Orthodoxy Today
The Psycho-Spirituality of Forgiving People and Nations

The perfidiousness of the "Beast of Anger" has been discussed in a previous article that explores the cognitive-emotive roots of anger and outlines some cognitive and spiritual interventions. (Morelli, 2005b). In it, I pointed out that St. Basil recognized the senseless irrationality of anger when he said: "It makes a man completely bestial. In fact, it does not even allow him to be a man at all, because he no longer has the help of his reason." Below I expand the theme by exploring the cognitive-emotive roots of anger and outline some cognitive and spiritual interventions. We begin with forgiveness.

Scriptural teachings on the centrality of forgiveness are well known. St. Matthew quoted Jesus:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6: 14-15).

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5 38-48).

Our Lord's injunctions must be applied to individual, social and political wrongs. His teachings on forgiveness are especially hard to apply because they go against ideas of human justice. Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos pointed out: "Divine justice is against human law. Human law is inflexibly equal to all, for it never deviates, but attributes justice to everyone by putting more emphasis on it's regulations than on each individual person (emphasis added)."

Psychological absolutism

Psychologists Karen Horney (1950) and Albert Ellis (1962) would argue that humans are predisposed to such inflexibility. Horney, for example, labeled this the 'tyranny of the shoulds'. These are imperatives that things and events should be a certain way. This is an idealized view. For example, Horney gives the example that justice (in human terms) should be "perfect." In this view, a hypothetical father should be the epitome of justice "He should be the perfect lover, husband, teacher. He should be able to endure everything, should like everybody, should love his parents, his wife, his country ... He should know, understand and foresee everything." Ellis describes the issue in rather blunt terms; his third "irrational belief" (i.e. a distorted cognitive-thinking process that produces emotional disturbance, see Morelli, 2005a,b, 2006a,b,c,d,f) is defined as "The idea that certain people are bad, wicked or villainous and that they should be severely blamed and punished for their villainy." This, coupled with Ellis's eleventh irrational belief, "The idea that there is invariably a right precise and perfect solution to human problems," is a recipe for emotional and spiritual disaster.

Application to daily life

Challenging these irrational beliefs are the psychological foundation for not embracing forgiveness of others. Left unchallenged, they can serve as the foundation for even more egregious acts of anger based vengeance and retribution. On a psychological level, these beliefs have to be challenged and disputed. Clinical research (Morelli, 2006f) has discovered several effective methods. One step is for the individual to undergo self-examination by asking themselves a series of questions. For example, an unforgiving individual can challenge his personal views that deem him the "standard keeper" or "guardian of justice" in the universe that God created. Questions such as: "Who promised you a just world? Were you born with a mandate and the power to correct the ills of others and punish malefactors?"

The example of Jesus

Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, never exercised His right to coerce during his earthly ministry. Christians have an advantage in this disputation process: the imitation of Our Lord himself. Consider the gentleness of Jesus in answering the rich young man's query:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" If you would enter life, keep the commandments." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19: 16-17, 20-22, 25-26).

To those who beat, mocked scourged, spat upon and crucified Him, He said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). St. John Chrysostom points out the complete freedom of choice God gives us: "I force not, I compel not, but each one I make lord of his own choice; wherefore also I say, 'If any man will.' For to good things do I call you, not to things evil, or burdensome; not to punishment and vengeance, that I should have to compel" (Chrysostom, Homily 55).

Personal affronts

At a recent workshop I gave on Repentance and Confession some of these same points were the subject of discussion. With the combination of challenging the irrational psychological absolutes mentioned above, the injunctions of Christ quoted at the beginning of this article and the examples of living in imitation of Christ, most of the participants were able to apply this combination to the confrontations, offenses, insults, outrages, and indignities, albeit with some difficulty, that others had done to them.

Most came to see they have no special guarantee that they will be treated fairly or justly in this world and in imitation of Christ, must forgive the offenders. Even more importantly, most came to see they would only be forgiven by God to the same extent they have forgiven others. In fact, I asked a question. "Think of any person in the world you forgive the least for any offense." When you go before the "Dread judgment Seat of Christ" -- this is the degree to which He will forgive you. As Jesus said about the Last Judgment, "'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25: 45-46).

The demon of political anger

Sad to say, there was much more intransigence in regard to a different class of offenses: Political Outrages. In order to always walk in Christ's footsteps and not single out any political state or administration, I will attempt to describe uncompromising, hate, anger and a need for retribution in the most general terms, potentially applicable to all. After agreeing about the need to forgive personal offenders, many of the workshop participants said they could not forgive certain political leaders for their policies and actions in today's world. This included not only politicians, political parties, but even the citizens themselves of some countries. It was as if the realm of government and politics was on a completely different domain or level than that of one to one individual interaction. It was as if our Lord's teaching on forgiveness would not extend to groups making up the political arena.


