Orthodox Thought for the Day


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Distinguishing between "I can't" and "I won't" in efforts to forgive

I just can’t! How often have we heard these words from another person? How often have we uttered them ourselves? Often, other people hear these words as expressing not so much our inability to do something as our refusal to do so. We use the expression “I can’t” in order to absolve ourselves of making a choice, when in fact a choice has already been made. In the context of forgiveness, “I can’t” is often a pretext meant to imply that some force outside ourselves makes it impossible for us to forgive. This force may be the one who has wronged us, the hurt that remains with us, or our perception of justice that guides us. Whatever that force may be, we choose to cling to it, to strengthen it, and to use it as a wall to keep us imprisoned in a state that benefits none. And so when asked to forgive, we look at our own personal wall and say “we just can’t forgive,” while as a matter fact, we can.

We can forgive, regardless of how we feel or what comes to our minds, because we have been given the power to choose to forgive. On this point in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I write, “Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright, the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, well aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes, ‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, every kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’” Our will has the power and the freedom to shift focus, to change course, and to act in accordance with the image of a loving God that is at the very core of our being. And although emotions of anger and sadness as well as memories of insult and injury might swell up to oppose us, our will can look elsewhere, namely to the person of Christ, and act.

Once we recognize our power to choose, the statement “I can’t” becomes “I won’t.” In this sea change of perception, we have to ask the question, “Why won’t I forgive?” In some cases, this becomes the tipping point toward forgiveness. As a Christians we have countless examples and reasons to forgive. Saint Gregory the Theologian, for instance, wrote his friend Bishop Theodore, who couldn’t seem to forgive: “The Disciples ask to call down the flames of Sodom upon those who drive Jesus away, but He deprecates revenge. Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus, one of those who outraged Him, but Jesus restores it. And what about him who asks whether he must seven times forgive a brother if he has trespassed, is he not condemned for his stinginess, for to the seven is added seventy times seven? What of the debtor in the Gospel who will not forgive as he has been forgiven? Is it not more bitterly exacted of him for this? And what says the model for prayer? Does it not desire that forgiveness may be earned by forgiveness?” (Letter 78). We can look at these examples and then choose in Saint Gregory’s words, to “show ourselves to be merciful rather than severe, and to be lovers of the poor rather than of abstract justice”(Letter 78). Truly, the persons we need to forgive are often poor souls in need of love and our refusal to forgive is often based on an abstraction, an idea, that we place above all things, even the example of Christ. If we recognize these truths and embrace our God-given freedom and strength, we will see that “we can do all things through Christ Who strengthens us” (Philippians 4: 13). Then, to the question, can you forgive? We will answer, “I can and I will God helping me.” Amen.

Fr. Alexis Trader, Sept 4, 2014 posting to Ancient Christian Wisdom blog:  http://ancientchristianwisdom.com/2014/09/04/distinguishing-between-i-cant-and-i-wont-in-efforts-to-forgive/

Captions added by Presbytera Candace

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