The Myth of Forgiving Yourself: When the Human Tail Wags the Divine Dog

For more years than I care to remember, a stalker has cast her shadow over my life.  She trails me to work, spies on me at home, skulks nearby when I go out on the town.  Never is she far away, and never does she slack in her pursuit.

She’s a different breed of stalker, however, so reporting her to the police will do no good.  To everyone else she exists only in the story I tell; to them she is a mere phantom of words.  But to me she is as real and as seemingly omnipresent as a flesh-and-blood person who’s hot on my heels 24/7.  I see her—my stalker, my ghost, my guilt—and as our eyes meet, her lips part in a joyless smile.  She mouths words at me that she’s memorized from chapters in my past I wish had never been written.

I’ve told very few people all there is to know about those life chapters.  More often than not, when I’ve opened up and told them my story, they’ve responded by telling me their own.  We swap personal accounts that almost always begin with something like, “It seemed a good idea at the time…” or “I didn’t mean for it to go that far….”  And these stories, likewise, almost always conclude the same way, “…then my world collapsed around me,” or “I lost everything that mattered to me.”  From start to finish, there’s the common thread of us making huge, stupid, selfish mistakes, then living with the consequences.  And it turns out these same people have stalkers of their own.  Like mine, theirs too stand at a distance to embody accusations of a past that’s constantly recycling its way into the present.

When I’ve bared my soul to these select few, many of them, all well-meaning, have echoed each other in giving me this counsel:  “God has forgiven you, Chad.  Now you need to forgive yourself.”  The more I heard it, the more this advice seemed spot-on.  I would find myself nodding in agreement.  We all make mistakes.  After all, to err is human.  I need to accept the fact that there’s nothing I can do to fix my past.  These feelings of negativity, failure, shame, guilt—they’ve pried open the door of my heart, hung pictures on the wall, made themselves at home.  I need to evict them, to reclaim my heart as my own.  What does it matter if others have forgiven me, if even God himself has forgiven me, if I’m still withholding forgiveness from myself?  Until self-forgiveness breaks through, the stalker will prowl about my world, spewing forth her words of accusation.  Only when I forgive myself will this haunting ghost of guilt finally vanish for good.

I’m willing to wager that, at some point in your life, you’ve received—or given—that same advice:  forgive yourself.   So you screwed up your marriage and now you find yourself divorced and lonely; it’s time to forgive yourself for your mistakes and move on.  So you really messed up as a parent and blame every mistake your child now makes on the mistakes you made as a mom or dad; let go of that guilt, get out of the past, and forgive yourself.  So you’ve ruined a career, taken a life, brought shame on your family; it’s time to break the chains of blame, lift your head up, and say, “I forgive myself.”  You deserve such freedom.  Everyone does.  That’s the only way you’ll rid yourself of the stalker once and for all.

For a time I believed such advice.  No more.  I know now that to “forgive yourself” is not only impossible; it is foolish, dangerous, and futile.  It is the vain attempt of a soul plagued by guilt to seek relief in the very last place he should be looking:  in himself.  Telling a friend, “forgive yourself,” is the equivalent of telling a dying person, “heal yourself.”  Absolution, like medicine, comes from outside of you, from the hand of a healer.

My problem was not that I knew that God had forgiven me, but that I hadn’t forgiven myself.  No, my problem was that I had never truly believed that God had forgiven me.  That was the issue.  I had deluded myself into supposing that God supplied 80% of the forgiveness, and now it was my responsibility to come up with the other 20%.  The Lord did his part, “I forgive you, Chad,” and now I needed to do my part, “I forgive myself.”  Such thinking is far worse than self-delusional; it is self-destructive.  In the end, I made myself into the human tail wagging the divine dog.

When God forgives, he forgives completely and perfectly.  There is no deficiency, no 20%, no 10%, no .000000001% of absolution that I need to manufacture to wrap up the deal.  All the dark deeds in which I engaged that brought ruin and disaster upon my marriage and family and career; all the lies and deceit; all the shame and heartache and regret that befell me afterwards—all of that God forgave in one fell swoop, because he transferred all of that evil upon a perfectly righteous man who willingly gave his life in my stead.  Even if my wife and children and friends and colleagues and students had refused to forgive me (which, thanks be to God, is not the case), I would still rest peacefully in the only absolution that ultimately matters: the one Jesus himself gives from his ugly cross of beautiful love.

