Radical Forgiveness

There’s a man here in the Atlanta area (I think he’s from Britain originally) named Colin Tipping who has written a book called Radical Forgiveness. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say too much about the book one way or the other. But I love the title, that alone makes the book worth considering. I thought about it the other day when I was flipping through a different book, one which we sell at the Abbey Store (alas, I can’t remember which one, but it was a garden-variety book on Christian prayer) and saw a paragraph about how important forgiveness is to prayer. That book said something to the effect of, “before you get deep into your prayer, take time to consider if there’s anyone you need forgiving — and do it. Forgiveness is essential to prayer.” I like Tipping’s idea of radical forgiveness since it suggests that true forgiveness gets to the root of our spiritual identity. If we forgive all the way down to the root of who we are, then we are cleansed and purified all the way down to the root as well. What a lovely thought.

This, of course, reminds me of one of Jesus’ teachings:

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” (Mark 11:25-26)

It also reminds me a bit of this snippet from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

There seems to be, in Jesus’ teaching at least, a link between forgiving others and experiencing forgiveness, just as reconciling with others is a necessary prerequisite for worship. Forgiveness and reconciliation are forms of spiritual super-food. They cleanse us, they fortify in us virtues such as humility and hospitality, and they liberate us from the oppression of our own toxic resentments, bitterness, and unproductive anger.

So why don’t we forgive more? Why aren’t Christians (and other wisdomseekers) pouring more energy into reconciliation?

You know the drill. The ego doesn’t want to let go. Forgiveness feels weak and vulnerable, and we believe deep down inside that if we show our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, then we will get trampled on. We confuse forgiveness with condoning, and assume that if we forgive others, then they are getting away with their misdeeds. Then, perhaps it has to do with glamour: forgiveness is not showy or sexy; it doesn’t sizzle, it’s not going to get it’s own reality show anytime soon. Its rewards are so firmly lodged in the spirit that the ego is left thinking “what’s in it for me?” — and, concluding that all forgiveness does is starve the ego, it therefore will do all in its power to hold on to its righteous anger, its sense of victimization, and its bitter insistence that it holds the moral high ground.

So the ego wants to keep us separate from those whom we would forgive, but the terrible price to be paid for this is that it also keeps us separate from those who would forgive us — including God. Until we step out from under the self-defining construct/structure of the great “I” we will cheat ourselves of the possibility of experiencing the love and joy and peace of true forgiveness, true reconciliation, true re-union: with each other and with God.

I’ve written a fair amount in this blog over the last few days on such erudite concepts as theosis, kenosis, and gnosis. While those “osis” categories might make for interesting spiritual reflection and conversation, perhaps we need to bring the conversation back down to earth for a bit. Do you want real “jet fuel” for your spiritual life? Then take inventory of everyone in your life (including yourself) with whom you are not fully reconciled, and where there is need for forgiveness (to be given or received). And then get busy with the messy, get-your-hands-dirty work of making it happen. With God’s grace, of course.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    I would imagine forgiveness to be a pre-requisite for theosis too. And it seems to me to be linked to kenosis as well.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes, on both counts.

  • http://www.monasticponderings.blogspot.com ABG

    Your thoughts on forgiveness are all true. Yet, there is one more aspect I would add: forgiveness is necessary for personal wholeness. Someone said to me years ago…when you fail to forgive, you don’t hurt the person who hurt you, you hurt yourself. Forgiveness is Divine, but it’s affects are also fleshy. Forgiveness frees the mind by emptying it of bitterness and resentment, two toxic wastes that can destroy a personality. Forgiveness liberates the spirit…it is hard work to remain resentful, as resentfulness closes the heart. Forgiveness opens the floodgates for goodwill. When you fail to forgive, you don’t hurt the person who hurt you…you hurt yourself.

  • Shadwynn

    Carl said: “…all forgiveness does is starve the ego.” Such a wonderful bit of insight! I had never thought of it in that way.

  • Cindy

    Carl Jung’s idea of the ego as a strong and dynamic mediator of spirit and soma leads me to see this in a slightly different way.

    My ego gains flexibility and strength by choosing to forgive … even those who may seem unforgivable. I make a conscious choice to take this stance.

    To bend the knee. That is not done in defiance of, or in battle with, my ego. But rather as an invitation to my ego to participate more fully and with more humility, in the process of mediating my thoughts and actions.

    That’s just me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      I’m not sure that’s “just you,” Cindy. The phrase that came to my mind while reading your comment is “hospitality to the ego.” This may bear some further reflection. Perhaps, following Merton, I should have said forgiveness starves the false ego, or false self.

  • http://autographedcat.livejournal.com Rob Wynne

    One of my favourite essays on forgiveness came from Rev. Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher):


    I have linked to it extensively over the past few years. At long last, I have a companion piece for it.

  • barbara

    “with God’s grace, of course”…I have always wanted to be “good” or at least as seen as good by others, and that meant trying to be more forgiving, which was often a negation of my feelings, and didn’t mean I became a more spiritual, forgiving person (it just meant that I repressed a lot, which could come out in what I consider meanness of spirit).Intention matters a lot, but what has been crucial for me is surrender to God’s will in my relationships, and a willingness on my part to be open to what may be going on between me and another (the “reality”,at least as far as I can grasp it).This can take a long time, which bothers my ego a lot (“how come I am still chattering in my mind about a long ago incident” mutters my false self, “I thought you’d be further along in the spiritual life than that”, but the great thing is that by God’s grace, I do gain insight into myself, my pain,fears,woundedness, as well as a bit of empathy towards others,as well as myself.But I often have to wait on the Lord for this, and all I can do is to try to be open to His Spirit and ways, and to pray for patience.I think , by the way, that gratitude is closely linked to forgiveness.Thank you, Carl, for this blog, I love reading what you and others say.

  • noel

    radical forgiveness
    i know this is the way to jesus ,the way to love, the way to healing. if we want it it is there. it is one way maybe the royal way to our divine maturing.
    and we have loads and loads of opportunities personally and collectively.
    we are ONE not separate.
    a deep meditation is to dwell on our differences…………..so we finally break that illusion that we have created through our feelings of right and wrong , good and bad……….we break the illusion that we are separate. we come to know we are one

  • noel

    re ABGs comment………………excellent.
    i think forgiveness is the way to all virtues.
    as i walked along the canal near where i livge this morning meditating on how life is and how sometimes i have so many desires and attachments, i can be so mean and conceited and all that shit.
    i was thinking of the wedding at cana then as these crap thoughts assailed me.
    after mary told jesus about the wine problem, she seemed to disregard his rebuke that it was not yet his time………..she with FULL confidence called the servants and told them to do whatever HE asks.
    when he was leaving the apostles and before he ascended to heaven he specifically left them the power to forgive………whatever you bind on earth etc.
    this is also a call to become jesus
    to be jesus
    not i who lives but christ lives in me

    we become jesus and partake in creation which i remind you never ceases and continues to be brought to perfection in jesus
    this is the cosmic reality
    this is it
    we are one