Dear Fr. A,
I’m writing with a question about Orthodoxy. I know I haven’t yet gone through catechism, and I know I haven’t officially joined the Church, but I’m pretty sure I’m headed that way. In the mean time, the more I learn, the more excited I am, but the more questions I have and, how fortunate for you, I know you name and e-mail. Also, you probably know more than our former housemate who very kindly incarnated Christ for us in our basement and shared with us everything he knew.
My question is about forgiveness. Just what is it exactly?
I know what the Protestants say about forgiveness. And I know how the clinical counseling world often speaks of the concept.
In Protestant circles, as you know, we understand salvation primarily as a legal transaction in which God is angry and Jesus takes the punishment that was meant to be ours.
In clinical circles, we are much more cautious. Actually stingy may be a better word. A humanist counselor may only recommend practicing forgiveness is the offending person first demonstrates trustworthiness, evidenced by reliable and consistent change. There are even accounts of anti-religious counselors viewing a desire to forgive offenses(even heinous ones) as evidence of poor self-concept, bad boundaries, or a trauma bonding response. We’re very big on justice, equity and mutually beneficial relationship in the counseling world. Practices like forgiveness, mercy, grace and self-denial and anything else done unconditionally are foreign, radical and make us uncomfortable.
The closer I get to Orthodox Christianity, the more I’m beginning to see that I have not yet clearly understood anything. I want to move away from the humanist mindset of “Everything must be mutual and earned,” and I want to grow beyond the Protestant concept of legal and transactional love and relationship. Listening to Fr. E at St. Spyridon, I’ve heard that the Orthodox understanding of salvation (and presumably forgiveness) is not so much like legal substitution as much as the offender is sick and broken and in need of a healer and Christ is that healer.
On a soteriological level this makes sense, and is quite a bit more exciting to me than it has ever been. The goal of my salvation is restored relationship and unity with God.
But what does that mean for forgiveness, particularly between and offending and offended human? What actually IS forgiveness? How actually do I DO forgiveness? Is it an event or a process? Is it an attitude or a behavior? How do I know when I am truly forgiving my offender?
What does the Church teach?
These things I must know! I’m quite eager to learn. Perhaps you could tell. 😉
In peace, and just a bit of ignorance,