I have grappled with forgiveness for decades. My unwillingness to forgive one person who had deeply wounded me on many occasions kept me trapped in grief, pain, and rage for more than thirty years. My remorse, shame, and inability to 'forgive myself' for something I had done enslaved me in my own private hell of guilt, self-hatred, despair, hopelessness and depression for almost twenty years. One day a man that I only knew from seeing him around the church I was attending at the time brazenly (unexpected and uninvited) stepped into my life and relentlessly proceeded to break down my resistance and walk me through a process of forgiveness that set me free. It took some time.
That was not the end of forgiveness in my life. My need to forgive and request forgiveness has continued unabated in the two decades since I first truly understood what it means to forgive and to be forgiven. In the course of those years I have strived to increase my understanding of forgiveness through study, meditation and prayer. Throughout my career in mental health I came across innumerable people who (from my perspective) needed to forgive and/or request and accept forgiveness in order to begin their journey of healing with any hope of success. I had the memorable privilege to co-present a seminar with a friend (who just happens to be a psychiatrist and Christ follower) where we explored the concept of forgiveness and discussed its impact on mental health. One issue we burrowed into was this business of 'forgiving oneself'.
So often we hear people utter those pain-filled words, "I just can't forgive myself"! I believed that to be the case for myself for far too long. I was not set free until I realized that self forgiveness was not required! In fact, I discovered that my yearning and striving for peace and freedom could not be fulfilled through self forgiveness.
I firmly believe that the idea that I need to forgive myself is wrong. I believe it is dangerous and destructive. It can ensnare us and lead us astray. I believe that the concept of forgiving oneself is not Biblical. I believe this concept is rooted in the pride, ego, arrogance, selfishness and self-centeredness so prominent in our culture today.
Let me try to explain.
When I study scripture I learn that:
- I am commanded by God to forgive others. I am to forgive those that have hurt me or offended me. Not just once. Lots. More than I sometimes want to.
- I need to confess and repent my wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness from God.
- I need to confess and repent my wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness from every person that I have harmed or offended. If I understand this correctly, I should also try to right the wrongs I have done.
What I don't find in scripture is the command to forgive myself!
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I missed something. Am I splitting hairs, getting caught up in semantics? It could be, but I don't think so.
But... if I'm stuck in the excruciating pain that is this belief that I can't forgive myself I am obviously needing something! Something Big. Something Powerful.
I wrestled with this question for a long time. I prayed. I studied. I meditated. A lot.
It was only when I began to carefully analyze what I was doing and communicating whenever I said or thought I need to forgive myself, or I just can't forgive myself, that I began to understand.
Have you ever prayed to God, asking for forgiveness while at the same time you believed you couldn't forgive yourself? I have. Far too often.
Has a friend ever said to you, "It's OK. I forgive you." and you responded with, "yeah, but I just can't forgive myself"? I have. Far too often.
As I reflected on this I asked myself the question, "What have I just done?"
The naked truth is that I have just told God that his forgiveness is not enough for me! I have just told my friend that their forgiveness is not good enough! I have claimed the ultimate power and authority to forgive myself. If I extend that idea, then I really don't need God's forgiveness, or my friend's forgiveness because I can just forgive myself!
But what am I really asking for when I ask for forgiveness? Am I not asking for a gift? The gift of mercy, grace, and compassion that will set me free? Am I not rejecting that gift when I claim that it's not as good as my gift to myself? Seems rather arrogant and prideful to me.
My understanding of the process of asking for forgiveness is that I must begin by humbling myself.
When I go to God for forgiveness I need to appear in humility, confessing my brokenness, and pleading for the gift of his mercy, grace, compassion, and love. There's no point asking for this if I'm not fully prepared and open to receiving this gift. That demands faith. Faith that God loves me, that he will respond to me with his understanding, mercy, grace and compassion. Faith that God can forgive me, will forgive me, and has forgiven me. I must have faith that His forgiveness is sufficient. This faith cannot exist without humility. Not only must I humble myself to ask for the gift of forgiveness, I absolutely must humble myself to receive and accept this gift. If I'm proud, arrogant, selfish or self centered it is impossible for me to receive and accept this precious gift. My ego is in the way. It's just not good enough.
The same applies to my friend. I must humble myself before them, confess my wrongdoing, repent and ask for the gift or their mercy, grace and compassion. I must honour their gift by humbling myself to receive and accept their forgiveness. I need to humbly believe that they can forgive me, that they will forgive me, that they have forgiven me, and that their forgiveness is sufficient.
Sometimes I may humble myself before someone and ask for their forgiveness and they may choose to withhold that forgiveness. They might reject every effort I make to reconcile. If I know that I have exhausted every avenue I know to repair the damage I have done and the person still refuses to release me, I know that I can go to God. His grace is sufficient. I believe this also applies when the person whose forgiveness I'm seeking is no longer available or accessible.
It's not my job or right (we're really big on those) to 'forgive myself'. My responsibility is to humble myself and ask for forgiveness. I must also humble myself to receive forgiveness and accept it in faith and believe that it is sufficient. Then the gift will set me free.
I don't pretend that this is a scholarly dissertation.
But I humbly confess that this is what I believe. This is what has been revealed to me.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray
and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven,
and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
2 Chronicles 7: 14