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The Problem of Procrastination

ProcrastinationIn our fast-paced society that prizes productivity and efficiency, procrastination is clearly a problem that can sabotage career and advancement. In a world preoccupied with high stress and low self-esteem, procrastination can be a serious issue contributing to more frequent physical illness as well mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. And even in Christian circles, procrastination can be a spiritual snare, for procrastination in repentance and the keeping of God’s commandments can destroy our very souls. Even though failing to follow through and complete an intended task until the last minute can keep us from our goals at every level, leaving us anxious, depressed and even seemingly far from God, we still procrastinate.

Psychologists often view the problem of procrastination as a problem of disconnect between intention and behavior. For instance, in his thesis entitled “Ruminating About Procrastination,” Brett W. Guidry notes that procrastination is a “delay of some sort, needless, and counterproductive…The idea of delaying an intended behavior seems to be crucial in defining procrastination. Without this intention-behavior gap, it is difficult to claim that procrastination has occurred.” Much like in the Lord’s parable about a certain man with two sons, the procrastinator says to himself, “I go, sir: and went not.” (Matthew  28-30).  In procrastination, the discrepancy between intention and behavior is also experienced as transgression of an inner law that the self has set. Procrastination can be viewed as a personal moral failure often expressed by so-called “should” statements such as, “I should have started this by now” or “I should have already completed this.”  Such realizations not only can lower self-esteem, but also can lead to anxiety, stress, and ensuing health problems.

Guidry goes on to point out that procrastination represents a breakdown in self-regulation or self-discipline, in part due to the fact that procrastinators are also more impulsive by nature with an inability to stick to a given task. Joseph R. Ferrari examined the relationship between impulsivity and procrastination and found that procrastinators “spend less preparation time on tasks that were likely to succeed and more time on projects likely to fail (Lay, 1990); they also tend to underestimate the time required to complete tasks.”  Ferrari concludes “ frequent procrastination (e.g., indecisiveness and pronounced tendencies to avoid threatening situations) is related to dysfunctional impulsiveness (high speed-high error)… To the extent that these procrastinators possess deficits in cognitive processing abilities, tendencies to speed up and work faster to complete a task by deadline will likely result in poor performance because of the subsequent lack of sufficient time and ability to perform efficiently.”

In other words, procrastination, the guilty feelings about failing to do what we intended to do, arise from poor judgment, poor self-control, and a failure to face squarely our own problems. In spiritual terms, we could say there is a lack of discernment, asceticism, and courage. Procrastinators are like the man who failed to sit down and count the cost like the parable of the man in intending to build a tower (Luke 14:28). They resemble Eve who saw the fruit was pleasant to the eyes, took it and ate it (Genesis 3:6). They view their project or problem, much like the fearful disciples afraid to face a storm or even a young girl warming herself by fire (Mark 14:69). In patristic terms, procrastination involves a kind weakness in the three parts of the soul, the reasoning, the desiring, and the aggressive faculties. In particular, there is a lack of planning in the reasoning faculty, shifting fancies in the desiring faculty, and apprehension in the aggressive faculty. Fortunately, the fathers have time-tested methods for dealing with spiritual sickness in each of these areas.

And the basic method in all cases is prayer. The three-fold ill of procrastination can be healed by actively turning to God on a daily basis, seeking His wisdom, His strength, and His assistance in the tasks of the day. It means asking God’s help to strengthen our good intentions, by faith proceeding to implement those intentions, and by calling on His Name disregarding the distractions and temptations that get in our way. We need to heed our Lord’s words: “And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch,” watching our plans, our desires, and our courage all in the light of His victory over every foe. If we do this in the spiritual life, we can also learn to do it in other areas. Encouraging watchfulness in his monks, Elder Ephraim would urge, “Compel yourselves; say the Prayer; stop idle talk; close your mouths to criticism; place doors and locks against unnecessary words; time passes and does not come back; and woe to us if time goes by without spiritual profit.” Putting first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, let’s first try to be watchful in our spiritual life by turning to God who can then help us overcome this obstacle in all the areas of our life to His glory. Amen.


Forgiveness Requires Courage

Lutheran-Rose-color-150x150Anyone who has experienced forgiving another human being recognizes that the act of loosening our grip and extending our hand that has recently been bitten requires courage, courage to act like Christ when our impulses drive us to act like wounded beasts. We know this on an experiential, intuitive level. Psychologists, however, have confirmed that fact in their study of forgiveness.
In his dissertation, John W. Beiter writes, “Thoresen (2001) highlighted that forgiveness was difficult, demanding and requiring courage.” Courage can be defined as a willingness and ability to face fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, hardship, death, or public disapproval. Courage is also required in order to let go of anger and the desire for revenge when one has been wronged or offended by another, to leave behind the dog-eat-dog world where we usually live, and to step into the unfamiliar terrain of the Gospel of Christ.

