How can you release the person you are today from the wrongs you did in the past?
What gives you the right to shake yourself free from the personal history of sins you have committed – as if they have no bearing on who you are today? How can you forgive yourself when there are people who would want you to cower in shame for the rest of your life?
The answer is that you have the right to forgive yourself only from the power of love. And you dare forgive yourself only with the courage of love. Love Is the ultimate source of both your right and your courage to disregard the indictment you level at yourself. When you live as if yesterday’s wrong is irrelevant to how you feel about yourself today, you are betting on a love that frees you from self-condemnation.
But – and this is a crucial but – you must be honest about your past failings. Without honesty, self-forgiveness is merely psychological mumbo-jumbo. It is akin to the Saturday Night Live skit featuring Stuart Smalley, who would repeat in a mirror the self-affirmation: “I am good enough. I am smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” This is meant to be funny – and it is. Watch it. I guarantee you’ll laugh.
Part of the reason we laugh at Stuart Smalley is because it is based in a popular therapeutic model – Blessed are self-esteemers, for they shall see the beauty of their own souls. There is some truth in what Smalley says, but it is misapplied.
Self-esteem is not the same as self-forgiveness. We esteem ourselves when we discover the beauty and majesty that God has bestowed on us. We are made in the image of God and he has given us ultimate worth. We forgive ourselves after we discover our own failings. After we understand that we have failed and are broken. We esteem ourselves for the beautiful person we are. We forgive ourselves for the bad things we have done.
It is important that we understand the difference. We may recite a thousand self-affirmations and yet never experience self-forgiveness.
The first thing we need is honesty. We cannot forgive ourselves unless we look at the failure(s) in our past and call it what it is. We need an honest assessment in order to keep from self-indulging complacency. This can be difficult because we are all hard-wired to be self-protective. We naturally have an instinct for survival and therefore always postured to defend ourselves.
This is a good thing when we are attacked by a bear or when false accusations are leveled against us. In those cases, we truly need to defend ourselves.
However, our natural God-given impulse to defend ourselves can also be used to our detriment – to prevent us from being honest with ourselves and with others. Being defensive about our failings will prevent us from addressing issues in our lives that will keep us from healthy relationships. Honesty requires vulnerability. We resist vulnerability because we believe that it will open us up to being hurt and losing power. Which may be true. But honesty is a required first step. When we are honest about our failures and bring them in to the light – that is the beginning of releasing ourselves from their bondage.
We need courage. Forgiving yourself is a supreme act of love. The reason it takes courage to forgive yourself is partly due to the attitude some people have towards “self-forgivers.” Self-righteous people don’t want you to forgive yourself. They want you to walk forever under the black cloud of shame.
I understand these people because I have some of that in my life as well. I suspect I am not alone. There is something inside of me that wants a wrongdoer – especially someone more “successful” than me (as the world measures success), to pay for their sin. To crawl. To grovel. To fall from their high place. I actually cringe as I write this because it says more about me than anyone else.
So, when you walk and talk like a person who has chosen to leave your sinful actions in the past – divorced from your present self, you need courage to face the self-righteous crowd.
We need to be concrete. We will almost certainly fail at self-forgiveness when we refuse to be specific about what we are forgiving ourselves for. Trying to forgive ourselves for some general character trait will not be helpful. “I am bitter, or mean, or self-centered, or hateful, or just plain bad” is too general and often a strategy to avoid the pain of acknowledging a particular offense.
What is it exactly that you need forgiveness for? For lying to your spouse? Good – you can work on that. For being a bad person? No, that is too global; you cannot work on a general character trait without drilling down and being specific.
We must work on one particular thing at a time. When we overburden ourselves with the oppression of generalized guilt, we are likely to be paralyzed and sink into despair. The only way to succeed as self-forgivers is to be concrete and forgive ourselves for one thing at a time.
Finally, we need to confirm our outrageous act of self-forgiveness with a reckless act of love. “She loves much because she has been forgiveness much” – this was Jesus’ explanation for a woman who dared to crash a dinner party uninvited, drop herself at Jesus’ feet, and pour out a small token of love in the form of perfume.
Love is a signal that you have actually done it, that you have actually released yourself from the guilt that condemned you. Love gives you the right to forgive yourself. And it gives you the power as well. The power to love ourselves comes from God: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). As we take in and experience the radical nature of God’s love – we are equipped to love and forgive ourselves.
To forgive yourself is the mysterious act of one person who is both the forgiver and the forgiven. You judge yourself – this reveals a division within. You forgive yourself – this is healing that division.
Daring to heal yourself by this simple act of forgiveness is a sign to the world that God’s love is a power within you.