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Forgiving Yourself

Last December my husband and I went to a party where we saw many old friends from a ministry we were involved in decades ago. One attractive and lovely woman told me matter-of-factly how one of her children doing well made up for how badly she had messed up her other two. My heart hurt for this friend as she obviously is emotionally and spiritually reliving her supposed past mistakes in parenting, rather than living in the present.

Truth be known, many of us ruminate over our past mistakes and failures. The late Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of the best seller Forgive and Forget, describes how humans punish themselves like this:

But the hurt your heart tries hardest to forgive yourself for is the unfair harm you did to others. And the more decent we are the more acutely we feel our pain for the unfair hurts we caused. Our pain becomes our hate … we judge, we convict, and we sentence ourselves. Mostly, in secret.

At the height of her professional tennis career, Billie Jean King once said, “In sports every moment is a now moment.” I think this admonition to be present in the now applies to our spiritual journeys as well. In my years as a minister’s wife and a spiritual director, I have witnessed people completely drained of the ability to live in the present moment due to their preoccupation with the past or the future. Granted one should not deny what lies behind or ahead, but the only moment we know we have is this moment right now. Psalm 118 reminds us, “This is the day that Lord has made.” It is impossible to rejoice in a day when mentally and emotionally somewhere else.

We humans sometimes have difficulty forgiving ourselves even when others and God have forgiven us. If taken too far, this might be described as spiritual arrogance. In fact, C.S. Lewis said, “I think that if God forgives us, we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than him.” Or as my friend Lynne once told me more bluntly, “If you don’t forgive yourself for sin you already confessed, you’re calling God a liar.”

Additionally, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that people who can’t extend grace to themselves often cannot extend it to others.

Those truths helped me adapt a contemplative exercise in self-forgiveness that others have found useful in leaving the pain of the past behind. At first, participants remind themselves of God’s overwhelming forgiveness extended to us, through scriptures such as Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

Next, participants write down the specifics of the event or the persons that they are still struggling with from the past. They detail how they feel about themselves as a result of the wrongdoing. Then we ask that they make a conscious decision to forgive themselves. This act of the will is not the same as feeling forgiven. Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of this when he said, “Forgiveness is above all a personal choice.” We encourage them to speak the words of forgiveness aloud, and then destroy the paper on which all of the details are written. This can be a powerful tool in emotionally and spiritually letting go of the past. As contemplative author and minister, Richard Foster, explains, “We bring to God what we are, not what we wish we were.” This means that we will need to confess regularly, “knowing that God is faithful and just to forgive us” (1 John 1:19).

Lewis Smedes even suggests followers of Jesus celebrate their self-forgiveness by giving some type of lavish gift to another. He cites the Gospel of Luke where a woman of ill repute is rebuked for anointing Jesus with expensive perfume and her own tears. Jesus explains, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Her overwhelming gratitude allowed her to lavishly spend expensive perfume on the Lord.

I know that there are some Christian leaders that dismiss self-forgiveness as having been made popular by modern psychology. Their reasoning is the Bible only speaks about horizontal (between people) and vertical (God to me) forgiveness. I think they miss the point. Jesus is clear that the second most important commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, we are to love ourselves, and the great chapter about love, 1 Corinthians 13, says that “love bears all things.” That idea is reinforced by 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The practical reality is that many of us are mired in our painful pasts. I have repeatedly seen this to be true. Part of the peace and freedom of accepting God’s forgiveness is knowing we can forgive ourselves and joyfully move ahead into the future.

Recently, my husband, Tom, and I facilitated a five-week class at the urban abbey we founded in the heart of Dallas. This course on forgiveness was directed especially at members of 12 Step Programs. At the final meeting, a woman told us that she had been sober for eight and a half years, but she had still struggled with forgiving herself. She said that the class, and particularly the contemplative exercises on forgiveness, had been life-changing for her, and for the first time, she felt at peace. Jesus’ words in John 10:10 come to mind: “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Many Christians struggle with forgiving themselves for past deeds they cannot change. We can read Scripture and theology about forgiveness, which is enlightening. The problem is that we often need to reach beyond our head knowledge and feel God’s touch in our hearts and souls. As people marked as “Christ’s own forever,” we need to experience God’s love and compassion in a more visceral way until we have more than an intellectual belief. Then as Julian of Norwich said,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Marcia Hotchkiss is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and co-founder of The Abbey on Lovers Lane (www.abbeyonlovers.org). Marcia recently co-authored Hope-Peace-Love-Joy: An Advent Devotional. She is a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.


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