That forgiveness requires courage means that forgiveness is not a moral calculation or a balance on the scales of justice. Courage means we leave those calculations and balances on the side. Courage is required to forgive our brother without reflecting upon whether he deserves it. Forgiveness is, moreover, a courageous act of love that requires patience. Saint Ephraim the Syrian once said, “The life of the righteous was radiant. How did it become radiant if it wasn’t by patience? Love patience, O monk, as the mother of courage.” Patience in keeping God’s commandments provides the courage to do so in times of trial and temptation.

How is courage linked to forgiveness? In so far that it takes courage to be a Christian, in so far that it takes courage to be a person of faith, in so far that it takes courage to be obedient to the Gospel of Christ in a world that runs on the basis of other laws and criteria, it requires courage to forgive. After all, Saint Paul described the Christian as a courageous warrior of light: “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17). Is courage useful in forgiveness? In so far as it is linked to doing all to stand, meaning doing all to be bearers of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, benevolence, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:23), courage is undoubtedly most useful for those who long to forgive.

Consider for a moment, the absence of courage. In such a condition is forgiveness even possible? Saint Isaac the Syrian writes in Homily 40, “Faintness of heart is a sign of despondency, and negligence is the mother of both. A cowardly man shows that he suffers from two diseases: love of his flesh and lack of faith; for love of one’s flesh is a sign of unbelief. But he who despises the love of the flesh proves that he believes in God with his whole heart and awaits the age to come. . . A courageous heart and scorn of perils comes from one of two causes: either from hardness of heart or from great faith in God. Pride accompanies hardness of heart, but humility accompanies faith. A man cannot acquire hope in God unless he first does His will with exactness. For hope in God and manliness of heart are born of the testimony of the conscience, and by the truthful testimony of the mind we possess confidence towards God.”

Saint Isaac makes the important point that Christian courage is the courage of the humble and soft-hearted, not the courage of the proud and hard-hearted. To have a humble and soft-heart after being wounded requires more courage than the most lion-hearted soldier, a super-human courage that can only be attained and sustained through faith and hope in God. To stop nursing one’s wounds and to start turning to God are acts of courage that are also antecedents to forgiveness, turning to our neighbors and nursing their wounds. The notions of courage, faith, hope, patience and a strengthened heart are expressed most beautifully in psalm 26: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord; be thou manful, and let thy heart be strengthened, and wait on the Lord.”

Since forgiveness is central to the Christian life, courage is an indispensable virtue. It is not possible to live the Christian life without the heroic courage of the righteous. Saint John Chrysostom remarks, “Sin makes man a coward; but a life in the Truth of Christ makes Him bold” (St. John Chrysostom, On the Statues, VIII. 2).

The more we forgive, the more courage we gather within our heart which in turn makes it easier to forgive the next time, and the time after that, and seventy-times seven that follow. When we begin living according to a life in Christ, our world changes, we perceive those around us differently. We begin to see them as Christ sees them. Most importantly, we recognize the grace of Christ operative in our lives. We can then echo the words of Saint Paul, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phillippians 4:13) and that includes forgiving everyone, even those who have wronged us greviously.

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Empathy, Ruminations, and the Way of the Fathers

christ_with_sheep_1024x1024_000f40e8-e672-4000-8125-a77694d48331_1024x1024In continuing the discussion of psychological antecedents to forgiveness, psychologists rightly place a high value on the trait of empathy. Riek and Mania write, “Empathy consists of cognitively perceiving the world from another’s perspective and emotionally experiencing what another feels (Stephan & Finlay, 1999; Wade & Worthington, 2005). A number of models of forgiveness posit empathy as a key variable in the process of forgiveness (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Worthington, 1998). On the basis of work linking empathy with altruism, McCullough and colleagues (1997) predicted and found that empathy was also linked with higher levels of forgiveness.”

Empathy involves a shift from a focus on my feelings in being wronged to an awareness of how the other person was feeling before the transgression and is now feeling afterwards. Empathy not only broadens our perspective beyond the orbit of self, but also provides the cognitive space in which we can perceive our own capacity to commit the same transgression. This change in thought and feeling, in turn, makes room for sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness.

