September 29, 2020

“I Forgive Myself:” The Hardest Word?

One of the things I really don’t like about run-of-the-mill evangelical spirituality is the assumption that we’re all basically clones of each other. Cheerful clones. Mentally healthy clones. Good family clones. Conservative political clones. Happy at church clones. Like the same music clones. Clones who cope well. Clones who think alike. Clones who can take a cheerful verse and dissolve any problem in short order.

Let me take a simple thing. I don’t like Fox News. I don’t have a vendetta about it, but it’s inflammatory much of the time, and their overall harping tone doesn’t do a thing for my blood pressure. They do a lot of name calling, cheap shots, girly pics and “true crime” coverage. I don’t live in England, so I don’t want the screaming British media.

What would be my fate if I stood up at my next public gathering with conservative evangelicals and read the previous paragraph? Let’s just say that many judgments would be made on this one item, most of them far from true.

We aren’t alike, but there’s a kind of desperate, weird, compulsion to act like we are alike; a compulsion that causes many Christians to walk around carrying the burden of an entirely false self. Their struggles, scars, questions, confusions, missteps, short-comings, darkness and brokenness are going to be a secret.

If…if…we broke those secrets, what would we learn?

There’s a years worth of blogging, but I’ll talk about one thing you’d learn about Michael Spencer and more than a few other people in the Christian community.

I am quick to forgive other people. I suspect that it’s not just that the grace of God makes me that way. I have a subtext: I believe it’s the best way to be liked. There’s wisdom in it, and it makes sense to me that we’ll all do better if we find a way to share the goodness of forgiveness with one another, and to do it easily when possible. (I realize it’s not always possible.)

When I tell my wife, children, co-workers and/or students that I forgive them and it’s all behind us, it’s the truth. I do, and it’s unlikely that the issue will ever come up again from me.

Like I said, don’t give me many points. I believe Jesus forgives us and that’s crucial to me, but my dad was a marvelous and gracious forgiver. He showed me that it’s the best way to live. I like those moments when I can enjoy reconciliation with someone that I’ve been estranged from. Those are sweet moments in life. If it’s fathers and sons, get me the Kleenex box.

But guess what? Forgiving myself is another matter entirely.

Forgiving myself may rank as among the hardest assignments I have in life. My own sins and crimes are setting in file cabinets in the basement of my soul, holding onto what I’ve done, both known and unknown.

I’m a crud, and even when Jesus, Christians, my lovely wife and any number or normal, mature adults say I’m forgiven, it’s almost impossible for me to receive it.

The analytical part of me says it’s narcissism. Holding onto my own sins allows me to play the victim; to insist that I receive more attention for my sins. In being stubborn about self-forgiveness, there’s the human tendency to manipulate love out of other people.

Wretched. Remind me that doesn’t deserve to be forgiven either.

Even when there is no manipulation or attention seeking, when it’s just Michael and God, it’s hard for me to hear that word. I’m not naive here. I know that when almighty God forgives you by the blood of his own Son, I have no business saying, “No, not me.” There’s a stubborn part of me that fights God’s kind of grace. Condemnation comes easy, and often the Gospel falls upon a heart that is drowning in self-reproach.

I’m not the only one with this malady, and some of you who share this experience know the irony that often you are the one offering the Gospel of forgiveness to others, and yet you feel like you live without it yourself.

What’s wrong? Not a lack of scripture or sound teaching. Please hold off on that.

I’ll say it’s a conscience that has been trained, often in ways unknown to us, to hold on to our sins and crimes because we believe that is the right thing to do. We’re fighting a moral battle against the Good News that God justifies sinners.

Some of us hold ourselves to an impossible standard because we’ve bought deeply into the law and stood at a distance from the Gospel.

Some of us were brought up in families where the grace of self-forgiveness was rare. Despair was plentiful. Grace was a stranger.

Others of us have been convinced on a deep level that we are a special case; a person whose depravity exceeds God’s forgiveness. We can’t see how we can think of ourselves as that prodigal returned to the place of an honored son. We want to go out back, into the servants quarters, and live like a slave, because that’s what we ought to be.

For some, our revivalist tradition abusively used invitationalism and altar calls to communicate to us that we could never feel bad enough, or surrender enough or be dedicated enough. So….we can’t.

Many of us just don’t know why we resist forgiveness so much. All we know is that we need to hear and experience the Gospel in community, in word, in experience. We need to be told by people who we cannot manipulate that we are forgiven for Christ’s sake. We need reconciliation in ritual, art, music, celebration and vocation. We can never say “I’ve experienced enough of God’s gracious forgiveness. Let’s move on.”

We need your prayers, because we’re not one of the clones. Of course, I don’t think many of us are clones at all, even when we act like we buy into that nonsense. We’re different in our experiences, spiritual perceptions and apprehension of grace. Some of us just have a lot in our basement that we are reluctant to get rid of. If we don’t condemn ourselves, we don’t know what to do.

One of my favorite stories in scripture is the invitation of Jesus to Peter: After you have recovered, go and help your brothers. So simple, but it is spoken as Jesus knows the crushing condemnation Peter is going to experience. He doesn’t psychoanalyze or beg. He tells him to let go and take up a useful task. Nothing is useful about wallowing in self-reproach.

