Resentment and Forgiveness
by Hieromonk Damascene
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
temptationbeginning 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." 
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
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 peopleall such wrong use of our incensive
powerblinds 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
"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. 
Here St. John Cassian is telling us that, when we use our
incensive power against temptationagainst impassioned or self-indulgent
thoughtswe 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 elseespecially
against other peoplewe are misusing it, according to our fallen nature.
2. Playing God
Often 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 conflictfor 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 egoour fallen natureto 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.
If left unchecked, anger and judgment will pass into what
the Holy Fathers call "secret anger," "remembrance of wrongs," or "resentment."
Resentmentprolonged angeris 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.  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. 
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. 
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. 
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.
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
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 naturethe image of God in usand 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. 
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.
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
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 systemas science attempts to teach,
and the psychiatrists especiallybut 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. 
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
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
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. 
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 themselvesthey are most often born of thoughts. From this we
can make a rule: cut off thoughts and you will cut off everything. 
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 the captivity of the urge, and rushes to satisfy it. 
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. "
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 arein a passion." 
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
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. 
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. 
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 especially
important 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
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
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." 
6. Reconciliation Through Self-Accusation
Now we've looked at the sicknessanger and resentmentand
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
"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!" 
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
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.'" 
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
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. 
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
"Sure enough, a few years later, the person knocked on the
Elder's doora 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." 
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 bitternessthis 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
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." 
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:
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
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." 
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
"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." 
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:
In 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." 
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
"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
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.  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." 
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. 
- St. John Chrysostom, Homilies Concerning the
Statutes 11:3, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 9 (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 413.
- St. John Cassian, "On the Eight Vices," in The
Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 83.
- St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Tvoreniya (Works),
vol. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1912), p. 205 (in Russian).
- St. John Cassian "On the Eight Vices," p. 84.
- St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena
(Jordanville, N. Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1983), p. 159.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous
World Services, third edition, 1976), p. 64.
- St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings
(Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 154
- Elder Sampson (Seivers), "Discussions and Teachings
of Elder Sampson," The Orthodox Word no. 177 (1994), pp. 214-15
- [i] Ibid., p. 224.
- St. Symeon the New Theologian, "The Three Methods of
Prayer, in The Philokalia,
vol. 4 (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 67.
- St. Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation
Herman Brotherhood, 1996), p. 289.
- 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
Brotherhood, 1988), pp. 39-43.
- St. John Cassian, "On the Eight Vices," p. 86.
- St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and
- Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan
(Essex, England: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist,
1991), p. 66.
- Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert
(Oxford: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1975), p. 142.
- Elder Sampson (Seivers), "Discussions and Teachings,"
- St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings,
- Ibid., pp. 141-42.
- Counsels for Life: From the Life and Teachings of
Father Ephipanios Theodoropoulos
(Thessaloniki, Greece: "Orthodox Kypseli,"
1995), p. 80.
- St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings,
- Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, The Meaning of
Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation
(St. Herman Brotherhood, 1994), p. 95.
- Counsels for Life, pp. 80-81.
- Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, Strife and
- St. Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue of Ohrid,
1 (Alhambra, Calif.: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), pp.
- Elder Sampson (Seivers), "Discussions and Teachings,"
- St. John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow
Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992), pp. 132-33.
- Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, Strife and
- Ibid., pp. 74, 109-10.
- Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky (St. Herman Brotherhood,
1976), p. 109.
- St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena, p. 164.
- St. Nikolai Velimirovich, The Prologue of Ohrid,
vol. 1, pp. 208-9.
Published with permission of the St. Herman Brotherhood.