Although the fathers did not use the term empathy (which entered the English language in 1909 as a not particularly successful translation of the German Einfühlungsvermögen, given that empathy in Greek has always meant being impassioned against someone), they certainly were familiar with empathy’s close cousins, compassion and sympathy, and spoke about aspects of empathy that Christians would do well to cultivate. In the Russian redaction of the work Unseen Warfare, Theophan the Recluse counsels, “Never allow yourself boldly to judge your neighbour; judge and condemn, no one, especially for the particular bodily sin of which we are speaking. If someone has manifestly fallen into it, rather have compassion and pity for him. Do not be indignant with him or laugh at him, but let his example be a lesson in humility to you; realizing that you too are extremely weak and as easily, moved to sin as dust on the road, say to yourself: ‘He fell today, but tomorrow I shall fall.’ Know that, if you are quick to blame and despise others, God will mete out a painful punishment to you by letting you fall into the same sin for which you blame others. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matt. vii. 1); you will be condemned to the same punishment, in order to learn from it the perniciousness of your pride and, thus humbled, to seek a cure from two evils: pride and fornication. Even if in His mercy God protects you from downfall and you keep the chastity of your thought inviolate, stop blaming others if you were blaming them, and instead of relying on yourself, be still more afraid and do not trust your own steadfastness.”

If a Christian exchanges compassion and pity, for judgment and condemnation, the path to forgiveness is opened. And one spiritual way to do that is through the empathy-promoting saying of Abba Dorotheos: “him today, surely me tomorrow” (Discourse 6). This brings humility and an awareness of our own frailty. It makes it easier not to judge, not to blame, not to condemn, but instead to be compassionate, loving, and forgiving. It is also significant that our focus is on the person who is in many ways like us, not on what the person has done that offends us.

The reason for this focus will become clear if we turn to the issue of ruminating over offenses. Riek and Mania write, “Another major influence on forgiveness is rumination. Increases in rumination are associated with decreases in forgiveness (Berry, 2001; Kachadorurian, Fincham, & Davila, 2005; McCullough et al., 1998). It appears that the more one focuses on past transgressions, the harder it is for him or her to forgive.”

Harmful rumination coincides with the patristic teaching on the remembrance of wrongs (μνησικακία) that Ammonios Grammaticus defined as long-standing anger in contrast to a short outburst (On the Difference of Synonymous Expressions). For the fathers, the remembrance of wrongs is a passion of self-defense, related to anger and pride, that increases these passions to such an extent that they can lead a person to murder and bloodshed (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Canonical Letter to Letoium, PG 45.225). According to Saint Syncletica, “Anger is like smoke that briefly obstructs the soul’s vision and then disappears, but the remembrance of wrongs makes that soul into a wild beast” (Life of Syncletica, PG 28.1524). This is why the fathers counsel us to cut off thoughts about others especially as they relate to their slights and offenses. Thus, Saint Maximus the Confessor would counsel: “Do not recall in times of peace what was said by a brother in times when there were bad feelings between you, even if offensive things were said to your face, or to another person about you, and you subsequently heard of them. Otherwise you will harbor thoughts of the remembrance of wrongs and revert to your destructive hatred of your brother” (Fourth Century on Love, 34). Perhaps, the best treatment for rumination or the remembrance of wrongs is prayer that unites us with our longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving Heavenly Father and that can make us a bit more like Him (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer).

Empathy is helpful in terms of providing us the opportunity to see another’s fault as potentially our own and to become compassionate, understanding, and a bit more humble. Ruminating on the actions of another is on the contrary harmful in terms of moving us rapidly from that terrible action to that horrible person with whom we have no desire to empathize. The way of empathy is a path to compassion, sympathy, and humility that makes room for forgiveness, while the way of rumination (or remembrance of wrongs) is a road that leaves us in a pit a pit of bitterness, seething with anger and a desire for vengeance that precludes the possibility of forgiveness. From psychological research and from the wisdom of the fathers, we can see that for the peace of forgiveness to be ours we need to focus our attention on the sinner to be loved rather than the sin to be hated in a spirit of humility and with the acknowledgement of our own weaknesses and capacity to offend.

Elizabeth Gassin writes in her article, “Interpersonal Forgiveness From an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” that “The passion of anger, which is often rooted in pride (Mark the Ascetic, 1979), also plays a role in the struggle to forgive. Because anger is seen as a vice, a goal of spiritual growth in the Orthodox tradition is to develop the ability to react to offenses with sympathy and prayer for the offender and to evaluate sin in oneself (Archimandrite Sophrony, 1974; Benigsen, 1997; Ilias the Presbyter, trans. 1984; Peter of Damascus, trans. 1984; Ustiuzhanin, 2000). (Interestingly, the importance of empathy for an offender in forgiveness has received some empirical support in the work of McCullough, Worthington, and colleagues [Worthington, 1998; McCullough et al., 1998; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997].) Anger at another in defense of oneself basically has no support in Orthodox writings.”

The Psalm chanted during every Orthodox Vespers is an apt one in terms of a discussion about empathy, ruminations and the way of the Fathers:

Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.

Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.

When we turn to God humbly in prayer, when we close off unprofitable inner dialogue with a door about our lips, when we incline our heart only towards that which is good, we can look at our brother as our brother, our sister as our sister, with compassion, with empathy, without rumination, and yes with forgiveness.

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Less Injustice or More Humility: Two Perspectives on Forgiveness

Deep HumilityFor most of the twentieth century, western psychology has made observations on the basis of trends that can be repeatedly confirmed in the readily available population of American, white, middle-class college students. Some of these observations make a lot of sense in a world where individualism, achievement, self-esteem, and personal rights are upheld as primary values that guide thought and action. In terms of forgiveness, psychologists who’ve studied the phenomenon have found that the severity of the offense as well as the presence or absence of an apology contribute to one’s ability to forgive. Blake M. Riek and Eric W. Mania, in their article, “Antecedents and Consequents of Interpersonal Forgiveness,” have noted that “the severity of the offense has a significant impact upon forgiveness, such that more severe transgressions are more difficult to forgive.” The authors also found that the presence of an apology greatly increases the chances of forgiveness: “As perceptions of an apology increased so did participants’ level of forgiveness toward the offender.”

From a purely psychological perspective in a world of individualistic values this explains everyday behavior rather well. However, if we enter into a world with values deeper than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we find other possibilities that can make it easier to forgive, approaches that focus not so much on the offender and the offense as on the heart of the person who is offended. Ultimately, this is more helpful since we are never able to control the actions of others. However, we do have a modicum of control over our own thoughts and attitudes, which exert powerful leverage on our actions.

In her article entitled “Interpersonal Forgiveness from an Orthodox Perspective,” Elizabeth Gassin writes, “An important prerequisite to forgiveness is coming to terms with one’s reaction to the offense. Orthodox thinking emphasizes how the passions, especially pride and anger, impede our struggle to forgive, and how the virtues can facilitate offering forgiveness. Several Orthodox writers claim that a lack of forgiveness is due to pride (Alekseev, 1996; Aleksiev, trans. 1994; Archimandrite Sophrony, 1974; Staniloae, trans. 1982). Pride involves several elements, such as ascribing goodness to self rather than God (John Cassian, trans. 1979), assuming one ‘knows better’ than others (most profoundly illustrated in Eve and Adam’s disobedience to God’s command), and refusing to see one’s own sin.”

The presence of angry pride and the absence of peaceful humility are important, if not well-known, considerations for discussing human forgiveness. They situate the problem in the context of spiritual warfare, the perfection of the soul, and the imitation of Christ in which the person who loves and forgives becomes united with the Savior and all the Saints. This blessed context is obviously quite different from that of contemporary North American psychological models, which in placing such emphasis on the psychological antecedents of severity and the presence of an apology turn the issue of forgiveness into another forum for the issue of justice. These two antecedents in particular assume that the human scales of justice are operative when any discussion of forgiveness arises.

An anonymous author commenting on the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and his disdain for western moral concepts and the tendency to divide humans into categories of good and bad writes, “The first significant observation is that by demolishing morality which differentiates people into good and evil, Dostoevsky undermines the arrogance of humanism, which believes that with morality, it can eradicate evil from the world. In this manner, Dostoevsky theologizes patristically: the salvation of man cannot come from man himself, but only from God. Secondly, by recognizing in every person the coexistence of good and evil, Dostoevsky invites everyone to refrain from censuring other people and concentrate their interest and their care on their own sins. That way, they simultaneously attain repentance and love. Dostoevsky thus moves within the spirit of the Gospel, but also of the neptic Fathers (“grant me, O Lord, that I might see my own trespasses, and not pass judgment on my brother” – a prayer by Saint Ephraim).”

In this Eastern conception of the psychological antecedents to forgiveness, humility is the lynchpin. Gassin writes emphatically, “Humility can be defined as the opposite of those elements that constitute pride, as defined above. In addition, an etymological analysis of the word in various languages sheds light on the meaning of this virtue. The Latin root of the English word for humility, humus, calls to mind soft soil. Perhaps this refers to the fact that humble people think of themselves as lowly (Mother Alexandra, 1983) or may also be connected to the parable of the good soil (Matthew 13:1-9). According to this parable, a humble person eagerly receives and nourishes the “seeds” that God has planted. The Russian word for humility, smirenie, is lexically connected to reconciling oneself to something, such as to God’s will in the case of a Christian, and/or to acting with peace (Fr. K. Podlosinsky, personal communication, October 1998). Although some western models have noted the role that humility can play in forgiveness (e.g., Enright et al., 1991, 1996; Sandage, 1999; Worthington, 1998), an Orthodox perspective would emphasize this virtue much more strongly than has been done in most scholarly writings to date.”

