We all need forgiveness; we can all be both hurt and hurtful. Often forgiveness is thought of as escaping punishment, like asking a judge to forgive a jail sentence or fine. But the Lord’s forgiveness is far beyond removing punishment, but the selfishness that causes the suffering. The Lord is pure compassion and forgiveness, and so He wants to remove the selfishness, hatred, lust and resentments that destroy our relationships and happiness. We may selfishly ask, “Please don’t make me suffer for what I have done!” But we should ask, “Please help me to not hurt others any more, and to right any wrong I have done.”
Forgiveness can be difficult. We often have many questions for ourselves and God. Why can’t I get rid of my resentment? Why do I give in to lust? Why does anger boil up unbidden every time something goes wrong? Why can’t I forgive a wrong done twenty years ago?
These questions remind me of a story from the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples brought Him a young man possessed by a spirit that made him deaf and mute. The spirit would often cause the man to throw himself in the fire or water to destroy himself. They asked Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus answered, “If you can believe, all things are possible to one who believes.”
The young man’s father said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus then commanded the spirit to leave.
Later the disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we cast out the spirit?”
Jesus replied, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:14–29)
Prayer means not just reciting certain words, but actually turning our hearts to the Lord. If we look to the Lord and acknowledge that everything good and true is from Him, we actually undergo an inward change, turning away from ourselves and turning towards the Lord (Doctrine of Charity 204). Fasting is not about avoiding physical food while indulging one’s greed and selfishness, its true meaning is “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:1–9). True fasting is resisting, turning away from and fleeing from selfish desires.
These two steps need to be hand in hand. If we resist selfishness without turning to the Lord, we do it for our own advantage and it is still selfish. On the other hand, if we pray to the Lord and do not turn away from evil, our prayers are just empty words. “But when we flee from evil desires as sins, we fight against them because they are contrary to the Lord, and against His Divine laws, and then we pray to the Lord for the help and for power to resist them, and that power we ask for is never denied” (Doctrine of Charity 204). This is the prayer and fasting that brings us to true forgiveness and compassion.
The Rev. John Odhner is an Assistant to the Pastor at the Bryn Athyn Church (www.brynathynchurch.org).