My stalker sometimes still appears, but when she does, I thrust toward her a thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree, and she fades into the darkness whence she came.  She can do me no more harm, for her only weapon—my sins—has been ripped from her grasp by a nail-scarred hand.  The ghostly lips that accused me have been sown shut by the one who, like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, was led as a mute Lamb to the salvific slaughter.  The chapters from my dark past have been expunged from the biographical record and replaced by a single page from the Book of Life, in which my name—and yours, dear reader—are written in blood.

 

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

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29 thoughts on “The Myth of Forgiving Yourself: When the Human Tail Wags the Divine Dog

  1. Rafe Spraker on said:

    Absolution from Ash Wednesday service last year acclerated my conversion to Confessional Lutheranism. My Stalker had reduced me to despair. The power of the Gospel is resting, “In the only absolution that ultimately matters: the one Jesus himself gives from his ugly cross of beautiful love.”

  2. Deac. Kris on said:

    ugly cross, beautiful love. I love that phrase!

  3. This is so very beautiful and (in my case) so very, very needed today.

  4. Superb.

    Simply superb.

  5. Another phenomenal, heart-wrenching and heart-healing post that leaves me so speechless I am compelled to comment! Loved the last line especially. You are truly touching many lives with your words and the Word of our Lord.

  6. Wow. Just wow. Love you, man. Keep giving the gifts!

  7. Sam Pakan on said:

    I can’t top what has already been said, but I lend a hearty amen. Wonderful words and greater truths, Chad.

  8. I do not agree in total. While I am glad you point out the critical importance of taking into full account and appreciation the forgiveness of God, and even that much of our unrest and heartache comes from not fully trusting in His promise to forgive, I cannot deny, from my own experiences, the fact that one can fail to forgive oneself. Since it is the case that one can sin against oneself, one finds the need of forgiveness from all offended parties. Including oneself. It is not the only source of forgiveness one needs, nor is it the ultimate source of forgiveness one needs. But it is, in my estimation, a vital source of forgiveness. The Bible refers to sinning against oneself as it also refers to the necessity of “counting” ourselves one way or the other; “reckoning” ourselves to be as we truly are, as in the case of forgiveness. It is our task, once forgiven, to bring our minds and hearts in line with this reality. So then, it becomes apparent that the view we have of ourselves is incredibly important to the success of the believer. One can be unforgiving towards oneself. Certainly. And not continually holding oneself in contempt even where God and others do not is a chain from which one must set himself free. But if the sin were only against another, or against God, then seeking forgiveness from these sources would, as you have expressed, be all the is necessary. However, I find that in sinning, I sin against myself. Therefore, I do believe self-forgiveness is real and crucial.

  9. Hey Max,
    I think Mr. Bird was correct in interpreting the refusal to forgive myself as actually the refusal to believe that God has forgiven me. The word “forgive” by definition means that the sin gets “sent” somewhere else, and is judged there +. So how do I “forgive myself?” More of the same smooth talk that started all the trouble?
    No, the stalker can torment me because I won’t believe Christ.
    I’m not being theoretical or hypothetical: I’ve spent way too much time and energy carrying guilt instead of trusting in His wounds.
    +Don

    • First, just want to say “Awesome post” to Mr. Bird. Second, I’d like to offer a thought in regards to the last two replies: Perhaps “forgiving yourself” isn’t about manufacturing positive thoughts and feelings about yourself that are meant to combat the negative ones that stalk us. Perhaps “forgiving yourself”, in the life of a Christian, is bringing our thoughts and estimation of ourself in line with what God has said about us and to us in His word of Absolution. God’s Word creates reality, not my feelings about myself one way or the other. If He says that I am forgiven for the sake of Christ, then I am forgiven! That’s my reality now. Bringing my thoughts and estimation and feelings in line with that God-given reality is the “forgiving of self” that we’re talking about in a Christian. It’s following the thought of Luther: “Yes, Devil, I am as bad as you say. In fact, I am more evil than what you say! Nevertheless, I am Baptized!” Forgiving oneself is then standing in that baptismal reality against the onslaughts of our Stalker. It’s really applying the reality of the Gospel to ourselves rather than making stuff up about ourselves to feel better. It’s the only “self-forgiveness” that will stick in the end because its origin is in God, not self. Make sense?