For the humble, the severity of the offense and the existence of an apology are extraneous factors in terms of one’s willingness to forgive. This new perspective on forgiveness offers freedom (a favorite theme of Dostoevsky) in that the one offended has the power to forgive in each and every circumstance and is not constrained by such factors as the severity of the offense or the presence of an apology. It is a freedom based on knowing who we are, what God has done for us, and what we desire to give Him in return. Always aware of the ten thousand talents that we owe God, always aware that He has forgiven us with His grace and loving kindness, always aware that all of us will stand together one day before our Maker, we come to understand what ultimately matters is not so much what was said to us or done to us, but our faithfulness to Christ’s love, our imitation of His forgiveness, and our humility before the weaknesses of others.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

icon reconciliationWe all like consistency between our thoughts and our actions. It is as though we have a map to a goal and we are following it. When we lose that consistency, we feel lost, distressed, and uncomfortable on account of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, a condition that becomes worse in proportion to the meaning and importance of those thoughts and actions. This state of discomfort is actually a gift that under the most important of circumstances the Fathers would refer to as pangs of conscience. Those with a refined conscience for whom living in accord with God’s will is highly important will experience great cognitive dissonance when they act in an un-Christian way. Saint Jerome refers to such cognitive dissonance when he asks, “How have we been able to say in our daily prayers ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ while our feelings have been at variance with our words and our petition inconsistent with our conduct?” (Letter 13 to Castorina).

In this verse from the Sermon on the Mount—“if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift,” our Lord takes the teaching on ritual impurity to another level beyond the washing of hands and plates to the purifying of thoughts and memories, always turning our attention inward to order our life outwardly. If we remember that we are not at peace with our brother, we need to go and seek reconciliation, exchanging friendship for enmity, regardless of whatever else we might be planning to do, no matter how noble and exalted it might be, even the worship due to God. This is because the ultimate offering that we make to God is not our words, but our very souls (Saint Augustine, Homily 32). Saint John Chrysostom sees this particular commandment of Christ as a sign of God’s exceeding goodness that He places our relationship with our brother and the inclinations of our heart even before His service (Homily 16 on Matthew).

The instruction to “leave thy gift there” suggests the need to act swiftly when the remembrance of enmity arises, because of the negative consequences of not doing so. Elsewhere, Saint John Chrysostom notes that when we drag our feet in seeking reconciliation, we allow anger of the moment to turn into lingering, festering malice, making it that much harder to take the proper course. Thus, the Saint writes, “For when one day has passed, the shame becomes greater; and when the second has arrived, it is still further increased; and if it reach a third, and a fourth day, it will add a fifth. Thus the five days become ten; the ten, twenty; the twenty an hundred until the wound will become incurable; for as time goes on, the breach widens… And it becomes more difficult to get rid of one’s enmity not only on account of the lapse of time, but on account of the state of affairs as that time has passed, for as ‘love covers a multitude of sins,’ so enmity creates sins that do not exist” (Homily 20 on the Statues).

From these comments of the Saint, it is clear that Christ’s teaching about leaving the gift at the altar is about healing the human heart. It is of such great importance that Saint John Chrysostom urges, “Knowing all this, you should make the first advance to your brother; catch him before he has entirely slipped away from you and if necessary run through the entire city on the same day, go beyond the walls, even make a long journey, leaving everything else on the side and attending only to this one work of reconciling yourself with your brother” (Homily 20 on the Statues). Of course, even when the conscience cries and cognitive dissonance is felt, we can go into denial about the relationship with our brother, we can justify our behavior by offering a thousand reasons why we can’t be reconciled or don’t need to be reconciled, and this may relieve some of the tension, but not ultimately bring us peace. Knowing this, Saint John again stresses the only solution is to change our behavior by obedience to Christ’s commandments. And if we need help, the Saint suggests that we encourage ourselves with some wise self-talk “Stir up your soul when it shrinks back reluctant and ashamed, by perpetually harping on this theme and saying, ‘Why are you procrastinating? Why are you withdrawing and hesitant? We are not concerned about money or other passing things, but with our own salvation. God commands us to do this, everything else should be secondary” (Homily 20 on the Statues).

