Conversatio Divina

Reflections on Forgiveness

Help for Finding the Freedom to Engage with Love

Ross Tatum, MD

Have you ever found yourself, or someone else, imprisoned by unforgiveness? That power is destructive. In the love and forgiveness of Christ we find the freedom to love ourselves, others, and God in the present moment. In the words to follow, we’ll explore the nature of forgiveness, its power, and practical ways to engage it.

The word forgiveness brings to mind the concepts of absolution and compassion. Forgiveness can be given for small things like forgetting a social engagement. I confess that I am in regular need of forgiveness—like when I spill hot wax on our new carpet. Fortunately, my wife, Kimberly, is consistently kind to me and has taught me much about forgiveness. Some things, though, are much larger and harder to forgive—like the unfaithfulness of a spouse or the mistreatment of a child.

The ultimate experience of forgiveness comes from Christ. He has forgiven us our sins. Forgiveness is actually something much larger than being forgiven for minor or major offenses—even bigger than Christ’s forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means valuing the person more than the offense.

I encourage you to sit with that last phrase. What does that mean for you, for your co-worker, for your client? What did it mean for the woman at the well? In the generosity of love, forgiveness covers more than just our sins. It speaks to anytime we feel we don’t measure up—when we are rejected in a relationship, when we lose a job, when we disappoint someone important to us. Forgiveness reminds us that we are beloved.

01.  Thinking Practically

There is a family with whom I have had a relationship for over twenty years.The case stories are gratefully told with patient consent. The parents called me recently in tears after they had lost a daughter to an overdose. The young woman was kind and gentle, but had a long, destructive history of substance dependence. The parents were traumatized by both her death and the circumstances surrounding it. When the parents were able to shift and see her through the lens of forgiveness—remembering her first as a person of divinely appointed value—they were then able to grieve her loss more freely as they were less entangled with residual feelings of resentment and frustration associated with her ruinous behaviors.

In love, Kimberly treats me as a person of value even when I have “sinned” against her. I have learned that her forgiveness is a reality I can rest in. It is the same with Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Christ came out of love. He values us more than he values our sins. That is why he came.

In a recent episode of The Chosen, Christ can be seen in the synagogue declaring that he is the fulfillment of the prophecy he has just read. Angrily, the rabbi asks Jesus if he thinks he is above the law of Moses. Jesus answers, “I am the law of Moses.” While that is script instead of scripture, I found truth and power in those words. The law is not a set of rules that we sometimes break. Like gravity, but much bigger, it is a reality that we too often choose not to live in. The law was the Israelites’ first course in what it means to love and live well.

In the next course, as recorded in the New Testament, we find that loving and living well was Jesus’ identity. It turns out that in addition to not killing our neighbor, we are to love him. The point is not to behave but to have a life. “Behaving” becomes evident downstream. The life we are to have is Christ’s. “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NRSV). It is Christ himself that we seek. The law of Moses was an introduction to love, but it is God himself who is love. (1 John 4:16) As it turns out, the script writers were right. Christ is the law of Moses. Christ is love. Forgiveness is a manifestation of that love. Christ is forgiveness. Love does as love is. He offers us forgiveness in the context of offering us his life.

You can’t enter the Kingdom of God, the life of Christ, without forgiveness in the same way that you can’t play in a pool unless you are in it. Receiving forgiveness is akin to living the life of a swimmer. Participating in the love and forgiveness of Christ is living in the Kingdom. That love is both the entrance point and the substance of Kingdom life. Our eternal destiny, often referred to as heaven, actually comes to us as a life that is in Christ now.

02.  What Does Forgiveness Look Like in Real Life?

What might forgiveness look like in day-to-day life? Forgiveness makes it safe to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden—even from ourselves. Those hidden parts are often injurious. You may know someone whose relationships and life have been terribly broken due to damaging behaviors. Acknowledgement of one’s brokenness and sins is the first step towards healing. For example, the first step toward recovery as stated in AA is the acceptance of being powerless over alcohol. It is hard to confess a sin unless there is hope that it is safer to face the brokenness directly than it is to keep it hidden. Love and forgiveness offer that hope.

Unforgiven sins are chains that hold us in bondage. Judgement is the tool we use to put them there. We are so good at judging ourselves—and others—that it is shocking to hear Jesus’ words, “You judge by human standards; I judge no one.” (John 8:15 ,NRSV) Forgiveness is the tool that unlocks those chains and sets us free. Forgiveness means valuing the person more than the offense. In his post-resurrection time with his disciples, Christ said to them,

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 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 them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21–23, NRSV)

It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, of Love, that enables us to forgive.

Hopefully, the person to whom we extend forgiveness can accept it and find greater freedom. For the offended, the infectious nature of sin can be seen in the secondary infection that is judgement. A failure to forgive demonstrates that the affliction has lingered.

Judgement can also ensnare us when we are impressed by the success of others. It is easy to think that someone is more important or valuable than we are because of the things they do and accomplish. We can celebrate and give thanks for the wonderful things others do. However, assigning increased personal value to another based on successful behavior is no different from devaluing another based on his or her mistakes. Maybe forgiveness also means valuing the person more than the success.

03.  Theology Applied Clinically

The story of Jenna is an amazing example of the power of forgiveness. I have seen Jenna in my practice for eighteen years. My experience with her convinced me of the validity of the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. As a child, Jenna experienced terrible emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her mother. Dissociating was the best way she could find to cope. In our visits, I never knew which personality would show up for the appointment. Due to her constant passive-aggressive threats, I was constantly worried about her safety.

