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.
If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. This poetry gives voice to the triumphs 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!