Cognitive dissonance and pangs of conscience can be precious gifts when they become spurs for repentance, reconciliation, and transformation that we use to move to new places in our hearts, places where we can indeed worship God in spirit and in truth. In Saint Augustine’s reading of this verse he places the emphasis on the change in heart that is necessary for the commandment to be fulfilled: “When it occurs to us that we may have harmed our brother in some way, this is to be done not with the bodily feet, but with the emotions of the mind, so that you prostrate yourself with a humble disposition before your brother, to whom you have hastened in affectionate thought, in the presence of Him to whom you are about to present your offering. For thus, even if he should be present, you will be able to soften him by a mind free from dissimulation, and to recall him to goodwill by asking pardon, if first you have done this before God, going to him not with the slow movement of the body, but with the very swift impulse of love” (Sermon on the Mount). And so with humility and swiftness, with warmth and honesty, with our thoughts and with our actions, let’s heed our conscience and make use of any cognitive dissonance we might feel when we turn to God in prayer. In doing so, we gain not only our brother and our sister, but also our soul and our God.

Religiosity, Christianity, and Forgiveness

In psychological literature, religion and spirituality are usually contrasted as the institutional and subjective aspects of individuals’ search for the sacred. Religion, in particular, is often defined by a particular constellation of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors that accompany this sacred search and that are validated and supported by an identifiable group of people. So a Christian who feels gratitude towards God, thinks about Scripture, experiences God’s nearness, and goes to Church in ways that are shared with others in that Christians group could be called religious. One would think that religiosity would have some influence on a readiness to forgive, but the findings are in fact intriguingly ambiguous.

In their article entitled, “Antecedents and Consequents of Interpersonal Forgiveness,” authors Blake M. Riek and Eric W. Mania found that religiosity plays an indeterminate role in an individual’s disposition to forgive another. Some studies, particularly those whose participants reported to be from a Judeo-Christian background, found that there was indeed a strong relationship between one’s religiosity and forgiveness. Other studies found no such correlation. Riek and Mania conclude, “This suggests that religion has a larger impact on how people feel about forgiveness than the actual practice of forgiveness.” In other words, religion tends to make one quite forgiving in theory, but not necessarily so forgiving in practice. Part of the problem, according to psychologists, is that religion is a broad term that needs to be unpacked. Just going to Church might not make one necessarily more forgiving, but what about giving to the poor or visiting the sick? Unfortunately to my knowledge, psychologists have not yet explored those possibilities.

The uncertain relationship between forgiveness and religion can be used to sharpen our focus on how to in fact become more forgiving. We know that the fathers took a rather dim view of the religions of ancient Greece. They saw them not only as misguided and false, but as making a person more selfish and passionate. And in their minds, the one thing Christianity was not was a religion. As strange as it may sound to modern ears, Christianity was not about going to heaven or being protected from harm by God. It was not about keeping the rules or joining a club, but about a new, captivating way of life in the here and now based upon one’s relationship with the Lord Christ, begun in the heart and then extending to one’s thoughts, behavior and entire life. For these holy men and women, their relationship with Christ influences and forms their personalities and their relationships with others. In fact, this is not a mere transformation of some personality characteristics, but a profound transfiguration of the whole Christian person who naturally imitates Christ in all things, most especially in compassion and forgiveness.

Father John Romanides, a 20th century Orthodox theologian, made the bold statement that Christianity is not a religion at all, but a therapeutic course of treatment that heals the human person. He eschews the term religion in describing the Christian way: “The biblical tradition as preserved by the Fathers cannot be identified with or reduced to a system of moral precepts or Christian ethics. It is rather a therapeutical asceticism which is not daunted by any degree of malady of the heart or noetic faculty short of its complete hardening. To take the shape of this asceticism without its heart and core and to apply it to a system of moral precepts for personal and social ethics is to produce a society of puritanical hypocrites who believe they have a special claim on God’s love because of their morality, or predestination, or both. The commandments of Christ cannot be fulfilled by any simple decision to do so or by any confidence in having been elected.”

The problematic results about the relationship between religiosity and forgiveness now become a bit more clear. Just admiring morality, just doing what one has to do to get to heaven, just doing what one should to attain God’s blessings, just belonging to a group that says that forgiveness is a good thing, all these religious reasons and practices are not going to be enough to freely, spontaneously, and wholeheartedly forgive, if there hasn’t been a change of heart that comes about from continuous, humble, trusting communion with Christ.

In a previous post on Lent, I wrote, “There is certainly nothing wrong with people trying to do the right thing and to be moral and upstanding citizens. The problem is that salvation and transfiguration are not a matter of morality. The publican and the prodigal were not moral people. They did all the wrong things, but yet they came to themselves, they discovered their hearts, and in so doing found the way, not just to moral goodness, but to holiness, to righteousness, and to feasting in the Father’s household. In the West, many speak about Lent as a period of struggle whose goal is for Christians to become better people. For the ancient fathers, however, it is not just about “the good being preserved in their goodness and the crafty becoming good” (anaphora of Saint Basil the Great), although these are things to be prayed for. Rather, it is about discovering the heart, being honest about oneself, being humble before God, and in repentance beginning an incredible journey in which the soul seeks to be clothed in Christ, so that thoughts, desires, the will, all become holy, all become bent on salvation, all become an expression of His forgiveness and His love. No frail human morality can ever hope to contain the overflowing fullness of life with which Christ desires to rejuvenate the faithful.”

