Unforgiveness: Self-inflicted Misery
I. The monk stormed into the abbot’s cell.
“I have a complaint!” he said, “I’ve had enough of my brother and I want revenge.” The abbot tried consoling him, “Don’t, my son, leave it to God.” But the monk insisted louder, “I will not quit until I avenge myself.” Then the abbot replied, “Alright, first let us pray,” and said the words, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and DO NOT forgive us our trespasses as we DO NOT forgive those who trespass against us…” The angry monk stopped the abbot, “Father, you’ve prayed it wrong.” “No, son, I am merely praying the prayer of your heart.”
What does the heart murmur?
Deep down, buried in our inner psyche, is a conversation. We can pray one thing with our lips and a very different thing in our heart. We might say all the right audible words, in polished verse or Elizabethan English. Yet beneath those audible words is the prayer of the heart, which God is far more concerned about. The Proverbs say, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, searching all the innermost parts of his being” (20:27). God searches in our hearts, so that is where we have work to do. What does your heart murmur?
The abbot made his point clear enough. When we refuse to forgive one another, we refuse God’s forgiveness.
Christ says it this way: "If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15).
St. Tikhon explains, “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself.”
First and foremost, we must be concerned about forgiveness.
II. Our Lord gave us this parable.
“The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” When the king saw the books, he discovered a servant who owed him ten thousand talents. He ordered the servant to trial, and sentenced him to a life of slavery. But the servant fell on his knees and begged for mercy. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” The king pitied him and forgave his debt entirely. Then, that same day, the servant came upon one of his servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He seized him by the throat and demanded everything. That servant asked for mercy too, but the fellow threw him into prison mercilessly. When the king heard the news he was furious. He took the hypocrite, threw him into prison and punished him severely, saying, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:21-35).
Every sin that we commit, every failing and every transgression against God…He forgives utterly. Not only that, He renews us entirely. He pours himself out to us in unconditional love, not because of what we do, but despite what we do. So, how much more should we forgive those around us.
III. This is what we teach. Is this what we live?
I think we’d be surprised by how much unforgiveness there is in our hearts.
Forgiveness is not the kind of thing that’s cured by time. Yet, that’s how we treat hurt and anger. We bottle it up. We stuff up our indignation behind locked doors in the heart, and try to go on with life. But all the while, the hurt and pain is still there, malignant and crippling us in ways we’d never expect. Time can help us process the hurt. But it isn’t enough.
This is true on a merely biological level. Dr. Daren Swartz, the director of the mood disorders adult consultation clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, reports that suppressed anger leads to an increased risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Forgiveness, on the other hand, improves health. That is, true forgiveness improves health, what Swartz calls: “an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.” This is on a physical level, the tip of the iceberg. How much more important is forgiveness on a spiritual level?
IV. Time does not heal our wounds. So what does?
St. Paul pleas, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” I think we can translate this in modern language. Don’t grumble or keep being irritated with one another. When you gossip or condemn your Christian brother, you take Christ, hang him up on a cross, and crucify him all over again. St. Paul continues, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (4:31-32).
But how do we do that? How do we simply “get rid” of our anger and hurt?
The wild fig trees in South Africa are believed to have the deepest roots in the world. In a cave near Swaziland, one fig tree was found to have roots penetrating some 400 feet into the soil. Our anger and hurt has roots into our heart far deeper than any tree. We carry wounds with us that go back to our earliest memories as children. Something trivial, like a word mom said or a look dad gave, can wound us 50 years later in ways we wouldn’t imagine. With the gravity of all this, what can we do?
V. We come to Christ.
In that classic story, Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian carries his burden up the mountain where he lays it down at the Cross. That is the only way. For us Orthodox Christians, that mountain is the sacrament of confession. We cannot heal from our wounds on our own. We have to confess, first, to our selves. Whatever unforgiveness lies in our hearts, we have to unearth it. Then, we have to confess our sins to one another and primarily to Christ in the confessional.
It takes a lifetime, and it’s the purpose of our lifetime. Confession is like tilling a field. The same rut has to be plowed back and forth. You start with boulders and trunks, and go down to every last root and pebble till the soil pours through your fingers like sand. In the same way, we have to confess the struggle over and over and over. But it’s worth it. It’s freedom.
Jesus Christ promised peace. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If we scale the mountain of confession he will take our burden. If we let go of our hurt and indignation, then we will become like children free and innocent. If we turn to him he will give us peace.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.