“But I Can’t Forgive Myself”

This week I finally taught my first class on forgiveness at Steelbridge, the Women’s Center of Hope, which is a live-in discipleship program for homeless and at-risk women. (Steelbridge has a men’s component too.) I met with about a dozen women on Monday morning and opened up with the story about asking my parents for forgiveness for the misdeeds of my hippie days. (See Forgiving from the Heart, Part 1.) Then I turned that around and talked about how people need to forgive others, often beginning with parents who were abusive. I talked about Yeshua’s teachings on forgiveness including his words that we need to forgive from the heart–which is the topic of this whole course on forgiveness.

When I opened up for Q&A, Debbi (not her real name) asked if it was OK to express her own opinions—even if she disagreed with me. I said it was, and she said that she understood what I’m saying about forgiveness, but there are people she won’t forgive ever, because they don’t deserve to be forgiven. She said she’s not carrying around what they did to her, and she’s OK with whatever God wants to do with them, even if he wants to forgive them, but she’s not going to do it. She added that it’s been a relief to her to reach this point, because she doesn’t have to pretend like she’s forgiven them, or hopes to forgive them someday. Debbi said that she wasn’t arguing with what I had said, but just wanted to say how she saw it.

Honestly, I was OK with that, although I was briefly tempted to quote a couple of Bible verses. Actually, I’d say that Debbi took a solid step in the right direction by not pretending to forgive. She’s closer to real forgiveness than someone who says the right words about forgiveness but hasn’t really done anything from the heart. People can practice what I call “religious denial”, using the terminology of forgiveness to shut down the hard work of actually forgiving.

As the Q&A continued, Andrea (not her real name either–none of the names I use will be real) raised her hand. She said that she forgives others but finds it really hard to forgive herself. I asked for a show of hands and most of the women in the class felt the same way. It’s something I hear in counseling all the time—I can forgive others but I can’t forgive myself. I know God forgives me, but I don’t forgive myself. One client of mine even said, “Yeah, God forgives me, but that’s no big deal. He has to forgive because he’s God, but I can’t forgive myself.”

The Bible doesn’t use the terminology of forgiving oneself at all. But here are some points that might help meet the need of forgiving ourselves.

  1. The idea that forgiving oneself is somehow more difficult or more significant than being forgiven by God is a symptom of our wildly individualistic, subjective culture. If we understood God more fully, we’d be more awed and thankful about his forgiveness. Maybe it’s not so easy for a holy and totally righteous God to forgive. And he doesn’t have to forgive because he’s God (an idea that probably reflects the moralistic therapeutic deism labeled in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers). He forgives because of his compassion and kindness, which we don’t deserve. Therefore, we can forgive ourselves even though we don’t deserve it.
  2. Which leads to a second thought: It’s hard to forgive ourselves because we just can’t accept the mess we’ve made or the damage we’ve caused—and can’t fix. But it’s because the past is unfixable that forgiveness exists at all. If we could fix the past, Yeshua would tell us to go for it, clean up the mess, and then come ask forgiveness. But we can’t, and so we need forgiveness, including forgiveness of self, to continue to live at all.
  3. OTOH, perhaps self-forgiveness will be easier if we work on making amends. I can’t fix the past, but I can work on the consequences I’ve created. Making amends is a sign of genuine repentance, and it’s even possible in cases where the damage is irreversible. As Andrea told more of her story, it turned out that she couldn’t forgive herself for neglecting her kids when they were young. She spent a few years in prison and wasn’t there at all for one daughter. She can’t fix that, but she can make amends by being present and available for her daughter now, or by finding ways to serve younger kids, since her daughter seems to be uninterested in any kind of relationship with her. Making amends doesn’t fix the past, and it doesn’t pay for what we’ve done, but it does help turn regret into repentance, which means turning away from our wrongdoing and sin and turning back to God–and this inevitably leads to forgiving ourselves.
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