Jenna has had such healing that now she is a licensed therapist. It is love and forgiveness that got her there. She worked with a skilled therapist for a number of years. When she did not have the internal resources to do it for herself, she was able to borrow hope from her therapist to do the necessary work to get better. That strength was expressed in the therapist’s compassionate concern and forgiveness for her—valuing her more than he valued her often painful to deal with behaviors. Over time she was able to integrate her personalities and become markedly more stable.

The next big step came when she was able to forgive (and value) herself. At her therapist’s urging, she put sticky notes all over her apartment and in her car to remind her that she was forgiven. After a number of months, when beginning to internalize the truth of forgiveness, she awakened one morning and realized she was no longer wanted to kill herself. Finally, she determined that she needed to forgive her mother. She stated that “I did it for myself. She (her mom) to this day will not admit she did anything wrong.” Over time Jenna has grown a relationship with her mother in which she can find joy and satisfaction in being with, and serving, her mother. The change in Jenna and in her relationship with her mother led to the transformation of her sisters. Their family is whole.

Accepting forgiveness is a growth process as is the process of learning to forgive. Even so, the healing that comes with forgiveness is a present thing. Both accepting, and the giving of, forgiveness, are actions that represent life in the Kingdom. It is only in this moment that we can know the love of Christ. Worrying about past sins is a presence distractor. Those worries are often less about what we did and more about what those sins mean about us. We are left feeling unworthy. Likewise, focusing on the future with the need to achieve and bolster self-esteem also removes us from today. Planning is necessary, but future worry is destructive in some of the same ways as is sin. Both take us from abiding in the presence of Christ. Neither past sins nor future success changes one’s value in the eyes of Christ.

So how can we know and live confidently in the forgiveness of Christ? There is no formula that will give us the peace of knowing his love. Because I have spent so much time with Kimberly, I have grown in the knowledge of her love for me. Likewise, it is spending time with Christ that will grow our knowledge of his love and forgiveness. As Christ is always present, growing the practice of awareness is how we can learn to spend time with him. Prayer and meditation are examples of disciplines that can help us with that even while awareness can occur in every circumstance.

In engaging forgiveness, whether for one’s self or another, there are some things that are helpful to remember. When seeing patients in my office, I address the patient first as a whole person and then as a patient with symptoms that need to be addressed. In dealing with the need for forgiveness, it is a grace to remember that you and I, and our neighbor, are a people first before we are broken sinners. Love flows more freely from that perspective.

It is essential to remember that forgiveness and one’s feelings are separate things. Forgiveness is an act of love. Feelings are something we experience. It is very human to have residual feelings about mistreatment. It is a painful thing to be mortal. Christ will be there to help. Talking through residual feelings with a trusted professional can be helpful. When hurt, we might be tempted to hang onto resentful feelings and even wish retribution on another. One time I had a patient who shared with me some hard-earned wisdom. She asked me if I knew why God tells us, “Vengeance is mine” (Heb. 10:30, NRSV). Her simple answer was, “because we can’t handle it.” Setting our wishes and will towards anything but the good of the other is destructive both for the wounded and the wounder. Forgiving works best when we let go of outcome management and let God do that which is best for the transgressor.

Closely related to that is the truth that forgiveness and forgetting are not a package deal. Even if one has been able to grant another forgiveness, further engagement with that person should not occur if the person is not safe to be with.

Some offenses seem too big and hard to forgive. When this is the case, and the will to forgive is not close at hand, I have found it helpful to try praying for the “enemy.” And, when even that is too far of a stretch, I have learned to pray for the desire to pray for the enemy. Experiencing painful mixed feelings in such a prayer is normal. The point is to set one’s mind on Christ. Feelings often follow behaviors.

Love and forgiveness are Life oriented. Christ noted, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NRSV ). In Romans we read, “we have been justified by his death . . . much more surely, having been reconciled by his death, we will be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:9–10, NRSV) Jesus is life. Life is now available. Repentance is part of embracing Christ’s love and forgiveness and entering his life. There can be sadness associated with the acknowledgement of sin. But, repentance does not include self-chastisement. Repentance means reconsidering your strategy for living. It means, with the help of Christ, reordering lesser desires in order to make primary the desire to live for the glory of God. That will be a long process with many set-backs. Remember that the faith journey is one of participation as opposed to mastery. Repentance means living in the truth of God’s kingdom and his love—which includes forgiveness. Christ also said that abiding in his truth will set us free. The freedoms we discover when abiding in forgiveness include the freedom to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as our self without the distractions of concerns from yesterday or tomorrow.

04.  Summary

These three truths are firm foundations on which to stand:

  • God’s love and forgiveness are a reality.
  • We are invited to dwell within it.
  • We can be the presence of that love and truth for others.

The better we know Christ, the better we can engage his love and forgiveness for self and others. The following are a few suggestions one might experiment with for the purpose of getting to know Christ better:

  • For the rest of the day and tomorrow, ask Christ to show you his presence in your life and world. Ask him to show you his love for you.
  • In Ephesians 5 we are told that all goodness, righteousness, and truth are reflections of the fruit of Christ’s life. Spend your time looking for good. You might experience a kindness at the grocery store, see a beautiful sunset, or enjoy a good meal. Those experiences of good reflect his presence.
  • When you see yourself in the mirror or engage another, say softly or within, “loved and valued.”
  • Also, you could spend some time meditating on your favorite verse that expresses Christ’s love for you. Zephaniah 3:17 is a good example. There are many ways you can direct your attention to him. Remember that his attention is always on you.


Alessandro Varotari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons