September 29, 2020

iMonk Classic: “I Forgive Myself” — The Hardest Word?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Feb 19, 2008

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.


  1. Earlier today, the next pastor who will succeed me in July when I retire after 15 years at this congregation (35 years of ministry) met church leadership with the District Superintendent. The appointment will be announced soon to the congregation. I struggle with thinking only about my failures, mistakes, etc. at this and other congregations that I was priveleged to serve. I know that I am forgiven, but, darn it, it is hard to accept at times. This post proves extremely helpful and timely–thanks for reposting Michael’s words on this topic.

    • David Cornwell says

      Congratulations at serving 15 years at one place in a UMC Church. In my opinion this alone says a lot about you. That’s almost half your time in the ministry and something that does not happen that often. So you have done a lot that is right.

  2. “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.”


  3. The best part of this blog are entries like this that remind people like me that we aren’t the only one who struggles with __________.

  4. I learned the hard way that the church really doesn’t know what forgiveness is…what is means to forgive, how, etc.. I leanred that forgiveness is one of the hardest things, and that Christians can use forgiveness for means of manipulation and control. Others use forgiveness as means of making themselves feel more elite when they push the doctrine on others , yet don’t follow through with it. And what about the ramifications and aftermath? Does a person just go on and on and act like “everything is hunky dory and like it was beforehand?” Others forgive out of pressure to do so.

    In Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis he talked about a woman who was raped who felt pressued to forgive and that forigiveness meant not pressing chargees against her rapist. She decided not to, and the rapist was let go, who in turn raped another person. So this woman who was raped feels guilty not only about being raped but in the fact that her actions (as she understood and was taught forgiveness) led to another person to be raped.

    The evangelical culture is a charming culture when such pressure hurts people in such ways. But getting on to the post above, as an agnostic one of the things I leanred is that in the 10 years of being a “fundygelical” no one talked about forigiving yourself. What does it mean to forgive yourself…All I heard is that “I’m forgiven” in a really cheap way…but no said anything to the following.

    “5 years ago I had an affair and cheated on my wife. On top fo seeking her forgiveness and working out marriage problems in counseling, I also learned that there is one more thing I need to do in order to be healed. I’m leanring how to forgive myself. Forgive my mistakes, my past, how I hurt my wife, etc.. Forgiving oneself is the hardest thing to do….etc..”

    But I never, NEVER heard a sermon or talk about forgiveness starting with yourself and how you learn to forgive yourself so you can heal. Who knows maybe the reason why is becuase “fundygelicals” like to have their push button issues which in such cases can be used by spiritual elitists to constantly remind you what a ^&%& you are…

  5. The highlight of my week is hearing my pastor say the words, “Christ was crucified for you, a sinner”, soon followed by “take, eat, this is Christ’s body given for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Oh what great news. It removes all hope of self-righteousness. Christ in a piece of bread, bringing his forgiveness to me in the year 2011? Amazing.

    • Sorry-
      I forgot to mention why I posted this. It amazes me that preachers try to improve upon this message but actually never say or preach this message of forgiveness.

  6. anyone willing to be honest with themselves & their past will know along with Michael, that yes, we are the accumulation of all our failings, mistakes, self-centered defensiveness & self-preservation. we are all broken & dysfunctional to some degree. and the areas of our woundedness is not uncommon to all men.

    when looking back on the past 40 years of dysfunction & how my condition robbed me of being able to relax with life; to laugh more, be more patient with life’s disruptions, more positive in my outlook, etc. especially with the raising of my boys. my self-preservation kept people at a distance like a protective shell it was a misguided coping mechanism & something i thought necessary to keep me safe. i collapsed inside & became an emotional cripple afraid of emotional intensity fed by poor self image & lack of confidence. i was on severe survival mode which most times simply had me existing in a dull grey world of my own defensive construct…

    when i look back at the way i went thru the motions of husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend, in-law, i realized i caused unmerited pain to others as i was incapable of being a happy, healthy version of myself. i feared intimacy & closeness. i kept people at a distance because i could not relax being myself. i was constantly paranoid of someone actually discovering the real me & thus confirming a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. i became the unlikeable person always on the outer fringes of relational interaction…

    i missed out on countless ‘Kodak’ moments. laughed too little. brooded way too much. caused pain & frustration & disappointment in my wife & boys. once i snapped out of my situation beginning with a severe nervous breakdown 4th of July weekend 2009, it was as if awakening from a coma. knowing healing & wholeness & goodness makes me susceptible to dwelling on my past & causing great remorse. it can be a melancholy trap that feeds upon itself since i am now a very sensitive person capable of feeling much more than i had allowed myself in the past…

    forgiving myself, or turning over all that ‘weight’ of remorse, sense of waste, inability to go back & make it better, etc. to God, is a regular thing for me. i have to deliberately let myself off-the-hook & ask God to once again invade my past with His goodness, light, love, healing & let me have memories that do not sap me of energy & a sense of well-being…

    the more we as individuals identify with the brokenness of our past as well as those we know, forgiving ourselves is a very necessary part of God redeeming the past & working out those things to the good according to His purposes…

    forgiving an ex-wife for 10 years of secret adultery with her boss & playing the good Christian wife & mother one of the things that will not be easily forgotten. and yes, my freedom is not dependent upon her actions+decisions regarding the deception & the way she handled our marriage struggles. i am learning to let go of my sense of injustice while letting God continue His healing in me. not sure how that translates into the overall forgiveness that is the hallmark of this God that is so gracious & quick to forgive. that is the one quality that sets the bar highest in my theological opinion. and i confess i have a long way to go before i would ever claim to be quick to forgive & restore like Michael stated…

  7. I look forward to these classic posts each week. Michael was definitely gracious and forgiving.

  8. Thank you for another wonderful imonk classic. It was great the first time, and it deserved to be repeated.

  9. “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.”

    Nough said. May we simply leave the rest of our old crap behind and go and do likewise.

  10. “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.”

    This is so very true of so many who hold to the Doctrines of Grace. This is also so very true of those who care nothing for them. The cause? Welcome to legalism, and a garden variety self-righteousness.

  11. I have often found that people struggling with forgiving themselves are really struggling with the shame of failing in the eyes of others. For them, victory comes as one learns to “make peace” with oneself and realize it’s normal to fail, that failure is in fact the most common route to learning and is part of the human condition, despite what others may try to project. So, the main remedy for struggling with forgiving self is humility.