If we are offering forgiveness, we should be experiencing forgiveness. If we are experiencing forgiveness, we should have more and more reasons to trade our sorrows and self-loathing for the joy of the Lord. But we don’t live by “shoulds.” We live what we live, and we need one another’s help to create a community of people who aren’t cheerful clones, but are diverse, different, utterly real Jesus followers.

Comments

  1. I totally agree with you, im —

    You are a crud —

    Just kidding, of course 🙂

    As a lifelong commercial fisherman I think I might have some insight into Peter’s psyche that most might not.

    Jesus was really rubbing it in that morning on the beach. First, Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth with no visible means had caught some fish — which he was cooking up for them — while Peter and his fishermen cohorts who had fished that lake all their lives caught none all night from their boat with their nets.

    Second, after He showed them how to corral the biggest catch of large fish they had ever seen in one set of the net, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him “more than these.” The standard interpretation is that by “these” he meant these other men. But He then tells him to show Him how much he loves Him by lovingly shepherding “these” others.

    Let me offer a fisherman’s interpretation:

    He was asking Peter if He loved the One who had died in his place — the One he had denied three times that night — more than “these” fish still flopping in the net beside them on the shore.

    Talk about feeling cruddy ….

  2. Amen and amen, Michael.

  3. Patrick Lynch says

    “If we don’t condemn ourselves, we don’t know what to do.”

    This is a subtext of so many comments on this blog, it makes me wonder strange things about everybody on the internet.

  4. I must be weird, because even though I am a mostly conservative Evangelical, I’ve never even seen Fox News. But from what I’ve heard, I probably wouldn’t like it too much.

    I do like The Simpsons. I suppose that is as bad in the eyes of some as disliking Fox News. When I told one of my Christian coworkers about liking the Simpsons she said, “I’m sorry you said that.”

    I’m mostly mentally healthy. Mostly. But most don’t see the struggles.

    I also have a hard time forgiving myself, even though I know the correct theological answers. Even when I am experiencing real joy in the knowledge that all of my sin was nailed to the cross in the person of Christ, I can quickly turn and kick myself for something stupid I did or said twenty years ago.

  5. This is why confession and absolution are so valuable to me. To have my Pastor hear my confession of all the crap I involve myself in, the hateful thoughts and acts, things I have done and left undone, and place his hands on my head and forgive my sins in the stead and by the command of Christ is powerful. I can’t escape the forgiveness for the sins I fear the most. My Pastor refuses to let me wallow in the prideful ” My sins are different than the sins of others, they are beyond forgiveness.”

    To go week after week, sometimes confessing the same things over and over, and hearing God’s forgiveness week after week eventually changes you on a deep level.
    After awhile it took and I started to actually believe I was forgiven, and subsequently found it easier to forgive myself.

  6. And what good would it do to forgive myself?

    To forgive me

    So few actually have

    Not the church, who discarded me with the precision and ritual of unused communion wine.
    (It was once good and reverenced, now it is good for nothing but the drain.)

    Not my supposed friends, who can’t even bring themselves to say hello; for to do so would somehow mean they approve of what I did

    Not my colleagues, who are no more, and apparently want to keep it that way

    Not even strangers that will not hire me because of what I did, and by so doing, speak their refusal to give me a second chance.

    And so why should I forgive myself? So “I” can feel good about “me?”
    So “I” can move on……to what?
    Is that going to make it go away? Will that restore all that I have lost? Will that repair all the damage, known and unknown, that I have done?

    No…forgiving “myself” is just that, its for “me.” So I can somehow feel good about “me”? So I can somehow get on with “my” life?

    Wasn’t it that same selfishness that got me into this mess to begin with?

  7. A very helpful post Michael, thanks. It, and some of the following comments, help me to realize that I’m not alone in struggling to forgive myself, despite knowing the theology and being very quick to forgive others. And, perhaps, might help me to stop beating myself up a little over not being able to forgive myself as easily as I do others. Thank you.

  8. Mike,

    There are good reasons to forgive yourself, but it sounds like a brief review of forgiveness means. It means admitting that you screwed up, that you ask for forgiveness from those whom you hurt (if possible) and from God. It means trying to make amends and to try to not do it again.

    As to why. First it is Scriptural, to quote Jesus, “To love your neighbor as yourself.” Please catch the yourself in His words.

    You, in spite of what you did, are lovable by God. HE just wants to hold you and for you to know that you are loved.

    I am sorry that you feel unloved and rejected by other church goers.

  9. I agree with Patrick. I wonder sometimes if our refusal to forgive ourselves comes from a refusal to allow others to forgive us. We refuse to confess our sins, keeping them locked in the file cabinets in the basement, thinking that we can forgive ourselves but knowing it does not work. Trust someone else enough to take those files out and let them have a look is the hardest thing to do. We worry that when we take our masks down and show we are not the clones we think we should be, then we will not be loved.

    I wonder if our worry is not that we are unforgivable so much as that we are unlovable in who we really are.

  10. In the tradition you’re describing and in which I was also born and bred (to many good things and a few ill) holding on to you own ‘sinfulness’ as need for ‘sanctification’ as the principle life-shaping realities can also be away of avoiding the responsibility of being a free, responsible, powerful, confident, world-shaping son of God.

  11. I’ve been thinking about something similar recently, and it is this.

    True forgiveness is enveloped in grace, and grace only comes after I’m humbled. Humility, naturally, only comes after I’ve sinned. “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). I’m discovering that my difficulty is not so much with grace, but with pride. In order to receive grace and forgiveness, I have to admit I’ve made a mistake, and that is a blow to my pride – that ubiquitous and useless sensation that wants to be free of error. And the desire to be free from error means only one thing: I want to be GOD! So the order is sin, humility, grace and forgiveness. But in order to obtain this forgiveness I have to let go of the idol of perfection. Therefore, my problem is not really with forgiveness and grace, but with pride.

  12. I have been married now for over 30 years, but before I was married I lived with the man who was to become my husband for over three years. And for at least the first two of those years, he was still married to someone else. His first wife did not want him to leave, but finally gave him the divorce that he wanted.

    I think I have never forgiven myself for causing his first wife pain, even though my husband said he was leaving her anyway and if he hadn’t met me, he would have eventually met someone else. And even though he was afraid that if he stayed with his first wife, he would kill her as he almost did once. If he did that, likely he would have killed himself too, leaving his two children as orphans. So, part of me says that my coming into his life may have saved two lives and kept his children from being orphans so I should get over the fact that I did something opposed to my beliefs, my religion and I hurt someone. But it’s hard when his first wife still says she loves him, she has never re-married, she doesn’t want to talk to me even though we do converse a bit at family gatherings and Tom and I have a difficult marriage ourselves. Part of me says I deserve any of the unhappiness I am experiencing. I am not worthy to be happy.

    I have actually consulted with a priest, a nun, and a local woman leader in the Catholic Church when I was attending. The priest gave me “special dispensation” (I think that is the word) so that I could receive Communion even though technically the Church would not see me as married because he was married within the church once before. (We did get married in a church ourselves, though, with just two friends as witnesses.) The priest said that even though I did a “bad” thing, I needed to look at whether leaving my husband now would cause more harm. Most of the time, I do think it would cause more harm.

    All of this also makes me “envious” of people within happy marriages who didn’t break the rules of their religion and beliefs and didn’t break the heart of someone. So I experience regret, sorrow, envy, anger and non-forgiveness. The difficulties within my marriage, though, have made me rely more on my faith in Jesus to get through life, so that’s a positive thing.

    All this to say that Michael is certainly not alone in the difficulty involved in forgiving ourselves.

  13. But we don’t live by “shoulds.”

    My late father was an alcoholic — sometimes in recovery (once for almost three years) but more often not. One of the things my mother learned from Al-Anon was, “Don’t should all over yourself.” It’s still one of my favorite punny aphorisms.

    And so why should I forgive myself? So “I” can feel good about “me?”
    So “I” can move on……to what?
    Is that going to make it go away? Will that restore all that I have lost? Will that repair all the damage, known and unknown, that I have done?

    No…forgiving “myself” is just that, its for “me.” So I can somehow feel good about “me”? So I can somehow get on with “my” life?

    Wasn’t it that same selfishness that got me into this mess to begin with?

    Mike, I don’t know your story, but I just wanted to offer you another point of view. I don’t think the point of self-forgiveness is “feeling good” so I don’t think it is the same sort of selfishness that leads me to sin, in the first place.

    For me, it’s a step in moving toward restitution and restoration. I’m not using those words in the salvific sense. That’s God’s work. I’m using them in the sense of everyday living.

    I wallow in my guilt somtimes, but I think this is a place where I’ve grown. That is, iMonk’s post would have spoken for me completely five years ago; maybe it only speaks for me about 50-75% of the time, now. I’ve gotten to the point where I recognize that when I wallow, I’m missing the point of guilt; I’m misusing the guilt.

    In my opinion, guilt is good only to the extent that it motivates me to convess and change. When I feel the conviction that I’ve done (or am doing — always doing) something wrong and the ensuing guilt — how I respond to it is all in my court.

    I can confesses and repent (in the sense of fully turning away from the sin). Accepting forgiveness (from the Lord and from others, and even from myself) is something I’ve found I must do before I can begin the hard work of restitution (that is to make up for whatever I’ve done and correct the consequences, to whatever extent is possible) and restoration (restoring whatever relationships I’ve harmed, including the one between myself and the Lord).

    OR…

    I can chose to wallow, and when I wallow (I still do sometimes) I’ve found it makes me inert. I’m unable to make up for what I’ve done, repair what I need to repair, and work on those parts of me that need work (and I’m unable to allow Christ work on me).

    Again, I don’t know your story and this is all much easier said than done, and it’s something I’ve really struggled with in the past and still struggle with to some extent, so please know I’m not trying to preach at you from on high. I’m just hoping to offer you another perspective about the necessity of forgiving oneself. We may not have much control over our reactions and emotions, but we have control over our thoughts. We can choose to dwell. We choose how we frame our thoughts. We choose the actions we take as a result of our thoughts and emotions.

    I don’t expect to make it easier, but just to point out the need to do it. By the way, in human terms, I don’t think self-forgiveness requires the same sort of “forgetting” that forgiving others requires. One of the things I try to let the guilt teach me is where my weaknesses lie, so I can guard against putting myself in situations where I’m likely to fall.

    Second, after He showed them how to corral the biggest catch of large fish they had ever seen in one set of the net, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him “more than these.” The standard interpretation is that by “these” he meant these other men. But He then tells him to show Him how much he loves Him by lovingly shepherding “these” others.

    Let me offer a fisherman’s interpretation:

    He was asking Peter if He loved the One who had died in his place — the One he had denied three times that night — more than “these” fish still flopping in the net beside them on the shore.

    Talk about feeling cruddy ….

    Aw, Jesus doesn’t pull punches, but I don’t think he’s a rub-it-in sort of guy.

    My favorite part of the story of Jesus restoring Peter is that he did so three times. Peter denied Christ (unloved him, if you will) three times, and Christ knew Peter would need to get past that, so he set him up to love him three times — to allow Peter to restore that which he could.

  14. Now I need to forgive myself for mis-typing confess, twice. Convess was just a stupid typo, but convesses was…I don’t know…stupid thinking.

    Sigh.

  15. Michael,

    I think your struggle is more common than you might think. It has been my experience that for most of us it is always easier to believe the gospel for someone else rather than ourselves. Believe it we must if we are to ever experience actual freedom from the crippling effects of sin’s guilt and power. But the exercising of that belief is not so much a once-for-all event as it is a continual receiving. One minute I find myself crying, “God, have mercy on me a sinner”, while the next minute celebrating the fact that my heart has indeed been sprinkled clean from an “evil conscience” (Heb.11:22). Both experiences are true and can co-exist in healthy tension.

    By the way, I am one evangelical who does not watch FoxNews either. They are anything but “fair and balanced.” Where do I get much of my news? Here goes…NPR. Yes, I know they are amazingly slanted the liberal direction, but I find their format to be more informative with less “drama”.

    Grace and Peace.

  16. Chas and Michael…I don’t like FOX news either. I watch CNN and listen to public radio. AND…I actually enjoy Jon Stewart’s comedy news, “The Daily Show.” (Hey, Michael…I know you have disconnected your TV, but you can find Stewart online!) British guy John Oliver on there is a hoot. Lots of “bad” language but very funny observations and takes on life. (I have started checking out MSNBC more lately too.) I like the Simpsons too, Kevin, but haven’t been watching them for a long time.

  17. I suffer from the same problem, finding it impossible to forgive myself. When my therapist told me I needed to do it, I told him I didn’t know how. How?

    This is especially relevant to me since a key part of my beating myself up is due to things I did and said several years ago in a fight with my pastor. It’s not so much her I grieve about, but her husband, because I know how much he loves his wife and how much what I did must have hurt him.

    I’m sure they’ve totally forgiven me — as a matter of fact, I spent the day over there earlier this week, helping to feed their new triplet babies — and I’m reluctant to even bring it up with them, since 1) it could look like I’m just wanting attention or love, 2) it could open old wounds and 3) I’m going to get a speech on how I need to forgive myself and get past things.

    But I have cried so many tears over this that at some point I am going to have to break down and confess these feelings of guilt to her husband. I am so ashamed of my behavior. I know I’m not the first person to have a fight with the pastor over church decisions, but I could’ve let it go. Instead, I chose to sin repeatedly, caught up in my ego and my need to be right.

    It’s magnified because this pastor helped me find God after 30 years of thinking Christians were, at best, brainwashed fools and at worst, evil and cruel. And on top of that, she got me past a time in my life when I suffered from severe, life-threatening depression.

    On the other hand, I have been there for her and her family during some difficult times. I’ve prayed with them, done things for them, and even took the blessed elements home from communion a couple of weeks ago and served it to them.

    The answer to my issues isn’t on this blog, only within me, but it feels good to type this.

  18. Memphis Aggie says

    “I am quick to forgive other people”

    You are sir and may God Bless you for it.

  19. I appreciate your heart, Michael, and can relate. I have visited liturgical churches on occasion and am thankful for the opportunity to publically and corporately confess my sin and to hear the pastor/priest give absolution(?) in the name of Jesus Christ. I think Peterson had it right when he said one of the misunderstandings of the reformation was that we are now all able to be our own priests, rather than, we are all now able to be priests for one another (without meaning this as an absolute interpretion). Whether corporately or with another believer, to confess our sins, proclaim forgiveness in Jesus name, pray for each other that we may be healed is a powerful, incarnational ministry. Peter tells us to “love one another deeply because love covers a multitude of sins”. I think this is true when we focus our hearts outward toward loving others rather than focusing on our sins/weaknesses, I think it is also true in that when I am loving others, I am less focusing on their own sins and weaknesses, and finally, I think it is true that when we confess/forgive one another in Jesus name, Love comes to cover and heal what our own heart may want to hold on to and condemn in us. Experiencing the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit mediated to/thru us by a brother/sister in Christ is a powerful thing.

