeacon acted in the same way by praying for his murderers while they were stoning him: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge(Acts 7:60).

According to the Holy Fathers, when we endure injustices without harboring bitterness—this is a kind of martyrdom. It is unto our salvation. Our Lord has told us: Blessed are you, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy: For behold, your reward is great in heaven (Luke 6:22-23).

In his book Strife and Reconciliation, Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev points out: “If we make peace with our enemy, our success is double: we have snatched both ourselves and him from the claws of the evil one. If we do not succeed in persuading our enemy to be reconciled, we should not continue in our spitefulness toward him. We should not hate him as he hates us, so that the loss will not be doubled and our soul not perish together with his. In such cases, the wisest thing to do is to forgive him, so that if he perishes at least we will not be devoured by the devil.” [24]

In The Prologue of Ohrid, St. Nikolai Velimirovich relates a profitable tale that powerfully illustrates this point. In the entry for February 9, the Life of the Holy Martyr Nicephorus, we read:

2NICEPHORUS (1)The biography of this martyr clearly demonstrates how God rejects pride and crowns humility and love with glory. There lived in Antioch two close friends, the learned priest Sapricius and the simple layman Nicephorus. Somehow their friendship turned into a terrible hatred for each other. The God-fearing Nicephorus attempted on many occasions to make peace with the priest. However, at no time did Sapricius desire to be reconciled. When a persecution of Christians began in the year 260, the presbyter Sapricius was condemned to death and brought to the place of execution. The sorrowful Nicephorus followed after Sapricius, beseeching him along the way to forgive him before his death, so that they might depart in peace.

“I beseech you, O martyr of Christ,” said Nicephorus, “forgive me if I have sinned against you!” Sapricius did not even want to look at his opponent, but quietly and arrogantly walked toward his death. Upon seeing the hardness of the priest’s heart, God did not want to accept the sacrifice of his martyrdom and crown him with a wreath, so He mysteriously withheld His Grace. At the last moment, Sapricius denied Christ and declared before the executioners that he would bow down before the idols. So it is with blind hatred! Nicephorus implored Sapricius not to deny Christ, saying, “O my beloved brother, do not do that; do not deny our Lord Jesus Christ; do not forfeit the heavenly wreath!” But all was in vain. Sapricius remained adamant. Then Nicephorus cried out to the executioners, “I too am a Christian; behead me in place of Sapricius!” The executioners informed the judge of this, and the judge ordered the release of Sapricius and beheaded Nicephorus in his place. Nicephorus joyfully lowered his head on the block and was beheaded. Thus, he was made worthy of the Kingdom and was crowned with the immortal wreath of glory. [25]


8. The Law of Forgiveness

Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a spiritual law: 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 (Matt. 6:14-15).

Elder Sampson affirms that this Divine law is absolute: “No virtue,” he says, “can atone for the lack of forgiveness. No podvig [ascetic undertaking], no almsgiving can atone for the refusal to forgive.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors (Matt. 6:12). That is the only condition for being heard by God, for salvation. You cannot buy off God with formalities. The law of God is an absolute law! That is why it is so painful and difficult for us when we meet souls which are not Christian, that is, souls which have no intention, or even the desire, to forgive.” [26]

In the Lives of the Saints, there are many accounts which show that Christ’s law regarding forgiveness is truly absolute. For example, in The Spiritual Meadow we read the account of the Desert Father, Abba Isaac:

“Once,” says Abba Isaac, “a demon approached me in the form of a youth. ‘You are mine,’ the demon said. I asked him how he could say that. ‘Because three Sundays running you have received Holy Communion while being at daggers-drawn with your neighbor,’ he said. I told him he was lying. But he said, ‘Are you not harboring a grudge against him because of a plate of lentils? I am the one who is in charge of grudges, and, from now on, you are mine.’ When I heard that, I left my cell, went to the brother and prostrated myself before him in order to be reconciled with him. When I returned to my cell I found that the demon had burned my mat on which I prostrated myself, because he was so consumed with jealousy for our love.” [27]