For the Christian, forgiveness is inextricably linked with a new life in Christ at this very moment and every moment thereafter. It is an expression of ongoing repentance that is a lifelong process encompassing all our actions and interactions. Saint John of Damascus was fond of saying, “In hell, there is no repentance” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 2, 4), which is another way of saying Christianity is all about changing the mind now, about communion with Christ in the heart now, and with responding to others on the basis of that communion now. And what is forgiveness if not a change in how we look at a brother who has wronged us in the present. Perhaps, if Christians are not as forgiving in practice as they are in theory, the problem is that their understanding of Christianity and their practice of Christianity is a bit off center. For those who view the Christian life as primarily a life of joyful and continuous repentance, I think they will find that the forgiveness of God in their hearts will extend to every soul that they touch, regardless of what that soul may have done to them.

Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

Sermon on the MountFor those of us who speak without thinking and spout off when we are irritated, the sobering words of our Lord in Matthew 5:22 are often dismissed. In today’s world, words uttered in anger may be considered to be a slight offense that can be justified by the circumstances. In our own mind, we may afterwards indulge in such justifications in which our focus remains riveted not on what has come out of our mouths, but on what the other person has said or done to us. “Well, I did get angry, but he was accusing me of something I didn’t do,” or “He had it coming to him. He didn’t recognize my hard work and efforts on this project. I had to get angry.” The Lord Christ suggests another focus. We should consider what we say and how we say it, keeping in mind that our words can be as soothing as oil or as scorching as fire. With them we can wound or heal, curse or bless. And those wounding curses and healing blessings have consequences not just for our neighbor, but also for ourselves.

In explaining the Lord’s words— “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna—, Saint Maximus notes that these insults differ in that the word Raca means impure and slanders the person’s way of life, whereas the word fool implies that a person is senseless like the fool that says in his heart there is no God (Questiones et Dubia, 10.40). Saint John Chrysostom likewise views Raca as a mere expression of contempt, but the word fool touches on “that which separates us from the brutes, and by which especially we are human beings, namely, the mind and the understanding, — when you have robbed your brother of this, you have deprived him of all his nobility” (Homily 16 on Matthew). The Saint continues, “So let us not regard only the words merely, but realizing the things themselves and his feeling, let us consider how great a wound is caused by this word and how much evil it causes” (Homily 16 on Matthew).

Psychologists have in fact been making such an investigation. For example, Caza and Cortina, in their 2007 study on incivility, have found that insulting someone else can make that person feel wronged or ostracized. The feelings of having no control over interactions with others and of not belonging to a group in turn can lead to anxiety if the individual ruminates on lack of control, while it can lead to depression if the individual instead broods over social rejection and personal shortcomings. Saint John Chrysostom even goes further, “The insolent mar all the beauty of love, cast upon their neighbor countless ills, work up lasting enmities, tear asunder the members of Christ, and are daily driving away that peace which God so desires: giving much ground to the devil by their injurious ways, and making him that much the stronger.” In other words, in addition to the psychological harm that an insult causes, there are theological consequences, moral consequences, spiritual consequences that are actually far-reaching.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian further adds, “whosoever despises the despised, despises with him the Almighty” (Hymn 4 on Epiphany). When we insult someone else, we forget about the image of God in both our brother and ourselves. Doing so we place ourselves in that Gehenna of fire, which in our Lord’s time was a valley south of Jerusalem, known as a place where human sacrifices were offered to Canaanite deities and at His time used for burning up garbage and the corpses of the poor. In insulting our brother, our contempt casts him into that valley in which we burn him by anger, rather than offering him the water of love.

It should now be clear that insults should not pass easily from the mouths of Christians. For this reason, Saint Paul reminds the Christians of Ephesus, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). The optimal time to struggle against the passion of anger is before it occurs in the thoughts and is rooted in the heart. The holy fathers counsel us to flee anger at its very first manifestation in our thoughts and being firmly committed to not allow it to be expressed in words. We can further guard against this passion through ongoing prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

In contrast to being angry with one another and insulting one another that brings so much harm, Christ calls us to love one another and be at peace with one another. Saint Isaac the Syrian writes in Homily 15, “If you love purity, in which the Master of all can be seen, do not speak disparagingly of any man or listen to another who maligns his brother. Is some quarrel in your presence and you hear words of wrath, close your ears and flee from that place, lest your soul perish from life. A wrathful heart is entirely devoid of the mysteries of God, but the meek and humble man is a well-spring of the mysteries of the new age.”