  20. Memphis Aggie says

    Very thoughtful post. I’d offer that your conscience appears well formed to me and that it’s especially brave to be so outspoken. Also self reproach and an aversion to praises are marks of authentic humility (as per De Salles). Further He exalts the humble, perhaps you are being prepared for something special.

  21. For me the problem is that I won’t let myself “be” the wretch that I “know” I am.

    When the Pharisee in the parable saw the poor man in the synagogue pounding his chest in contrition, he said, “Thank God that I am not like him.” But the reality was that he could not fully receive the blessings he thought he had by right and rote unless and until he could become that man in his own judgment — because that is who he really was according to his own judgment. He just refused to see that.

    Jesus called them hypocrites, brood of vipers, whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones — not because it made Him feel good to say it, but because that is who they really were according to their own standards. He was having mercy on them, and the ones who made it to mercy took that message to heart and thanked and are still thanking God that He gave them the grace to hear it.

    I secretly see myself as a weak, easily led and misled, slovenly, lazy moocher because that is who I am and who I have been in my own sight and judgment. But it is really no secret. And until I hold others like that up to God instead of looking down on them in scorn, I’m stuck.

  22. All we know is that we need to hear and experience the Gospel in community, in word, in experience. We need to be told by people who we cannot manipulate that we are forgiven for Christ’s sake.

    This is me right here. I gotta hear the Gospel and share it with other Christians, ‘cuz otherwise I’d forget it and go back to that crappy self-righteous (and self-loathing) place that’s my default.

  23. In our “tradition” (read: subset of evangelical culture), historically it’s been an intuitive understanding that grace was for the “sinner”, but not really for the believer. Once you’re a Christian, better not mess up or you’ll receive automatic condemnation. It’s usually not said in so many words, but that’s what it all adds up to. My wife has tremendous struggles in that area; it was a real epiphany when she realized this– and of course, realized how WRONG it was, too…

    Speaking personally, the self-forgiveness thing is very hard. And even when you’ve started to have some success with it, there’s this nagging sense that you’ll appear cocky or blasé and that people will think you’re not truly repentant. So you beat yourself up more, doing your best to appear pathetic and morose and sorrowful. Which can be a way of milking people for sympathy and props (!), but can also lead you into a well-established depression. Prozac, anyone?

    Something else I fear: as we continue to flog ourself about what we’ve done, I wonder if there’s an element of control at the heart of it: “If I keep punishing myself, then in a way I’m bringing about my own redemption”. Which is just another way of rejecting God’s forgiveness on His terms…

  24. Michael,

    I think that most of us can identify with you if we are honest. I have tried to stop dealing with the bravado of the evangelicals that I know. It normally exists to cover some profound insecurity. The people who are simply clinging to the righteousness of Christ by faith are the ones who end up living most like Jesus, anyway.

    I know that you said that a lack of Bible teaching was not the issue here, but there is a perspective on this that has helped me greatly. I think that all of us have a difficulty appropriating the truth of who Jesus is and the salvation that He has for us. We hear that we are forgiven, but we don’t seem to experience that forgiveness in our daily life. We hear that we are righteous, but it seems like just talk. So many of God’s promises seem far away to us, so we become disillusioned.

    John 16:14 and 1 Cor. 2:12 tells us that the Holy Spirit makes known to us what God has for us. He takes from what belongs to Jesus and He makes it known to us. On my own, I am not able to appropriate the forgiveness that God has for me. Sure, I am forgiven, but I don’t feel it or experience it. I struggle forgiving myself. But, when I ask the Holy Spirit to make this forgiveness known to me, things change. God reveals His truth to me by His Spirit. Praying along these lines has made a huge difference. I am not perfect in this and I often try and live the Christian life on my own. But, I have found that the Holy Spirit is an amazing Counselor when it comes to these things. He is often overlooked, especially by Evangelicals (although I know that you have written about Him), so I thought that I would offer that perspective.

    Again, thank you for this post.

  25. This comment is based upon what I have seen among many of the popular Reformist writings where there is much emphasis on man’s sin. True, we are born in sin and are sinners. 1 John explains that if we have not sinned then we are lying to ourselves. But, the Lord also caused Paul to pen to the Corinthians that we are a new creation!

    This discussion is one that anyone who has spent time reading the theological treatise of Edwards, Baxter, and the like where the shift in focus hangs upon man and his sin containing greater weight than the character of God often fall into the self loathing mindset. Though I agree with my reformed brothers that the scales are to be unbalanced between the God and man. However, the heavier weight must be upon God and His character not ourselves and our shortcomings.

    Ask yourself when in this funk, where in scripture can I find support for this funk? Even the Psalms you see the writer when he is confronted with his condition cry out to God and the latter part of the Psalm turns to praise. The shift in the balance must always fall upon God; upon Christ having redeemed the believer so there is no longer ANY CONDEMNATION for those in Christ. And, in turn, rejoice in that alone! Even Jonah was encouraged by God when he was down. It shows that God never allows self loathing because He knows it is a focus on self and not God.

  26. Michael, you just quit preachin’ and went to meddlin’. 😉 And I’m glad you did — this has always been a tough one for me too. But practice makes … well, not perfect, but at least better.

