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Responsibility, the Key to True Forgiveness

Updated on November 18, 2012
One of Heinrich Hoffmann's portraits of Christ
One of Heinrich Hoffmann's portraits of Christ

In all aspects of spiritual life, the individual must accept and respond to both his abilities and his responsibility to live inwardly and outwardly in a manner that most effectively accomplishes his spiritual evolution. For it is he alone who must loose himself from the so-called bonds of sin and lift himself into the light of true righteousness. But how?

This article was written by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri), head of Light of the Spirit Monastery in Cedar Crest, New Mexico. His writings can be found at

The teaching of Jesus

“If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”(Matthew 6:14,15).

It is pretty much evident that we cannot comprehend the words of an illumined person regarding spiritual matters unless we possess some degree of illumination ourselves. Therefore if we are interested in understanding the words of Christ and His Apostles, we must endeavor to enter into the same state of consciousness which they possessed. To do so is not a simple matter of wanting or deciding to, but is a process involving many years–if not lifetimes–of spiritual labor.

This being so, what shall we do who have not ascended to that higher state and yet wish to comprehend as much as we can of the Gospel teachings?

The first step is not particularly easy to do, but is certainly easy to comprehend: We must from the onset cease to look at the Gospel through the eyes of ego and emotionality and consider it on the highest level of our intelligence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the consideration of this Gospel passage which is traditionally read in the Eastern Orthodox Church on that Sunday in Lent known as Forgiveness Sunday.

One of my most vivid memories is that of the first Forgiveness Sunday I attended in a Russian Orthodox cathedral just a few months after I became Orthodox. At the conclusion of the Liturgy, the bishop came out and spoke to the people with great earnestness in Russian. I had no idea at all what he was saying, but the way the people crowded near indicated that he was not giving an ordinary sermon or announcement. After speaking briefly, to my amazement he knelt down before everyone and bowed to them, touching his head to the floor. Almost simultaneously they did the same, bowing to him.

Later I understood that he had been asking for their forgiveness of any wrongs he might have committed through the year since the last Sunday of Forgiveness; and they in return made the same petition to him. The thing that impressed me was the genuineness of the feeling on both sides. This was not a mere formality or a theatrical display. Both bishop and people truly craved the forgiveness of one another and showed that by their external actions. This was not the last time that I encountered this kind of heart-to-heart interchange within the Orthodox Church–an exchange utterly lacking in Western Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant.

What is the real meaning of forgiveness?

Yet, as I have said, we must not approach the question of forgiveness from the egoic standpoint. Our general idea of forgiveness is the cessation of hostility, resentment, or “hurt feelings” in relation to another person’s actions or words that we consider were “wrongs” committed against us. In other words, first we have to hold the feeling of anger, hatred, dislike, or injury, before we can engage in the process of forgiveness! This being so, when we hear that “forgiveness is divine,” we assume that God is also harboring similar (though supposedly just) negative feelings toward us.

But the Greek word aphiami translated “forgive” has a meaning that in no way involves our foolish little egos, but rather evokes the metaphysical truth of things, exhorting us to what we might call a metaphysically sensible attitude and reaction on our part regarding the supposed trespasses of others. (And we will be considering the meaning of that word, as well.)

Aphiami literally means “send forth.” In the Greek idiom at the time of Jesus it had several meanings: forsake, lay aside, let, let alone, omit, put away, remit, suffer, and yield up. This is certainly very different from what we usually understand as forgiveness. Some years back Jerry Jampolsky wrote a very popular book called Love Is Letting Go. I had my doubts as to whether love could be so simply defined, but even before looking into the Greek roots of the New Testament I frequently thought that “letting go” is exactly what forgiveness should really mean. And it does.

Jesus is not telling us to stop holding a grudge or a vengeful feeling toward a person, but rather to simply count it as nothing and let it pass away. In other words, He is really pointing us to an attitude, a specific outlook in our mind. That is, we must see all actions done in relation to us within their higher perspective. Firstly, since everything in this universe is really a matter of light and shadow, the actions never “really” take place at all. Therefore to hold on to them in our mind is to be grasping at phantoms and attempting to make the unreal real.

