April 4, 2020

iMonk Classic: “I Forgive Myself”: The Hardest Words?

'Forgiveness' photo (c) 2000, Jonathan Perkins - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From February 2009

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?

'past mist...' photo (c) 2009, Robb North - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/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.

'single tree in the mist' photo (c) 2005, Keith Hall - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/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. 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.

    —————–

    Good article. I have often asked…how does one forgive themself? I never heard it discussed, just this happy clappy of “Oh I accepted Jesus…and felt reborn”, and in the process they imply that there are no more problems. Forgiveness toward others is hard, and that can open one up to manipulation and abuse. I’ve been there and done that… But that type of forgiveness is not the point of this article.

    But forgiveness of oneself is impossible. And while many people are stuck in their own prison serving a life term, along comes the fundagelical church which plays on those deep fears, past mistakes, and manipulates the process. Thus, like an abusive drunk toward his wife in an unhealthy marriage, the church comes along and pulls the strings and plays the past sins or mistakes against the person thereby reminding them that forgiving themself is impossible.

    But I never heard a Christian or pastor, etc.. in the churches I attended stand up and talk about how they learned to forgive themself. Or what they did…

    Now if I heard that..that would grab my attention and I’d listen in desperation. But I don’t think that will happen because many chruches would lose control of their own members. And like strings attached to a puppet they need people to live in shame and in their past mistakes. Because the church needs to pull those strings to get people to do what they want them to do.

    Who here can identify with that? I remember that feeling quite well….

    • I wonder why it should be impossible to forgive oneself. Certainly if the past event is still hurting another(s) then I would argue the individual has the responsibility to stop the continuing harm to the extent possible. Sins or bad actions in the past that hurt individuals should be atoned for by making it right with those individuals, again, to the extent possible.

      Other than making up for the wrongs of a person’s life, the only other use for the feelings of guilt is to be a reminder that one shouldn’t do these same sorts of actions in the future.

  2. I am praying that when I get back from time in silence in the mountains I will have a beter grasp on this. I think the trouble is that we can only judge others’ behavior and words, but with OURSELVES we also know the motivations.

  3. I know this longing well from my time before I became Catholic. This post expresses one of the reasons I experience sacramental Confession as such a gift. “We need to be told by people who we cannot manipulate that we are forgiven for Christ’s sake.” That’s what we hear from the other side of the grille:
    God, the Father of mercies,
    through the death and the resurrection of his Son
    has reconciled the world to himself
    and sent the Holy Spirit among us
    for the forgiveness of sins;
    through the ministry of the Church
    may God give you pardon and peace,
    and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

    It’s still possible, of course, to be plagued by scrupulosity and psychological doubt that one has truly been forgiven, but overall this process is so liberating you’d think it was created by someone who understands human psychology perfectly.;-) Secular society and Protestant culture have unwittingly reinvented this wheel many a time, but there’s no improving on the original.

    • I concur. Confession and absolution are a life giving, burden relieving gift. Some protestants considered it somewhat of a third sacrament. Regardless of perspective, its still a helpful practice we would do well to recover.

    • Amen…although I still face this Sacrament like the gallows (emotionally and with my dry mouth and rapid heartbeat) but it is worth getting there.

      Just saying the words and exposing the sin to sunlight is wonderful, but knowing that a representative and apostolic follower of Christ can allow God’s grace to heal us is a miracle.

      “Whatever you bind on earth with be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

  4. Another excellent post by Michael Spencer. I loved his honesty and his wonderful way with words.

  5. Wonderful. You know, I find folks to be at either one of two ends of the spectrum…either they can’t forgive themselves for past sins, or they lack the ability or desire to recognize any sin in themselves. If I’m honest, I think I have phases of both…times when I beat myself up, and times when I’m more focused on the sins of others, unable to see my own shortcomings. What imperfect beasts we are…Oh, how He loves us!

  6. “Others of us have been convinced on a deep level that we are a special case; a person whose depravity exceeds God’s forgiveness.”
    It’s as though Michael is in my brain as he wrote that. I am now 47 years old, and I still feel the pain of things I did as a teenager and young adult. I look back at that person and can’t stand her. I consider myself to be an enlightened person, I know I was forgiven when I asked God to forgive, but I can’t shake the shame and I can’t seem to be able to look at that young woman I was then and just forgive it and move on. I seem to sit in the shame when I find myself reliving anything from that time period. My brain has been, at times, my biggest enemy.

    • Join the club. You’re telling my story. This post addresses an all too common phenomenon.

