Forgiviness: Forgiving Ourselves

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I think it’s human to look back at our lives and ask the question, “What if?” What if I’d tried harder this thing or that one? What if I’d been interested in something different in school? What if I’d been interested in school? What if I chose a different career? What if I’d said yes to someone who asked me out or tried to ask someone out when I assumed they would say no? We can what if ourselves into paralysis. The truth is everyone has things they wish they had done differently; choices they wish they could make again.

But sometimes we make choices that go beyond the simple regret of what if. There are choices we make that leave us and sometimes those around us wounded. They open hurts which never seem to close, never seem to get better. We carry them with us into our lives, our relationships and they limit how much we enjoy the life God has given us. They rob us of peace and joy, keeping us focused on the wound. 

What I’m describing is a lack of forgivingness, one directed not at others, but at ourselves. It is being unable to accept we ourselves are worthy of forgiveness. And I think that leads to some questions: What do we do with this when the person we’ve wronged is ourselves? What do we do when we’ve wronged someone else, they forgive us, but we can’t forgive ourselves? What do we do when we feel like God can’t forgive us no matter how many times we ask? How do we forgive ourselves? All these things fall under the category of self-forgiveness.

Self-Forgiveness is not an easy thing. We have all heard the phrase, “You are your own worst critic.” When we do something which we feel we can’t forgive ourselves for, we become not critics but judge, jury, and executioners. We have decided our own guilt and our own punishment, and that punishment is continual, beating our souls up day after day. Others may say we should let it go, but we have decided our guilt is beyond redemption and even after praying and seeking God we simply cannot put aside the feelings self-judgment.

It reminds me of The Mission. In The Mission, Robert DeNiro plays mercenary and slave trader named Rodrigo Mendoza.  Rodrigo kidnaps natives from local native communities in South America and sells them to nearby plantations. After returning from kidnapping slaves, Rodrigo’s fiancée, Carlotta, confesses that she is in love with Rodrigo’s younger half-brother Felipe. In a fit of rage, Mendoza challenges Felipe to a duel and kills him. He is acquitted of murder, since it was a duel, but Mendoza falls into deep depression over Felipe’s death. Father Gabriel, a Jesuit priest who has been working with the jungle tribes Mendoza has been enslaving, challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance. Rodrigo travels with the Jesuits as they return to their mission in the jungle. On the trip, he chooses to haul a heavy bundle containing his armor and sword. Mendoza struggles through the rain forest, often falling, nearly being dragged off a cliff but refusing to give up his penance. When they reach the native village and mission, the natives recognize their former persecutor. Mendoza is unsure how they will react but is certain he deserves no mercy. The natives soon come to forgive a tearful Mendoza. In dramatic fashion, they cut away his heavy bundle, the penance he carried, and the bundle falls over a cliff. 

For those of us who cannot forgive ourselves, we find heavy bundles, much like Mendoza’s, dragging behind us. Many people will say something about God forgiving us and if God forgives us, we can forgive ourselves. But for those who struggle with self-forgiveness, this often rings hollow. We accept the overall idea of being forgiven, but we hang on to some event, some moment, some act that we find unforgivable. It’s as if we are saying, “I accept God’s forgiveness for everything except this one thing that is unforgiveable.” And despite the protests from those closest to us, from those who wish us well, even from God, we refuse to let go. Something in us cannot be satisfied with forgiveness but rather demands justice. What we are really looking for is peace, peace from the sense that we have done something so horrible, so egregious that we cannot be forgiven of it. 

Yet, to find that peace again, we must let go. Colin Tipping writes about this saying, “Self-forgiveness involves a compassionate embrace of ourselves as wrongdoers in spite of our natural feelings of guilt and shame. It is a voluntary and deliberate act to overlook our own flaws and wrongdoings, cancel our need to punish ourselves, and start a new chapter.”[1] It is one thing to accept responsibility for your actions, this is a part of the penance/repentance process, something integral to forgiveness. But it is another to hold that responsibility past the point of what should be forgiveness as though we should continually be punished. This flies in the face of grace, a central concept of how we live and understand our faith. 

We must find a way to forgive ourselves, despite the reasons we give ourselves not to. If we cannot forgive ourselves, there is small part of us that may well not forgive others. This lack of forgiveness grows like a disease within us until it begins to undermine the way we think and live. Instead of leaning into the reasons to hang on to unforgiveness, we need to embrace the reasons for forgiveness. The late Desmond Tutu offers some reasons to forgive ourselves. 

The reasons for forgiving ourselves are the same as for forgiving others. It is how we become free of the past. It is how we heal and grow. It is how we make meaning out of our suffering, restore our self-esteem, ad tell a new story of who we are. If forgiving others leads to an external peace, forgiving ourselves leads to an internal peace. It can be so very difficult when you are both the victim and the perpetrator in your own story.

This is healing. Healing is at the heart of salvation. When we experience true salvation, we are experiencing healing and restoration toward wholeness. Unforgiveness toward ourselves or anyone else keeps the wounds we have open and unhealed. We have to forgive everyone, ourselves included, to truly experience the wholeness of salvation.

I think we do that by living into a quote from our scripture reading today: Change your hearts and lives. This idea is at the heart of what it means to repent or change direction. It means a spiritual, mental, and emotional reorientation. And it’s not a one shot and you’re done kind of thing. We may need to seek out good counseling. There is nothing wrong with seeking help from those trained as therapists. It is no different than going to a doctor for a physical ailment. We may need to talk to pastors or spiritual directors. It may be that what is bothering you, the unforgiveness you feel is rooted to something spiritual. The point is we will have to work at it, do the hard work of heart searching and soul searching. It isn’t easy but it is possible to forgive ourselves. When we accept—completely acknowledge the truth—that we are human and we will make mistakes, both big and small; when we accept the forgiveness of God and others; when we can accept that we no longer need to punish ourselves for things God and others have forgiven, then we can begin to forgive ourselves. Remember, it is not easy. It will take time. It does take work. But it is worth it to be at peace with God, with neighbor, and with ourselves.

[1] (Tipping 2011, 5)