Apart from the obvious negative effect of holding resentments against others, we can see from Jesus’ words that we are also committing an even greater crime against ourselves–that we are reversing the ancient prayer and in a sense declaring to our inner mind: “From the real lead me to the unreal.” By being unforgiving we are deliberately entrenching ourselves in an utterly delusive view of ourselves and our life. For as our life unfolds it is seen as a teaching drama intended to impart wisdom. Even the great pain and tragedy of life is meant for the furtherance of wisdom. Those who do not put forth the effort to learn the lesson conveyed by these experiences will go through them again and again until they do learn.

Cause and Consequence

It is also essential for us to realize that everything happening to us is a result of our own previous action. This is why Solomon said: “What is that which has been? the very thing which shall be: and what is that which has been done? the very thing which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Who is he that shall speak and say, Behold, this is new? it has already been in the ages that have passed before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9,10). Solomon does not say “the same type of thing,” but “the very thing” itself is to reappear on the earth.

From these words we learn that it is the past actions which determine what the future actions will be, through the momentum of the law of sowing and reaping, or, more accurately, the past actions are continued as the future deeds. That is, the theft of today is the continuation of the theft committed in the past. Today’s murder is the “reaping” of a murder “sown” long ago.

Everything that happens to us was originally set in motion by us. From this viewpoint, no one ever at any time “does” anything to us, but are only the instruments or mirrors of our own previous actions. Someone lies about us because we have previously lied about another. The present lie is the fruit of the seed we ourselves sowed beforehand. Therefore everything that comes to us comes from our own hand–and not that of another. Although it may appear that the hand of another slaps us, it is really our own hand that strikes the blow.

So if we are going to resent and hold a grudge against anyone, it would have to be against ourself! And anyone with good sense sees how futile and destructive that is. We are being pointed to a perspective that is rooted in the only truth there is: spiritual consciousness itself. If we do not follow this directive of Jesus, we are deliberately plunging ourselves into untruth and any supposed spiritual seeking or religiosity on our part is completely worthless.

"Trespasses": Failures due to ignorance

It may help us to understand the necessity for this attitude if we also look at what was meant by the expression “trespass.” The Greek word paraptoma literally means “a slip to the side,” in the sense of an error or a transgression. And by transgression is meant the very literal idea of breaking a law, and carries no connotation of evil intent on the part of the one who commits it. We might almost say that in this connotation “transgression” means to make a mistake or to engage in a thought or action that is inappropriate or–in the jargon of the modern world–“counter-productive.” Though this is the literal meaning, in ancient Greek it was used to convey the idea of: fall, fault, offense, sin, and trespass.

In other words, it was to do something “wrong” in the sense of something that was inconsistent or inappropriate. Naturally there would be degrees of severity in this matter, and the idea is not that they would all be insignificant. However, the understanding is definitely expressed by the use of this word that all “trespasses” are the result of the failing that arises from ignorance. A person “wrongs” us because they are ignorant, deluded, or foolish. In other words, they are suffering more than we are, for we are experiencing only the effect of their inner defect.

This does not mean that we foolishly deny the evil, false, destructive, or negative character of these words or actions on the part of the ignorant, for that too would be to court delusion and untruth. But again we must realize that because we were in ignorance we set in motion those forces that have now “come home to roost” in the form of negativity projected by others.

Freeing ourselves from karma

Now our great desire must be to transcend the world of ignorance, to leave it behind us as we ascend into the worlds of light that are our intended abode. But just as a person cannot row a boat across a river if they have many ropes tied onto trees on the shore, so it is impossible for us to free ourselves from the realm of ignorance if we are also deliberately holding on or anchoring ourselves to things within that realm. So the advice of Jesus is meant for our freedom.

The process of freeing ourselves is neither easy nor simple, and this matter of forgiveness is one of the primary steps in working toward our eventual freedom. That is because we are dealing directly with karma–a subject that is extremely vast because of its subtlety and its complexity. But the solution to karma is quite direct and simple: get rid of it. A major aspect of salvation is freedom from karma.