    (Incidentally, I don’t like Fox News Channel either. But then, I also don’t like CNN, so I consider myself balanced.)

  27. The problem I’ve found with those who are FOX news devotees is that they’re like robots politically and they’re condemn anyone who disagrees with them.

    On a personal note my pastor’s wife yesterday mentioned that her morning ablutions included “Fox News” — not “the” news, but “Fox” news.

    I don’t believe FOX provides news at all, but rather information to incite and condemnation of others who don’t agree.

    That’s hard to forgive!

  28. A great revelation for me on this topic was to hear Thomas Merton in one of his monastic sessions on the degrees of Benedictine humility. He taught the monks that when St. Benedict called humility a “refuge” what he meant was that in the times of spiritual paralysis we are to “take refuge in the very thing we are trying to get away from.” The example he gave was the inability to pray effectively because we’ve been “horsing around”, etc.

    Merton said that the key is not to try and say some set prayers or read a lengthy treatise on prayer, but to “take refuge in the fact that I can’t pray, and it’s my own darn silly fault.” That’s the God ordained reality and is the solid ground under my feet from which I can move on.

    I can make resentments and condemnation for others dissipate by forgiving and praying for them. But I cannot make my own reality change by doing this for myself. What a comfort it was to hear the words spoken by a great Saint centuries ago and expanded upon by a great modern saint. The safest place for me to be is the sanctuary of what frightens me the most — and that is who I really am.

    Jesus didn’t die for love of the guy I want others to see, or who I wish I was ….

  29. Mike, I think that was the most poetic blog comment I have ever read.

  30. Michael:
    I have been, for several weeks now, chewing on the scripture in Isaiah 42 that says the LORD’s Servant (Jesus) will not break a bruised reed, nor quench a smoldering wick.

  31. Gee, I like fox news–and I forgive all of you who don’t.
    fishon

  32. Christ not only saves, he heals our wounded hearts. wounds we cause ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter. Some of us sinned so badly, we had to walk past it or we would just fold up. Repenting is not about sitting around grieving over a past that you can do nothing about. To move forward we need to leave a lot at the foot of the cross.
    For years I would be doing the dishes and my mind would wander into one of the dark rooms where regret is kept. I would audibilize a groan or sigh, and she would yell in from her chores, “Will, what are you thinking about now?”
    It takes time to heal. There you go Imonk, try dish therapy. Worked for me, and your wife will probably agree to it.

  33. Forgiveness by definition is extra nos, outside of us. I would content that we can’t forgive ourselves. We must be forgiven by others. So often the problem with the inability to “forgive yourself” really stems from refusing to seek forgiveness where it may be found, namely, in Christ’s healing Word and Sacraments.

    and fwiw, I’m not a huge fan of FoxNews or any other news.

  34. Accept forgiveness then. I get your distinction. I wasn’t implying that I am the one sinned against.

    ms

  35. Thanks Michael. I really enjoyed this post. Tonight I’m going to be in a Bible study and we’re going to be discussing the Christian perspective on self-worth and you helped give some clarity on the issue.

    Thanks.

  36. Christopher Lake says

    This idea of “forgiving oneself” seems to be more of a secular psychological concept than a Biblical one. I admit, I have to remind myself of this whenever I find myself struggling, thinking, “I can’t forgive myself for what I said/did!” I don’t objectively *need* to forgive myself. I need to accept God’s forgiveness. To not do so, and to continue in trying to “forgive myself” is actually a subtle form of pride. If I don’t accept God’s forgiveness and continue to beat myself up for my sins, I am saying (whether intentionally or not) that *my* own forgiveness of myself is more important than *God’s* forgiveness of me.

  37. Hey Kevin N! I watch the Simpsons with my kids quite a lot (on free-to-air TV in Australia). All families are different – we don’t let them watch saop-operas (eg Neighbours etc) – due to the bad attitudes and behaviour – particulaly amongst the teenagers depicted. We know other Christian families where the opposite situation is the case.

    Anyway – a while ago my wife bought me a book by Mark I Pinsky – “The Gospel According to The Simpsons” – which has a good, and largely positive look at the portrayal of God, Jesus, the church and Christians in Springfield.

    While some people do object to the Simpsons, Pinsky points out the fact that there are more depictions of church and references to God in the Simpsons than just about any other mainstram TV show. And it’s mostly a positive depiction.

    Tony Campolo actually wrote the foreword, in case you find that encouraging.

    Anyway – as Michael said – we’re not all clones, but there are some of us with similar interests and tastes. Some followers of Jesus choose not to watch the Simpsons (or insert just about any other show/movie in here) for reasons of conscience, while others are fine with it – and get a laugh or two at it (and ourselves) in the process.

    And if I happen to be wrong on this particular issue, I know God will forgive me. 🙂

    Thanks for the post Michael.

  38. Christopher:

    It’s existential. It doesn’t check in with my theology before beating me up. I have all the right answers for the other guy, just not for me.

    ms

  39. For me, it is not a matter of self-forgiveness (frankly I’m very forgiving of my own mistakes and justify my actions quite thoroughly thank you very much), rather it’s regret, anger and disappointment at my inability to succeed where I’ve been taught I should.

