To be free and forgive

Letting go is a popular message these days. Especially in the grief process, we are told that we need to let go. And let God. 

Trust, freedom and forgiveness are all implied in the ‘letting go’ mantra. All of these are benefits of letting go, values to which we aspire.

Yet, when letting go stays just a concept in our heads, we will likely not experience its benefits. Letting go is not a mind game.  We don’t just convince ourselves, like when someone persuades us to believe something we hadn’t before considered. Letting go isn’t therefore something that happens immediately, at the snap of a finger. It is something that is practiced over time. A long time. And it isn’t easy.

A friend went to see a wise person one day and asked how they could be saved. And the wise one told them to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. So, the friend did so, hurling insults and stones at the graves. When the friend got back, the wise person asked if the dead people had responded. And the friend said they had said nothing.

So, the wise one told the friend to go and praise the dead. When the friend reported back, the wise one asked how the dead had taken the friend’s praises. The friend replied that they had said nothing.

So, the wise one said: “You know all those insults you hurled at them and they said nothing; you also if you want to be saved – be like the ‘dead’. Take no notice either of the insults of people or their praises. Behave like the dead and you will be saved.[1]

When Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John left their families and jobs and ‘immediately’ followed Jesus, it doesn’t mean these disciples no longer had relationships with those they left behind. It doesn’t mean they were cut off from their families, even though Mark’s style of writing may make it feel like that.[2] It’s just that the nature of those relationships changed, once Jesus came into the picture.

How did they change? What’s happening under the surface?

Letting go. Not a mental thing, but a practiced thing. It’s something we do, trusting in the one who is calling us to step out of the boat so to speak.

When we trust God, it is first an experience of freedom. Each of us has to learn this for ourselves. This is what, I believe, the disciples in the Gospel had to learn in order to follow Jesus faithfully – by practising to leave everything behind. Not because those things they left behind were bad or good in and of themselves. 

But because they needed to be free from family and their jobs. They needed to know what it is like not to be emotionally, psychologically, identified and bound by those things. In other words, the disciples would learn that who they were in Christ was not defined exclusively by what their families thought or how their jobs had conditioned them.

Because if we pursue freedom from a reactionary position, out of our own fear or anger, we just end up passing our own pain and suffering onto another person whether we know it or not. We don’t improve the situation; we just make it worse when we ignore and overlook that inner component of our life’s work.

Maybe how the disciples followed Jesus is an analogy of how we will grow in our relationships with loved ones when we follow Christ. Maybe following Christ is about having a proper emotional distance from both praise and judgement, like the friend learns in my opening story.

Mature spirituality is about letting go. Effective prayer is a practice of this letting go of all that holds us, and experiencing the benefits of letting go. It is a felt sense. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Then, we can love freely and fully in each moment given to us.

Some say forgiveness is central to Jesus’ whole message. Jesus tells us to hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.

The mind, after all, can only do two things: replay the past and plan or worry about the future. “The mind is always bored in the present. So, it must be trained to stop running backward and forward.”[3]

This is the role of prayer: practising the presence – the real presence – of Jesus with us now, so forgiveness and love can describe our journey with others and with Jesus, in this life.


[1] Adapted from Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p.31

[2] Mark 1:14-20

[3] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation and Indwelling” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 20 November 2017)

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