    • I am almost 65. I too lived under a condemning voice for most of my life because I could not “get” grace. It was foreign to my understanding. I also could not understand “forgiving myself”. I had to learn about things that I was not around. The Gospel, itself. How deep did it go. Grace. God’s love for sinners. The reality of Romans 7 and that we are like Luther said sinner and saint at the same time. I had to see that to give grace and mercy I had to receive it for myself first. Like on the airplane when we are instructed to put our O2 mask on first THEN we can help someone else. I had to receive God’s love for myself. It was only as I truly began to soak in it, that I was freed from shame, and guilt, and remorse, and and and…the grace of God began to give me peace with myself.
      I was around circles for a time that focused on “taking every thought captive”. But what I had was a “play” in my mind of self condemnation that had to be rewritten by God’s love for me. It has taken a long time but He has been faithful. Everything I read about grace is rewriting my play.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    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.

    Steve Taylor pointed out/prophesied this over 20 years ago.

  8. Randy Thompson says

    I think a lot of Christian people don’t experience God’s forgiveness because they’ve never really experienced the Gospel. Brennan Manning somewhere wrote that we pretend to be sinners and we pretend to be forgiven. In other words, we think we ought to be sinners, so we think we ought to be forgiven. We have Gospel information, but not Gospel reality. Writer David Benner puts this well: “Having information about God is no more transformational than having information about love.”

    It never made any sense to me that God forgives and then “forgets” our sins; since God is omniscient, the likelihood of God forgetting anything didn’t seem like something I could count on. However, when I began to understand that God loves me, and then when I began to experience it, it started making sense. If you’re a parent, you know that your kids are capable of doing all sorts of wretched things. But, because we love them, we soon forget their lapses, whether great or small, and if we do remember them, the memory doesn’t matter; it sinks in the love we have for them. This is how God’s forgiveness works. Through Christ, our sins sink in His love.

    What matters for us is to first believe God loves us. Once we believe that, believing He forgives us comes a lot easier, and that provides the foundation for self-forgiveness. Again, David Benner: “In order for our knowing of God’s love to be truly transformational, it must become the basis of our identity. Our identity is who we experience ourselves to be–the I each of us carries within. An identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.”

    By the way, the Benner quotes come from his book “The Gift of Being Yourself,” which I am currently reading. It is a terrific book, and if self-forgiveness is an issue for you, I highly recommend it.

    • Randy, thank you for a GREAT comment. I wrote a bit above about God’s love and how it transforms but you said it SO much better. I very much will look for the book you recommend. You refer to Benner’s quote and God’s love “being the basis of our identity”. It was a long long time coming for me but it truly restored a soul.

      • Randy Thompson says

        It was a long time coming for me too. Why, I don’t know.
        I started out as a Christian with a good understanding about grace, but looking back on it, it was a doctrine–a very good one, I might add–but it never occurred to me that the doctrine of grace pointed to the experience of grace.

        The truest words in the New Testament, I think, are “my grace is sufficient for you.”

        I don’t want anything else.

  9. my biggest challenge of dealing with my past dysfunctional issues & how they impacted me, & how i then impacted others, one of the most intense aspect of taking ownership of my faults especially as they related to my failed marriage…

    i had to be honest about my mistakes & take ownership of the collateral damage i caused to my then wife. i recognized my role in the debacle & had a hard time with trying to pursue reconciliation since i was both antagonist & now protagonist in trying to address those very issues with godly contrition…

    i wrestled with the self-forgiveness issue, but my remorse over the fact i could not go back & make things right. there was no ‘do-over’ option. i had to live in the present setting of fatal fracture in the marriage & make the honest effort at inviting my then wife to do the same…

    the amazing result of that very painful process resulted in a greater freedom i had never walked in before. and the guilt factor of my Christian identity simply evaporated. i suppose once one gets down to the bed rock of their soul & all becomes exposed in the Light, no more pretense is of any value…

    i did let myself off-the-hook without denying the hurt/damage i caused. i sought forgiveness from both my Lord & my ex-spouse. He was more than gracious to forgive me even if my ex-spouse could, or would, not…

    what an amazing 2.5 years i have weathered…

    {sigh}

  10. ‘Sin’…the gift that just keeps on giving.

    Tough to forget anf forgive ourselves. Thanks be to God that He isn’t like us when it comes to real forgiveness and forgetting our sins.

    .

  11. Tangent: Well, this conservative evangelical won’t judge you re: Fox News, because you stated your case reasonably and graciously, not hissing and spitting with contempt for us disgraceful, stupid Faux-News-lovin’ rubes.

    Believe me, that’s rare. 🙂