    My whole life, I’ve been indoctrinated in the concept of “getting better” as a Christian over time. Translation: Eliminate sin. My success rate: Nil. Who wants to harbor and cultivate an inner sense of failure?

    My feeling is that confession would go a long way in addressing the issue, and I don’t mean some oblique, generic reference to sin; but ugly, specific, personal stuff. Not exactly in my SBC tradition and upbringing where the shiny / happy facade reigns.

    I once confessed an especially grievous sin to a close friend in a one-on-one setting. It was difficult, even awkward, and not reciprocated by her, but I think if we could be more honest with one another, we’d see that we all struggle with the same things.

    If I knew, I mean really knew, that Christians I love and admire fail at the same things I do, then maybe I would do a better job of cutting myself some slack.

  40. Christopher Lake says

    Michael,

    I hear you. As I said, I struggle with the same thing. When I find myself in that mindset, I have to remind myself that I already have been forgiven by the One who has ultimately been offended. It’s a battle though.

  41. I saw a forgiveness ceremony, ritual, not sure what the word is, in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.

    Confessing your sins and then hearing a priest prayerfully tell you that God forgives you seems like it might feel good.

  42. Maybe I’m being dense, but are we talking about forgiving ourselves or about accepting God’s forgiveness? There’s a difference, although I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins. Personally, I struggled for many years with forgiveness – whether it was forgiving others, forgiving myself or accepting God’s forgiveness. I know well how that whole, “No, not me,” thing works. And to say that the struggle is resolved would be the height of self-delusion. But, while I know this won’t really help many people here, one thing that helped me was the sacrament of confession. I was raised evangelical so it was a new concept, but when I became Orthodox, I had to go to confession. I don’t go very often. I struggle and resist. It’s hard, it’s embarrassing, it’s humbling. Ah, yes, maybe that’s why I need it.

    The other thing that helped was coming to a true belief in the goodness of God and that He IS the lover of mankind. Mankind includes me. It includes lots of other unsavory characters, too, and that’s hard to accept, but at least it includes me. It helps that every Sunday before the Eucharist I, along with the whole congration, confess that of sinners, I (each of us) am the first. At least we got that out of the way and I’m in good company.

    And you know what really helped me? Getting rid of the “angry God” theology. I don’t live in fear anymore that God is waiting for me to mess up so that He can squish me like grape.

    Thanks for this post, Michael. The whole clone thing can be so frustrating. I get irritated that people won’t be real about their pain. Like somehow admitting that one is suffering puts God in jeopardy. No. He can handle it. Maybe the evangelical theology regarding suffering needs work? I don’t know. Anyway, thanks for this post and your continued honesty. It must cost you a lot, but it’s why I read your blog.

  43. Lucy,

    The whole thing (excellent post that it was, with many, many good and salient points) was gotten off on a bit of a bad foot with Michael’s (unfortunate, IMHO) use of the term “forgive myself”. To his credit, when Pastor Todd (and a couple others) pointed out that this wasn’t Biblical, Michael readily accepted the change in terminology. My challenge would be to suggest that this is deeper, though, than a semantic issue; we need to be done, once and for all, with the very idea of the need to “forgive ourselves”. This is not a Biblical concept whatsoever; find it in Scripture, and I’ll pay you $1000; the concept comes right out of ‘secular’ psychology, and like certain other concepts that have no Biblical basis (the need to raise our ‘self-esteem’, for instance), has been more or less incorporated right into our Christian vocabulary. I don’t mean to sound uncharitable at all, nor to beat Michael up; as I said, that terminology aside, his post is really helpful, because he describes emotions and wrestling that all of us, in our honest moments, pretty much have to admit to.

    But the issue must be, in the final analysis, agreeing with God on the truth of His Word. I have to trust God, that He has completely and utterly forgiven my sins, to remind myself of that fact, and even when I feel crummy/guilty because I have committed some sin for the 1,435th time, God declares me justified, completely without guilt on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice. And it’s incumbent on me to believe that to be true, to do the things Michael suggested as far as squelching the pride that I carry that says, “I have a right to wallow in my own guilt! Who’s God to say otherwise?”

    With Michael, I grant that sometimes that’s not easy…but that’s the answer, that’s God’s grace, and, uh, who ever said that the Christian life was going to always be easy anyway?

  44. i struggle with the grace of christ. i wrestle with it like jacob wrestled with god. i dont know if i can eliminate the handful of skeletons that define me bc without them i may not exist. so i fight the grace that can define me completely and cling to shame and pain instead.

  45. Byron,

    I appreciate your very respectful and kind disagreement- a model for other commenters who don’t know how to disagree without being a jerk- but I see a lot of exceptions.

    1. Nouthetic counseling? If so, not interested.

    2. I don’t agree with a division between Biblical understanding and “secular” psychology. Biblical concepts inform my psychology and self understanding. Biblical concepts are the way I interpret psychology.

    This kind of division causes people to reject psychiatric diagnosis, psychiatric medicines and needed psychiatric treatment.

    I believe God uses psychology as he uses all fields of secular knowledge according to his gracious sovereignty.

    3. I admitted that “forgiving” the self may not be an accurate Biblical concept, but the existential inability to “forgive” myself is real.