An even more sobering tale is found in the Russian Lives of Saints for February 27: the Life of St. Titus of the Kiev Caves, who lived in the twelfth century:

Tit-Pecherskij1In the Russian monastery of the Kiev Caves there lived a hieromonk by the name of Titus. He and the deacon Evagrius loved each other very much and got along very well. Everyone marveled at their sincere friendship, but the devil then embroiled them so badly that they could not stand each other. When one of them was censing the church, the other one ran away from the incense; and even if he could not escape in time, the first one did not cense him. A long time passed and they lived constantly in this sinful darkness, and thus irreconciled they dared to take Holy Communion. The brothers pleaded with them to make peace, but they would not hear of it.

It was God’s Providence that the priest Titus should fall fatally ill. He then began to cry bitterly for his sin and sent people to ask the deacon Evagrius for forgiveness on his behalf. The deacon not only did not forgive him, but he cursed him with bitter words. The brothers, when they saw that Titus was already in agony, brought Evagrius by force to reconcile them. The sick man stood up with great difficulty, fell at the feet of the deacon, and begged him with tears in his eyes, “Forgive me, Father!” But Evagrius callously turned his face away from him and said, “I do not want to forgive him, either here or in the life to come!” As he said these words, he tore himself from the hands of the brothers and fell to the ground. They wanted to lift him up, but they found him dead. At the same time, the blessed Titus was immediately healed. Everyone was terrified by the occurrence and began asking Titus what it meant. Then he told them what he had seen with his spiritual eyes: “When I was ill and I did not give up my anger towards my brother, I saw that the angels were withdrawing from me and were crying over the death of my soul, and that the demons were rejoicing at my anger. That is why I asked you to go to the brother and implore him for his forgiveness for me. When you brought him to me, and I bowed before him and he turned away from me, I saw an angel who was holding a fiery spear and who struck the unforgiving one with it. Immediately, he fell dead. But to me the same angel gave his hand and helped me up, and here I am healthy again.” [28]

In the book Strife and Reconciliation, Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev comments on this story:

“How often in life it happens that embittered and irreconciled Christians suddenly leave this world and set out for the Kingdom of Eternity with anger in their souls! What pardon can they expect from God if they themselves have not forgiven those who have sinned against them?! It is terrible to live irreconciled, but it is even worse to die irreconciled! Bitterness and strife make the soul unfit to bear Divine Grace, and thus they destroy it….

“In the Life of St. Basil the New it is said that the last trial with which souls passing to the other world are tested is the trial of mercifulness. This is not by accident, but in accordance with God’s law. If we have observed and fulfilled all the commandments and avoided all sins, but we have remained irreconcilable and bitter towards our personal enemies, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only the merciful will be shown mercy. The man who has been lenient towards others will enjoy God’s lenience toward his own weaknesses. The spiteful will remain unforgiven. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says clearly: ‘The doors of God’s mercy open before the thieves, murderers, fornicators, publicans, and all other sinners, but they close before the spiteful.'” [29]

In his monastery in Romania, St. Paisius Velichkovsky commanded that, if some disturbance were to occur among the brethren, there must be true reconciliation on that very day, according to the Scripture: Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph. 4:26). And if someone were to grow hard in heart, not wishing to be reconciled, he was not allowed over the threshold of the Church, nor allowed to say the “Our Father” until he became reconciled. [30] How could he say without hypocrisy the words, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, unless he had truly forgiven?

By not allowing irreconciled brothers into the church, St. Paisius made them aware that their prayers would not be heard, and they would not be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, if they held onto their resentment. As we enter the church, and especially as we approach the Holy Chalice, let us remember this. Let us remember everything that the Holy Scriptures, the teachings of the Holy Fathers, and the Lives of Saints have told us about how necessary it is to shed our resentments and have a forgiving heart. If we forgive our neighbors their transgressions, then and only then will God forgive us. Then and only then will we be able to pray boldly: And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, because He Himself has said: Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.