Saint Nikolai of Zicha provides us with a prayer that may seem counterintuitive. In his prayer, rather than bemoaning the fact that he has enemies, he thanks his enemies for providing him the opportunity to grow closer to Christ. When we are tempted by the passion of anger, perhaps we can pray this prayer (“Lord, Bless My Enemies”):

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth
and have demolished all my aspirations in the world. Enemies have
made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous
inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter
than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies,
found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your
tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have
spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me
as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people,
they have shoved me into the background. Whenever I have rushed
to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened
me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long
and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out. Truly,
enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out
my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, Ο Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Relationships and Forgiveness

modern1-e1329068773290Perhaps our own experience provides us with evidence concerning the next antecedent to forgiveness: the nature of our relationship with another person.

Our relationship with the one who has offended us usually does influence our willingness to forgive the offense and the offender. When we are involved in a committed relationship with another person, the sting of the offense may be more pronounced, but often our willingness to forgive is determined by the quality and history of the relationship that enable us to forgive more readily. Riek and Mania concluded similarly in writing, “Commitment between the offender and victim is likely to influence one’s reaction to an offense. When people have invested a great deal in a relationship and see it as beneficial, they may be motivated to ‘explain away’ their partners’ offenses in order to allow the relationship to continue. Indeed, Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, and Hannon (2002) found that as the level of commitment between two people increases, the likelihood of forgiveness also increases.”

The fathers offer us profound and beautiful insights into the goal of human relationships. Their thinking is summarized well by Abba Isaiah whom I quote in Ancient Christian Wisdom, “Nature did not fashion human beings to be like solitary beasts, but rather like a flock of gregarious animals who share the same pastures, so that each person would live not only for himself, but also for his father and mother, for his siblings, for his spouse, for his children, for his other relatives, for his friends, for his fellow townsmen, for his fellow countrymen, for those living in his part of the world, for all humanity, even for every aspect of all things, for the entire world, and foremost for his God and Maker.” Clearly, living for others means having a commitment to others and investing oneself in relationships with others. According to Abba Isaiah, this is what it means to be human. Our ultimate calling is for our commitments and our relationships to expand until they include everyone from the least of our brethren to the God of all. And in doing so, forgiveness should become easier, not because we explain away the offenses of others, but because we love them away with the very love of God.

If we agree with researchers that the quality and importance of relationships play an important role in a forgiving disposition and if we note that the Christian faith is very much about the quality and importance of our relationship with the triune God and our every neighbor for whom God became incarnate, it would be difficult to argue with the fact that acquiring a forgiving disposition is imperative for a full, flourishing, and blessed human life.

As Elizabeth A. Gassin writes in her article, “Interpersonal Forgiveness From an Orthodox Perspective”, “God creates each person in His own image and likeness, meaning that we are relational beings because God Himself has an eternal relationship of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, our fulfillment of self is found ultimately in loving others, including our enemies, with an active, perfect, self-sacrificing love.” Put otherwise, when we repair relationships through forgiveness we are not only working for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” but also entering into the mystery of being in the image and likeness of God. In that image and in that forgiveness, we ultimately find fulfillment.

However, according to the Orthodox Christian understanding of forgiveness, there is also an incarnational aspect to imitating Christ in forgiving others. Gassin notes, “Another facet of this same argument is that in forgiving and reconciling with an offender, we participate in the life of Christ. In fact, we might even say that we “incarnate” Christ in the lives of self and offender. This refers back to the notion of theosis discussed above. Archbishop Chrysostomos (personal communication, March, 2000) writes that when we control our fallen passions, such as anger, in the face of offense: God rewards this labor, not just with the control of our passions, but with the transformation of our intention and desires, such that we attain the same passionless passion that was in Christ…once we have been cleansed, we participate in the Divine nature, and the purity of the image of God is restored in us… Orthodox Christians who forgive an offender with a heart undarkened by the passions of pride and anger continues to be purified by the Spirit of Love. They also enter into the life and nature of Christ, who emptied Himself for the sake of those who were at enmity with God and offers new life through His Resurrection and the sending of His Spirit. For Orthodox Christians, this process of entering into Christ’s life is the very definition of salvation.”

Forgiveness sets us on that glorious road of which Saint Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “He was made man, that we might be made god”(Incarnation of the Word, 5:3). In other words, we are called to become by grace what the Lord Christ is by His nature, related to all, compassionate towards all, committed to all, forgiving towards all, loving for all. In this context, it is clear that the keen insights gleaned from psychology concerning the relational antecedent of forgiveness are transformed by the fathers into deep healing that is capable of transforming the entire person, and by that person’s commitments and relationships with others, the entire world.

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