Forgiveness is indeed essential to Christian life. If we want to be forgiven by God (and, indeed, we NEED to be forgiven by God), we NEED to forgive those who have wronged us. Sometimes grudges can hide quietly in the base of our gut when we decide to simply, “move on” or “let it go.” These pragmatic attitudes are actually not very Christian. We should not try to ignore our feelings, or bury them, but to face the fact that we have been wronged, we have suffered, we have been hurt, we have been treated unjustly. Whoever has done these this to us has become by definition our enemy. The first move as a Christian is not to excuse the wrong, but to forgive it. This is the work of God’s love in our hearts. Christian forgiveness is not given because it is deserved, or merited, or earned. Christian forgiveness is an attitude of heart that we accept because we receive the commandment of forgiveness from Christ in our heart. We allow our heart to be moved by His divine Word from brokenness, anger, frustration, bitterness, etc. to healing and peace.
Forgiveness, however, is only the beginning. Mercy and forgiveness are acts of love that recognize the injustice committed while moving to restore and recover wholeness. Christians are not only called to forgive their enemies, but to love them. The highest point of that love is the disinterested prayer of one who begs God’s blessings, protection, grace, tenderness upon an enemy. God loves all His children, He created all of us and if we continue to exist is it because God wills and loves us into being. Allowing our gaze to rise above the very horizontal relationship with others which causes us to consider some friends and others enemies, we see in a gaze of wisdom that vertical relationship each has with the Creator. Mercy is an infinite sort of love, it continues well after ordinary love is used up. By commanding us to love our enemies, Christ initiates the process by which, if we cooperate, our hearts are made Godlike and perfect.
God was able to have mercy even on king Ahab, whose deplorable action was without excuse or justification. This is further proof that God’s main concern is not that everyone be on their best behavior. It is rather – though without neglecting growth in virtue – to shift completely into the perspective that sees mercy and love as perfection. King Ahab began to touch that perfection when he recognized his sinfulness and begged for God’s mercy. He could have brought that perfection to fulfillment by extending that same love and mercy to everyone else.
When the poor man suffered these things, the rich man was blamed; when the rich man experienced them, the poor man was vindicated. But what does it signify that harlots washed in his blood, unless perhaps that a kind of meretricious perfidy or bloody luxury should be proclaimed to have been in the cruelty of the king, who was so fond of luxury that he desired herbs, and so bloodthirsty that, for the sake of his herbs, he killed a man? A fitting penalty destroyed the miser, a fitting penalty for his avarice. Finally, also, the dogs and the birds of heaven devoured Jezebel, so that it should be made manifest that the spoil of spiritual wickedness becomes the grave of the rich. Flee, therefore, a death of this kind, O rich person. But you will flee a death of this kind only if you flee this kind of crime. Do not be an Ahab and covet a neighbor’s possession. Let not Jezebel dwell with you, that deadly avarice that persuades you to bloody deeds; that restrains not your desires but urges you on; that makes you sadder even when you gain possession of what you desire and that makes you destitute when you are rich.1
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
[…] consider that even though the repentance of Ahab was short, the pardon that he asked for was nonetheless granted immediately. His Lord did not act in this manner with Abraham, to whom he conceded an heir only after a prayer lasting one hundred years. See also how a great fault was forgiven Ahab, while Miriam became a leper for a small error. Recognize, then, that the grace of God, which is incomprehensible, does not allow sinners to waste away in their iniquity, and [God] makes the righteous man thrive by not giving him what he wants immediately and by correcting him without delay. See again how Abraham prayed without receiving anything. He does not make his servants rich, so that they might not grow too proud.2
A teacher, if he dismisses a child and does not exact obedience from him, hates him; if, on the other hand, he disciplines him and the remedy cures him, his apparent severity turns out to be clemency. Ahab, too, was censured by the Lord when he killed Naboth and took his vineyard and spilled just blood. Elijah, the prophet, was sent to him to say, “You have killed. Moreover, also you have taken possession.” Immediately his conscience struck and tormented him; he bowed his head and walked with eyes downcast; and this is an impious king robed in purple. Afterwards, Scripture says, Ahab went about wearing haircloth under his royal attire, and God, seeing him, said, “Because Ahab has humbled himself for my sake, I will not bring evil against him.” Just realize the power of haircloth and of fasting, and how much blood is washed away by humble tears! This, then, is the proper way to wear haircloth and the proper way to fast, that no one may observe it.3
It is clear, therefore, from these prophecies that the Lord keeps his promises even to the unworthy but the impious are either destroyed by their own folly or are condemned for a second transgression, though they have escaped the snares of the first. But we should so conduct ourselves that, being worthy through good works, we may deserve to receive the promises of the omnipotent God.4