Research psychology gives some insight about about why applying forgiveness to groups may be more difficult than to individuals. Individuals in groups are often de-individuated. (Diener, Fraser, Beaman, and Kelem, (1976). We do not see them as individuals but as group members. They are without individual personhood. By definition 'groups' are an abstraction. Violent, destructive acts, and surely unforgiveness therefore, is more easily applied to groups and by members of groups to each other.

This is not to condone violence against or withholding forgiveness of groups, but suggests an aid in forgiving even is this realm. Always try to see all groups: political parties, office holders, and nations as made up of individuals made in God's image and called to be like Him. Each individual has a personal history, with mother, father, family, likes and dislikes. For many, this will mean actively changing their habitual way of viewing such groups. As mentioned by Morelli (2006f), changing such dysfunctional perceptions can be accomplished by asking the question: Is there any another way of looking at the 'group?"

Of course our Lord makes no such de-individuations. St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-256) wrote: "The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed. Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse. The offenders acquire impunity by increasing their ravaging (Letter to Donatus, Chapter 6). In fact it is just such political anger that has sustained so many divisions in the world. From the dawn of history, the world has been filled with conflicts between tribes, cities, and nations.

The records of people inhabiting every continent are filled with accounts of mayhem, bloodshed, and vengeance lasting not just a lifetime, not even centuries, but even millennia. This is also true of people who call themselves Christian. The Crusader sack of Constantinople is well remembered by those who call themselves Christian. Frankish kings after their bloody conquests in the name of Christ made any survivors become Christian, or decapitated them. These memories have never been forgotten by some of their descendants.

However St. John Chrysostom (347-407) tried to sever the association between people and their political allegiance to allegiance to Christ. He wanted his listeners to have their allegiance only to Christ. In Homily 17 on the Commissioners he wrote:

If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Of our City the "Builder and Maker is God." Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are withal but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there! Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great, and admire those which are little! Not our city's greatness, but virtue of soul is our ornament and defense. If you suppose dignity to belong to a city, think how many persons must partake in this dignity, who are whoremongers, effeminate, depraved and full of ten thousand evil things, and at last despise such honor! But that City above is not of this kind; for it is impossible that he can be a partaker of it, who has not exhibited every virtue.

No earthly city: A message from Christ Himself

Did Christ come for the Jews? He came from them for they were the people of the original covenant. He made it clear time and time again by his preaching, teaching and practice, that he came on behalf of all. No national or political-label boundaries can stand in the way of Christ. As the priest says at the Consecration of the Bread and Wine into Christ's Body and Blood, while lifting the Diskos and Chalice: "Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, in behalf of all and for all."

Samaritans: A nation hated by the Jews

The Samaritan's were of mixed parentage, descendants of pagan and Hebrew people. They did not worship in Jerusalem. The average Jew despised them during the time of Our Lord, like some despise nations, national leaders, and political parties today.

From despised Samaria, Jesus gives us the beautiful parable of "The Good Samaritan." The Samaritan shows the love of God and neighbor by tending to the man beaten by robbers and left for dead. To emphasize this even more it was a Jew and a Levite of the Chosen Nation who passed the beaten man by. Jesus astonished the apostles when he was talking to the woman at the well. Not only a woman -- bad enough in the culture of the Jewish people of the first century -- but she was also of the despised Samaritan nation. Yet through His talking to her and her love of Him, many of her people became faithful followers.

The hated Romans

What Christian does not know the gospel account of the humility of the Centurion - clearly a despised member of the despised Roman army occupying Israel. Matthew recorded:

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Matthew 8: 5-12).

The Divine Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Christian Church starts with the priestly blessing: "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and for ages of ages." This means that all those who approach the Kingdom come not as members of nations or political parties, with titles or power but as creatures made in the image of God. Our only standing in the Kingdom of God is how much we have transformed our image into the likeness of God.

At the ending of the Anaphora the priest says: "And again we offer unto thee this reasonable service, for the whole world ... for all civil authorities ... " The prayer is not for a selected group but "in behalf of all for all." Why? Because Christ emptied Himself, took on our human nature, suffered, died (sacrificed Himself), was buried and was resurrected for our salvation -- not for some but for all of us.

The Funeral hymns

As the hymns of the Funeral Service reminds us, in the grave there are no kings, presidents, dictators, nationalities or political parties. All things on earth are vanity. St. John of Damascus wrote: "All mortal things are vanity and exist not after death. Riches endure not, neither doth glory accompany on the way ... Where is the desire for the world" And later the idiomela (verses) continue "I called to mind the Prophet as he cried: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the graves and beheld bones laid bare, and I said: Who hen is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy ... "

We transform our image to the likeness of God: through love of God and of our neighbor. Forgiveness is the key to this transformation. Without forgiveness love cannot exist.

