Forgiveness Requires Courage

Fr. Alexis Trader

Anyone 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.