    I have no explanation for this. Some of my sins have deeply wounded people I love, and experiencing forgiveness in every dimension is a journey, not just an announcement.

    Thanks and peace

    ms

  46. Michael,

    I see the same jerks on my (far less-read) blog from time to time, and their inability to fashion an argument that doesn’t involve name-calling or snide remarks only serves to weaken whatever argument they attempt to make. It’s the anonymity of the internet that gives little girly-men the machismo to say things that they otherwise wouldn’t have the…gumption…to say in person. Now…

    No, I’m not, per se, into “nouthetic” counseling, though I have many sympathies with what I know of it. I do believe, of course, that the Bible is our authority for life, and so I’m going to try to be as biblical as I can in my terminology and my practice (not the qualifier “as I can”). I do believe words mean things, and so as I said, I think that while most of us understand what is meant by “forgiving myself”, I still will maintain that the terminology does more harm than good.

    Now, as to ‘secular psychology’, a few thoughts: one, all truth is God’s truth. The proverbial blind squirrel finds the proverbial acorn from time to time, and psychology neither bats 1.000 nor does it strike out all the time. Certainly, as I think you’re saying, our commitment to Biblical authority has to trump the insights of psychology, and when the two are at odds–as they are sometimes–we ought to diligently guard our minds and hearts so that “God (is) true, and every man a liar”. If I exercise God-given discernment, having had my mind renewed with the Word, then I can read findings of psychology and interpret them through that Biblical grid, eating the meat and tossing the bones.

    Now then, as I said, I’d encourage your jettisoning that term to avoid confusion, but the existential struggle to apply the grace-forgiveness extended to us by God in Christ is, as I said, one with which most all of us can identify. Don’t you think it’s because grace is so, so foreign to our very human way of thinking and living? I mean, we’re told we ought to work for what we want in life, that nothing is handed to us on a silver platter (unless, I guess, we’re Chrysler or GM), that “you get what you pay for”, etc. And in every other realm of life, this self-sufficiency is the model way to live. And yet, when it comes to our relationship with God…well, you know the score. We get what He paid for, and He gets what we did. It violates every rule of ordinary human behavior. And try as we might, that total depravity that affects and infects every one of us puts us into the conundrums such as you describe: intellectually understanding that my sins are as far removed as the East is from the West, but still wrasslin’ with the scummy, crummy feeling of worthlessness that comes from sin, not wanting to accept that God’s grace really, honestly, deep-down does that 101% forgiveness job.

    So I totally get what you’re saying, and agree with you, if you’ll tweak the lingo a tad. Howzat?

  47. Oops…”note” the qualifier; fix, Michael?

  48. “Others of us have been convinced on a deep level that we are a special case; a person whose depravity exceeds God’s forgiveness. We can’t see how we can think of ourselves as that prodigal returned to the place of an honored son. We want to go out back, into the servants quarters, and live like a slave, because that’s what we ought to be.”

    Some of us are so convinced of this, that we begin to embrace the depravity cowering in the fear that we may, in fact, be right.

    That we’ve crucified Christ again in our inability to repent once and for all from the particular sins that dog us, and fear that we may have “blasphemed the Holy Spirit”.

    That we may, in fact, be unforgivable.

  49. How can christians say they love Jesus when they act in war,live for money/success in the world and reject their siblings who don’t believe like they do, even condemn them? They are doing the same thing the Jews did/do to Jesus and His followers. I’m not asking for an answer because love of thy neighbor is the answer.
    You may want to awaken to the real Jesus instead of the interpretations that are made by each and everyone of the false preachers,wolves dressed in lambs clothing. Living the teachings of Jesus is not interpretation of the Bible or any other book, it’s living as he lived His religion(personal relationship with our Father/Creator). Sadly humans tend to use scripture for themselves excluding others who see it differently and create all these divisions even those who say they believe the word of God. The word of God is the Word of Jesus God in the flesh, and what did He say? Love your siblings, humans, brothers and sisters,neighbors, enemies, He didn’t say create different factions of beliefs in the scriptures.Live as He lived in His commandment Love one another as I Loved you. He is the way not the human organizations of theoretic beliefs, living in their intellects forgetting their heart where Jesus dwells.
    Did you know that Faith is not belief. Faith is a personal relationship with our Father just as Jesus had/has. Following Jesus is not following doctrines or preachers who talk about scripture and Jesus and don’t live according to His Word.
    The Word of Jesus is not the words of the prophets or the apostles/disciples, that was their interpretation of His Word as is most of us do today. His Word lives in the hearts of humans not in a book. If you need to refer to scripture to boost your belief in the written words about God, then your heart is not with Him but in scripture. Jesus said why pray before others to give a show of your beliefs, go to your room close the door and pray the Father who hears you within.
    It gives me joy to see that organized religion is slowly being dissipated, because when the exterior image of God is dissolved my siblings will finally go within their own heart and find the real Jesus without a preconceived image, the image of the Beast as portrayed by religion believers with their theoretical false doctrines asking for money to support their empires.
    May you find the path within and discover the Real Jesus that you may be filled with His Love, Divine Love.

    Divine Love
    Framy

  50. It is a member of the site.