Nothing could be more idiotic than to suppose that we could ever fulfill all our karmas, since in the fulfillment we usually create more karma. Also, in our “spare time” which is not spent in the fulfillment we manage to create more karma! What we must do is rise above our karma. If we throw a ball at a wall and stand there it will bounce back and strike us. But if we move aside, it will go past us. Those who can shift their consciousness into a totally different realm of being automatically escape the karmic forces of the lower levels of existence.

As we have already discussed, this matter of forgiveness is a matter of outlook and therefore ultimately of consciousness. It is perhaps one of the most important factors in our liberation. So this matter of forgiveness is very crucial, since it deals directly with letting go of karma. We may think of karma as ballast which keeps us from rising. No matter how intense our desire or even our endeavor to rise, it will either prevent our ascent or guarantee our future falling back into the lower levels if we do. Sri Ramakrishna used to give the simile of a mongoose that lived in a hole near his parental home. Some cruel person had tied a brick to the mongoose’s tail, and although the mongoose could scrabble up the wall and hide in the hole, the weight of the brick would inevitably pull it back out and down. As the brick to the mongoose, so is karma to the individual soul.

Theosophical illustration of the Hermetic Principle, "as above, so below."
Theosophical illustration of the Hermetic Principle, "as above, so below."

Hermetic Principle

Once again let me invoke the ancient hermetic principle: “As above, so below,” and legitimately reverse it: “As below, so above.” That is, not only are our lower levels of being mirror-reflections of our higher levels, because of our particular involvement in relativity, our higher levels have also come to reflect the lower. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when He tells the disciples: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). That is, we can directly affect the condition of the higher levels of our being by what we do with the lower levels of our being.

This is especially important to us who have been brought up within the context of Protestantism which postulates a kind of gulf of incommunicability between our higher and lower nature, thus concluding that our lower nature can “sin” and yet leave the higher nature unaffected. This minimization of the effects of ignorance and wrongdoing also leads them to think that one need only shift up into the higher planes to freely function there, when of course this is a thorough impossibility. But it is this absurdity that enables them to engage in the even greater absurdity that God need only “forgive” us and our way is free and clear in a moment–that our evil actions have no future effect on us whatsoever. This is, truly in every sense, a soul-killing delusion.

Thus, if we initiate and sustain the “letting go” condition (state) within our lesser levels, the process will also take place within the higher levels where karma has its roots. From the standpoint of our personal evolution, this is the most important and immediate application of our individual power of “binding and loosing.”

It is ridiculous to assume that the transcendent God Who “dwells in light unapproachable” is in any way concerned with tallying up our karmic accounts and issuing directives in the matter of credits and debits within our tiny life-sphere here upon earth. The “Father in heaven” Whose forgiveness Jesus says we need, is that highest aspect of our consciousness which in our threefold makeup corresponds to the infinite Father.

It is the higher self alone that administers to us our karma and arranges for our entries and exists in relation to this world. This, our higher self, sits upon the throne of absolute control and, once the process of the loosening of karmas is begun and sustained down in the lower reaches of our mind and life, so is it initiated and sustained by our macrocosmic father-spirit in the microcosmic “heaven” of our spirit.

The justice of God is almost as misunderstood by the religious as it is ignored by the irreligious. The justice of God is to a great degree consistency and realistic response. That is, the justice of God is really a manifestation of the way things are at the moment–though they can be changed–and an exact mirror-response to what is going on. The principle is so simple that it almost sounds like nonsense. But it is not. It is indeed the only process of “sense” there is. This being so, the God Within will not cooperate with us unless we work by the immutable laws–laws that are not poetic or noble, but eminently realistic. It is not amiss to say that God, macrocosmic and microcosmic, is an absolute pragmatist.

All the foregoing being true, as in all other aspects of spiritual life, the individual is faced with accepting and responding to both his abilities and his responsibility to live inwardly and outwardly in a manner that most effectively accomplishes his spiritual evolution. For it is he alone who must loose himself from the so-called bonds of sin and lift himself into the light of true righteousness.

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