We have seen how murder is born from anger and adultery from desire. In the same way, the hatred of an enemy is destroyed by the love of friendship. Suppose you have viewed a man as an enemy, yet after a while he has been swayed by your benevolence. You will then love him as a friend. I think that Christ ordered these things not so much for our enemies as for us: not because enemies are fit to be loved by others but because we are not fit to hate anyone. For hatred is the prodigy of dark places. Wherever it resides, it sullies the beauty of sound sense. Therefore not only does Christ order us to love our enemies for the sake of cherishing them but also for the sake of driving away from ourselves what is bad for us. The Mosaic law does not speak about physically hurting your enemy but about hating your enemy. But if you merely hate him, you have hurt yourself more in the spirit than you have hurt him in the flesh. Perhaps you don’t harm him at all by hating him. But you surely tear yourself apart. If then you are benevolent to an enemy, you have rather spared yourself than him. And if you do him a kindness, you benefit yourself more than him.5
THEODORE OF HERACLEA:
The law of the Lord transcends both the law of nature and the law revealed to Moses. For the things that are impossible with humans are possible with God. But Christ does not legislate impossibilities, as Stephen showed at the time of his passion, when he bent his knees and prayed for those who were stoning him. Similarly Paul, who had suffered so many things at the hands of the Jews, also prays for them. Therefore the infrequency of these things shows that they are not impossible. For most people, though, they are difficult to accomplish owing to their unwillingness to strive to reach the summit of virtue.6
For neither did Christ simply command to love but to pray. Do you see how many steps he has ascended and how he has set us on the very summit of virtue? Mark it, numbering from the beginning. A first step is not to begin with injustice. A second, after one has begun, is not to vindicate oneself by retaliating in kind. A third, to refuse to respond in kind to the one who is injuring us but to remain tranquil. A fourth, even to offer up one’s self to suffer wrongfully. A fifth, to give up even more than the wrongdoer wishes to take. A sixth, to refuse to hate one who has wronged us. A seventh, even to love such a one. An eighth, even to do good to that one. A ninth, to entreat God himself on our enemy’s behalf. Do you perceive how elevated is a Christian disposition? Hence its reward is also glorious.7
“Adoption” is the term used by the apostle to denote the character of our vocation to the eternal inheritance, in order to be joint heirs with Christ. By spiritual regeneration we therefore become sons and are adopted into the kingdom of God, not as aliens but as his creatures and offspring.8
For as in prosperity he does not separate the sinners from the just, so he does not separate the just from the sinners in hard times. He does not separate the sinners from the just in prosperity, lest, being separated, they should know themselves to be cast down and despair. He does not separate the just from the sinners in hard times, lest, being separated, they should know themselves to be chosen and boast. Above all, prosperity should not benefit the evil but rather hurt them, nor should difficult times harm the good but rather benefit them.9
So he said, “Be perfect,” so that you might both love your friends on account of shunning evil and love your enemies on account of possessing justice. The former frees us from punishment; the latter leads us into glory. For a representative of God is not perfect who does not resemble God through his or her works.10
The law used to demand that your neighbor be loved and allowed hatred against an enemy. Faith, rather, requires that enemies be cherished. It breaks the tendency we have to be peevish and urges us to bear life’s difficulties calmly. Faith not only deters anger from turning into revenge but even softens it into love for the injurer.11
Hence the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies.… Thus we may imitate the example of true piety and our Father’s goodness.12
- ON NABOTH 11.48–49. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 130). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON THE FIRST BOOK OF KINGS 21.28. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 131). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON THE PSALMS 51 (PS 140). Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 131). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON NABOTH 17.70–73. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 132). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 13. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 120). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 40. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 120). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 18.4. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 120). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON ON THE MOUNT 1.23.78. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 121). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 13. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 121–122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 13. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 4.27. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 21.2.1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.