9. Offenses as Blessings

If looked at in the right way, the offences that come to us are actually blessings in disguise. They offer us an opportunity to forgive and thus receive God’s blessings and Grace. As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov affirms, “All the sorrows and sufferings caused us by other people never come to us except with God’s permission for our essential good. If these sorrows and troubles were not absolutely necessary for us, God would never allow them. They are indispensable, in order that we may have occasion to forgive our neighbors and so receive forgiveness for our own sins…. Let us force our heart to accept from our neighbor all kinds of offences and injuries that they may inflict upon us, so as to receive forgiveness for our countless sins.” [31]

When we forgive, then our hearts, once darkened and weighed down by the sin of resentment, are made light and free. We receive the ability to attain true, pure prayer, undistracted by any cares or anxieties about ourselves, or by any fears and apprehensions. We live in simplicity of heart, free from care, for, as the Scripture says, Perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18). This simplicity, this peace and lightness, is a foretaste of the heavenly blessedness that awaits all those who follow the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ: Forgive.

I would like to conclude now with a poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, entitled “Forgiveness,” which well sums up everything that has been said thus far:

That God may forgive us, let us forgive men.

We are all on this earth as temporary guests.

Prolonged fasting and prayer is in vain

Without forgiveness and true mercy.

God is the true Physician; sins are leprosy.

Whomever God cleanses, God also glorifies.

Every merciful act of men, God rewards with mercy.

He who returns sin with sin perishes without mercy.

Pus is not cleansed by pus from infected wounds,

Neither is the darkness of the dungeon dispelled by darkness,

But pure balm heals the festering wound,

And light disperses the darkness of the dungeon.

To the seriously wounded, mercy is like a balm;

As if seeing a torch dispersing the darkness, everyone rejoices in mercy.

The madman says, “I have no need of mercy!”

But when he is overcome by misery, he cries out for mercy!

Men bathe in the mercy of God,

And that mercy of God wakens us to life!

That God may forgive us, let us forgive men,

We are all on this earth as temporary guests. [32]


  1. St. John Chrysostom, Homilies Concerning the Statutes 11:3, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 413.
  2. St. John Cassian, “On the Eight Vices,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 83.
  3. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Tvoreniya (Works), vol. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1912), p. 205 (in Russian).
  4. St. John Cassian “On the Eight Vices,” p. 84.
  5. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena (Jordanville, N. Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1983), p. 159.
  6. Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, third edition, 1976), p. 64.
  7. St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 154
  8. Elder Sampson (Seivers), “Discussions and Teachings of Elder Sampson,” The Orthodox Word no. 177 (1994), pp. 214-15
  9. [i] Ibid., p. 224.
  10. St. Symeon the New Theologian, “The Three Methods of Prayer, in The Philokalia, vol. 4 (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 67.
  11. St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1996), p. 289.
  12. St. Hesychius the Presbyter, “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” in The Philo­kalia, vol. 1, pp. 170-71. See also I. M. Kontzevitch, The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1988), pp. 39-43.
  13. St. John Cassian, “On the Eight Vices,” p. 86.
  14. St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, p. 150.
  15. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan the Athonite (Essex, England: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1991), p. 66.
  16. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Oxford: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1975), p. 142.
  17. Elder Sampson (Seivers), “Discussions and Teachings,” p. 222.
  18. St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, pp. 144-45.
  19. Ibid., pp. 141-42.
  20. Counsels for Life: From the Life and Teachings of Father Ephipanios Theodoropoulos (Thessaloniki, Greece: “Orthodox Kypseli,” 1995), p. 80.
  21. St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, p. 143.
  22. Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1994), p. 95.
  23. Counsels for Life, pp. 80-81.
  24. Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, Strife and Reconciliation, p. 102.
  25. St. Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue of Ohrid, vol. 1 (Alhambra, Calif.: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), pp. 143-44.
  26. Elder Sampson (Seivers), “Discussions and Teachings,” p. 219.
  27. St. John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992), pp. 132-33.
  28. Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, Strife and Reconciliation, pp. 73-74.
  29. Ibid., pp. 74, 109-10.
  30. Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky (St. Herman Brotherhood, 1976), p. 109.
  31. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena, p. 164.
  32. St. Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue of Ohrid, vol. 1, pp. 208-9.
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