Exhortation on forgiving nations by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

In his book on spiritual wisdom Journey to Heaven St. Tikhon the eighteenth century holy spiritual father (1724-1783), wrote one of the longest chapters entitled: "The Duty of Forgiveness." He echoed Christ's teaching on the absolute necessity of forgiveness: "Sometimes those that live in society offend each other. This happens either from the craftiness of the ensnarer, the devil, who hates love among us and incites us to offend our neighbor, or from the weakness of our nature, or from inattention, or often from habit. In that case reconciliation is absolutely necessary ... he who would be reconciled to God must first be reconciled to his neighbor." The Godly saint goes on to cite Our Lord's own words: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5: 23-24)".

St. Tikhon too notes that our neighbor is not only the individual we come into daily contact with but nations and their inhabitants. Later in this chapter he writes: "'It is impossible,' you say, 'for me to love my enemies, and to do good to them.' Not true. It was possible for David, who wept for his enemies, Saul and Abessalom (Absalom) who perished (II Kings [II Samuel] chapters 1 and 18). For mourning over the destruction of enemies is a manifest sign of love for enemies ... It was possible for all the saints. Then it is also possible for you. You are a man and they were men. You are weak and they had the same weakness." St. Tikhon is obviously referencing nation states and their leaders. It behooves us to take his counsel. Woe to us if we do not. Jesus Himself warns us: "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7: 21).

Different Ways of Asking Forgiveness

The foundation: Humility

The foundation of true and complete forgiveness is humility. The dare for us is to imitate Christ and master humility from Him. "Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart ... " (Matthew11:29). St. Maximus the Confessor said: "The saints are full of goodness, compassion, kindliness and mercy (i.e. forgiveness). They manifest the same love for the whole human race. Because of this they hold fast throughout their lives to the highest of all blessings, humility that conserves other blessings and destroys their opposites."

The ability to directly forgive individuals, political party leaders and members, civil authorities, the military and citizens of nations who have wronged us is one of the highest fruits of such humility. We must pray for all those offenders who have not repented and have not asked forgiveness, by praying the words that Jesus prayed on the cross for the Romans, Jewish leaders, and all defilers who called out "Crucify him!" (Mark 15:13) and for those who actually performed the horrible execution: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

Straight talking

It takes profound humility both to ask for forgiveness and to forgive. The best way is to use unambiguous words. The wrongdoer may say something like: "I have sinned" or "I have done wrong" or "I did (name the act) and I ask your forgiveness." Say this in imitation and the spirit of the Prodigal Son: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, (Luke 15:18). And the person wronged, in imitation of the words of Our Lord when he spoke to the woman caught in adultery: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (John 8: 11). Of course we may use our own words: "I forgive you" or "Thank you for the apology, I accept it" or "I forgive you, please do not hurt me again." A Caveat: Adult wisdom in Christ not naiveté

Remember what Our Lord said: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16) along with St. Paul's counsel to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Corinthians 13) will help us to apply forgiveness in a mature, adult, un-naive but still Christ-like manner. Forgiveness means to love. Love means to want the good and welfare of those we love. The ultimate good and welfare is to have Christ indwell in each of our hearts and to do for others what we would want done for ourselves according to Christ's command: "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" (Matthew7:12).

This means to provide the basics of food, shelter, clothing, medicine as well as access to His Body -- the Church, and if worthy the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). It does not mean being blind to the facts of human brokenness, and what Christ, the Church Fathers and research science reveals to us about the human condition. For example, forgiveness does not mean allowing a recovering drug addict access to drugs, or a former thief access to money, or a pedophile access to children, a political war criminal access to political power, or a war-like national state access to weapons, etc.

Indirect ways of asking forgiveness

It is crystal clear that humans do not start their physical, psychological or spiritual lives in a "perfect state." The scientific study of human development suggests psychological growth occurs in stages and involves gradual bio-social-behavioral shifts and growth (Cole, Cole & Lightfoot, 2005). The writings of the Church Fathers reveal that spiritual growth also takes place in steps or stages. The title of one of the classics of Eastern Orthodox spiritual wisdom, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" by St. John of the Ladder (579-649) bears out that spiritual development takes places as in Jacob's dream: "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (Genesis 28:12).

