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Forgiveness: The Heart and Repentance

by V.Rev.Fr. George Morelli, Ph.D.

“..If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will you father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt. 6:14)

Generally psychologists are not known for supporting values such as forgiveness and honesty.[i] If anything psychologists support what today could be called post-Modernism or moral relativism. Engelhardt (1996) This so called ‘ethical system’ holds the belief that behaviors are not objectively right or wrong. The rightness or wrongness of human actions depends on the view of a specific, culture, subculture, or historical era. The only value seems to be: to value the values of others as long as others actions to not infringe on the rights of others. (Morelli, 2005a)

The theme that starts the Lenten Season in the Eastern Church is totally opposite of this trend. It supposes a real ‘truth.’ It entertains a question: not what is truth, but who is truth? The answer is: Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus told His followers:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (Jn. 14:6).

God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (Jn. 4:24). Truth means purity of heart. At the Sermon on the Mount Our Lord said: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8). “…they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” ( Lk. 8:15).

The Church Fathers have emphasized Our Lord’s words many times. Hausherr (1990) devotes a whole chapter for “the need for the openness of heart.” St. Philotheos of Sinai states: Let us preserve our heart’s purity and always be filled with the deep compunction toward God thorough this best of undertakings.”

St. Makarios of tells us: “For Christians what true rest is their other than deliverance from the sinful passions and the fullest active indwelling of he Holy Spirit in the purified heart? And the apostle again impels his readers toward this by referring to faith: ’Let us then draw near with a true heart and in the full assurance of faith, our hearts cleansed of an evil conscience (Heb. 10::22).” (Philokalia, III).

We imitate Christ: “Who is truth” when we live ‘who is truth’ in our hearts. The great apostle tells us: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children…”(Eph. 5:1) … Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. … and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4: 22-25, 31).

One of the greatest gifts given by Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, Himself to us is the Holy Mystery of Confession and Repentance. He told His Holy Apostles and from them their successors the bishops and priests: Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn. 20: 21-23).

The task of going before Our Lord and confessing one’s sins and receiving forgiveness sealed by the Holy Spirit through His instruments the bishops and priests come from Our Lord to His apostles and to us in modern times. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” [2 Th. 2: 13-15] These teachings of Jesus passed in tradition to His Church: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” [1 Corinthians 11:2] St Paul told the Ephesians “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” (2: 19, 30) St Luke told his readers: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son."(Acts 20:28).

Following St. Paul, these traditions, oral first and then written, were passed from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests. Christianity is known therefore through the oral tradition and practice of the church and through the written scriptures.

The written scriptures compiled by St. Athanasious [Old Testament] the Great in c. 328 A.D., and New Testament Synod of Laodicaea (381 A.D.) and both ratified by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (3rd Constantinople) in 680 A.D. by the same overseers (episkopi) whom the Holy Spirit inspired to care for the church by maintaining the “traditions.” The non-written traditions have been passed to us by the teachings of the Holy Fathers, in the Liturgy, Prayer and practices and customs of the Church, the people of God. (Morelli, 2005b)

The asking of forgiveness and one of the holiest and sanctifying of these traditions, the Mystery of Confession and Absolution is especially to be employed during the start of the Lenten season. The true follower of Christ, committed to imitate Him, the Son of God, seeks forgiveness from those whom they have offended and forgiving those whom they have offended and confessing these and all our sins to Christ through His instrument the unworthy priest and receives the seal of absolution.

There is a problem in the modern day that has been not been focused on: Legalism and Casuistry. Confession and forgiveness is not a legal or juridical process: “it is not like doing time and you are now off the hook.” There have been unfortunate modern western Church influences on the Eastern Church. The West tends to be legalistic. This can easily be seen in the casuistry attributed to the Jesuits. In a sense casuistry may be viewed as justifications for the unjustifiable. Its fullest sense, it has described as an understanding that focuses on concrete instances than to abstract generalities. For example, if someone asks: “Where did you go to college?” (In the questioners heart, “Where did you get your college degree?” , and the answer given by the respondent is “I’ve been to Harvard.”

According to “ casuistry this in not wrong. If the person stepped on the Harvard Campus and then stepped off, then they answered ‘truthfully,’ but ’literally’: they have “been to Harvard.” Of course God and the individual knows the real meaning of the question in the heart. A profound mistruth has been told the person did not graduate with a degree from Harvard University.

In the Eastern Church this is the ultimate hypocrisy. The outside looks clean, the inside is corrupt and full of deception, dishonesty and falsity.

The Eastern Church follows the words of Jesus that it “is all about the heart.” (Mt. 5:8, 2; 9:9), and it’s cleansing (Eph 5:5).

A simple example: You offend someone. Your mom tells you to say: “I am sorry to them” … you say it. In the Western mind you may say the words “I am sorry” and be off the hook but your heart may say: “I still hate the mean son of a scallywag” etc. In the Eastern Church, the gospel passage above introducing this reflection is about you and I.
Legalism is not for Jesus or the Eastern Church which has kept His teachings. No matter what words we utter, God is looking into our hearts. …this is what counts. Before the final judgment which we read in another Sunday leading to Lent only two persons know our hearts: God and ourselves. After the Last Judgment our hearts will be revealed to all. Now is the time to cleanse the heart. A pure heart, forgiven by God, cleanses the book of life. What is written there is wiped out. If not wiped out, it is written in the stone of book of eternal life for all to see.

I recently came across a sad example. One who calls themselves Christian was offended by another who called themselves Christian. The first told me “I do not want to sit at the same table with that other person. Without specifics I mentioned this example to another priest, saying “Boy! Do we have a long way to go.” Of course, no servant is greater than their Master. Jesus preached this and obviously His message of forgiveness fell on many deaf ears. "Let those who have ears let them hear". (Mt. 11:15). Now is the time to open our ears and hearts … after the book of life is closed we and all will hear and see loud and clear.

Who did Christ sit with? He shared His table with sinners. (Mt. 9:10) What an opportunity to reach out to those who have offended us or to those we have offended, to be at table with them. It may begin with “You know, we may disagree, but I do not want this to come between us. …I am a sinner, may God forgive me.”

The ultimate criteria for a “good confession” is a true, contrite and humble heart. It is a sacrilege to say I was angry in confession, and then not forgive from the depths of our hearts. This is true for forgiveness, this is true in what we worship, it is true in terms of what we treasure. It has to be true in all our relationship with God and man. This is true repentance.

The depths of our hearts can only be cleansed if we recognize what is really in it. David the prophet said: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Ps. 50:17). St, John of the Ladder teaches us: “Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility…..Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself …Repentance is reconciliation wit the Lord. Repentance is the purification of the conscience. Once again King David tell us: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps 50:7)

The priest before the Great Entrance and before receiving Our Lord’s Body and Blood turns to all and say’s “Forgive me for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.” This should from all of us to all of us from the depths of our hearts, without reservation today and all the days of our lives …. “Forgive me for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake!”

This should be the Lenten Prayer for all Christians. This Lenten Prayer should carry over to the rest of our lives.


Englehardt, H.T. (1996). The foundation of bioethics. NY: Oxford.

Morelli, G. (2005a, November 13). The demon of correctness.

Morelli, G. (2005b, July III, 2) Christian spirituality and psychotherapy.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia: The complete text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth: Vol.3. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

St. John of the Ladder. (1982). The ladder of Divine ascent. NY: Paulist Press.

[1] There are some exceptions, but these are generally out of the mainstream of clinical psychology:

Blanton, B. (2005) Radical Honesty. NY: Dell

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.