  10. Chad you equate forgiveness and absolution. A dear friend of mine, a Catholic monk, does not. He says forgiveness states: “What you did was wrong, it hurt me, it was abusive, and it’s not okay. It was not okay when it occurred, it is not okay today, and it sure as hell will NOT be okay in the future. However, I forgive you. That means…we agree that from this day on, I will not hold the past against you, I will allow you to change your behavior, and we will move on in love together from this moment of forgiveness.” I realize that is not absolution (it’s more conditional).. But I have to ask you my masterful Brother, is it not dangerous to suggest that we are to forgive without the expectation that abusive behaviors MUST change? For me personally, I only pretend to forgive myself for wrongs that I actually I intend to continue (I know, I am not THE valid reference point for all of God’s children, but the fact remains). Anyway, correct me as needed if you have any such desire.

    (A personal note: My Kathy died in our bedroom, there was on that wall above the bed: “God Gives, We Receive…..Vicar Chad Bird”. Still makes me smile!)

    • Kel,

      The distinction your friend makes between absolution and forgiveness is appealing, for it accords well with our own experience of how relationships work. It also serves as an ally in our ongoing quest for self-protection. That being said, God’s forgiveness is not in accord with human experience or expectations. While we were yet his enemies, with not an iota of desire to amend our ways, hating and despising God, he suffered and died and forgave us everything. That forgiveness is the same forgiveness that flows from God, through us, to others.

      Abusive behaviors must change for relationships to survive. There is no doubt about that. But it is the one who treats forgiveness as permission to sin that destroys the relationship. It is not the fault of the forgiveness or the forgiver.

      It is so good to hear from you, Kel. You are a dear brother in Christ. I was unaware of Kathy’s death. I pray the Lord in His mercy has been the healer of your grief. On my bookshelf sits a small frame, inside of which are the words, “God Gives, We Receive,” that you and the other guys from the “Bulls of Bethlehem” gave me when I finished vicarage. They are four words by which Kathy, and all of us, can live and die. Peace to you!

      • “And also with you” (I am well, shaped more by my losses than what might be considered successes, but such is the blessed body broken. I’m now far from the Bulls…I kneel in a different cathedral, but still when I can do nothing else, which is often, I kneel.)

  11. Randy Short on said:

    Chad, where would you place the reception of the sacrament, in this writing, as an assurance of forgiveness?

    • Randy,
      In his Supper, the Lord feeds us himself, and he is the very embodiment of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Supper is, as it were, forgiveness made edible. We are made one with our Lord, even as he become one with us in His incarnation. As we struggle with guilt, we go to the Supper, where our forgiving Lord is present to do what he does best: love us toward healing, forgive us toward peace, and to fill us with himself.

  12. Pingback: Can Christians “forgive themselves”?

  13. Thanks for your words and beautiful writing. I’ve been pondering this post for the last few weeks, and just blogged a response: Can Christians “forgive themselves”? http://shar.es/QOcmk

    • Thank you, Michelle, for your thoughtful response. Although we disagree on some details, I am grateful for the seriousness with which you tackle the subject of the need to receive and extend forgiveness. The key issue for me remains this: if we forgive ourselves, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, who alone establishes the law, who alone demands our obedience to it, and who alone can forgive us when that law is not kept. When a pastor or priest announces forgiveness, he is but the mouthpiece of God. When we forgive others who have wronged us, we are but the mouthpiece of God, letting his forgiveness flow through us into them. And finally, when we talk of “forgiving ourselves”, what we are doing is believing that God’s mouth speaks truth for us. We are simply trusting that God’s forgiveness is truer than our feelings and doubts.

  14. Pingback: Can Christians “Forgive Themselves”? @ Michelle van Loon

  15. What a wonderfully written blog post!! You painted quite an interesting picture. Most of us can relate with this ALL too well. Such an awesome reminder we are still plagued by sin, so that even when we “know” that we have full and complete forgiveness, through the Message of His Word, our sinful nature (along with our sin-affected brain that can never have perfect understanding–this side of heaven) still insists, “It’s up to us!” Great reminder to continually watch out for those tricks of the devil, the world and our sinful nature, who would wish to steal that reassurance from us. Your piece also gave an overwhelmingly positive argument to never lose sight of the continued practice/application of confession and absolution in the Church–never leaving out the teaching of full and complete forgiveness. Thank you and may God continue to bless you and your writing. John 14:27; Philippians 4:7

  16. Pingback: The Myth of Forgiving Yourself | LIBERATE

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