Behavioral psychologists use a technique called "shaping" to bring about appropriate behavior. It involves rewarding small increments in desirable behaviors that are similar and lead to the correct appropriate behavioral goal (see Morelli, 2005a,b). It is important to start out with the level a person is capable of performing then rewarding the next step. For example, the parent of a child who tosses all their clothing on the floor might reward their child for picking up one clothing item, followed by another reward when the child picks up two items, until an entire messy room was cleaned up. The same principle holds true in both asking for, and giving, forgiveness> Not everyone will be able to start out with the desirable straight talking described above and must approach the process incrementally.

Some example of different starting points include: restarting friendly communication; doing something nice that unexpected by the other; offering to help on a problem; telling a humorous story; or suggesting resuming a previously halted activity. When someone reaches out even indirectly and is ignored, it usually is perceived as aversive by the person who has initiated the imperfect but desirable reaching out action. This decreases the likelihood the person will continue to grow and develop into either asking or giving forgiveness (Morelli, 2005a). For example, after some disagreement but before actual forgiveness is asked, one of the individuals may suggest going out for a walk. No doubt the ideal is straight talking. Yet, most people cannot jump to the top rung of the ladder. It is psychologically sound, and more importantly Christ-like to go along with our brothers and sisters in Christ - as well as all mankind (i.e. Jews, Moslems, atheists, etc.) -- who are climbing the ladder one step at a time.

The example above is based on one to one personal or family interaction. However political parties and nations themselves often act in similar ways. We see examples of nations that took years, decades, even centuries to either straight talk wrongs committed by themselves or to forgive the repenting nations. Many times small steps are taken even before this goal is reached such as increased trade, debt alleviation, medical or food supply help, disaster aid, etc.

Other important first steps may be groups solving common problems (Sherif, M., Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, C.R., 1961), and dissemination of favorable information about the groups to each other (Worschel, 1986). These may be small, but significant steps in the forgiveness process. For a Christian viewing all mankind, despite intra-national or international group affiliation, as "children of God, made in His image and called to be like Him" is the most favorable information that could be received.

Brokenness, reliance on the Holy Spirit and prayer

Unfortunately, sometimes words, even straight talk and shaping does not lead to constructive action. This is clearly seen in the scandal of separation among the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in AD 1964 mutually lifted the excommunication between the Roman and Constantinopolitan Patriarchates in place since AD 1054. Last November, Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew embraced each other and prayed for unity. We can acknowledge this as a small step in the ladder to unity. Where is the movement to go on to the next step? The Holy Spirit will have to give the grace of humility and wisdom to all.

Extending the words of St. Paul

Paul said to the Romans: "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish: so I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek ... For God shows no partiality. ... " (Romans 1: 14-18; 2:11).

With humble boldness and without condemnation amplify the words of St. Paul by drawing from Galatians 3:28 and adding a few relevant modern examples: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, Bushite or anit-Bushite, American or Iraqi, Syrian or Lebanese, Israeli or Palestinian, African Sudanese or Arab Sudanese (Darfur), Armenian or Turk, Catholic or Protestant, Latin Christian or Eastern Orthodox, Black or White, or Hispanic or Oriental, legal or illegal immigrant; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We know that not all of the persons mentioned are "one in Christ Jesus" because the rest St. Paul's teaching has not yet been met: " ... for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3: 26-27). Nevertheless all persons are made in God's image and called to be like Him whether or not they have been baptized. We who are "baptized into Christ" are obligated to preach to all mankind by our actions of forgiveness and love.


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Chrysostom, St. John. Homily 55 on Matthew 16, 1. B# 54, p.339. 4th Century http://www.bulletin.goarch.org/quotes/index.asp.

Chrysostom, St. John. Homily 52. http://www.tcrnews2.com/fathers_peace.html.

Cole, M., Cole, S. & Lightfoot, C. (2005). The Development of Children. NY: Worth.

Cyprian of Carthage. Letter to Donatus, Chapt. 6. http://www.tcrnews2.com/fathers_peace.html

Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L. and Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 33(2), 178-183.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and Human growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization. New York, W.W. Norton.

Morelli, G. (2005a, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2005b, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.

Morelli, G. (2006d, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G. (2006e, July 29). Dealing With Brokenness in the World: Psychological Optimism and the Virtue of Hope. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliBrokenness.php

Morelli, G. (2006f, Oct 05) Overcoming depression: Cognitive scientific psychology and the Church Fathers. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliDepression.php

Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W.R. & Sherif, C.R. (1961). Intergroup Cooperation and Competition: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

St. John of the Ladder. (1982), John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. NY: Paulist Press.

St. Tikhon of Zadzonk (1991). Journey to Heaven. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery Press.

Worschel, S, (1986). The Role of Cooperation in Reducing Intergroup Conflict. In S. Worschel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: April 3, 2007

Copyright © 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Text size: A  A  A