The Myth of Forgiving Yourself
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. 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 wrecked your marriage and now you find yourself divorced and lonely; it’s time to forgive yourself for your mistakes and move on. 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. 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.
Our problem is not that we know that God has forgiven us, but that we haven't forgiven ourselves. No, our problem is that we never truly believed that God had forgiven us. That's the issue. We delude ourselves into supposing that God supplied 80% of the forgiveness, and now it's our responsibility to come up with the other 20%. The Lord did his part, “I forgive you,” and now we need to do our part, “I forgive myself.” Such thinking is far worse than self-delusional; it is self-destructive. In the end, we make ourselves into the human tail wagging the divine dog.
When God forgives, he forgives completely. There is no deficiency, no 20%, no 10%, no .000000001% of absolution that we need to manufacture to wrap up the deal. All the dark deeds that bring ruin and disaster upon marriages and families and careers; all the lies and deceit; all the shame and heartache and regret that befall us 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 our stead. Even if others refuse to forgive us, we nevertheless rest peacefully in the only absolution that ultimately matters: the one Jesus himself gives from his ugly cross of beautiful love.
When the stalker appears, thrust toward her a thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree. She will fade into the darkness whence she came. She can do us no more harm, for her only weapon—our sins—have been ripped from her grasp by a nail-scarred hand. The ghostly lips that accuse us 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 saving slaughter. The chapters from our dark past have been expunged from the biographical record. They've been replaced by a single page from the Book of Life, in which our names are written in the ink of indelible, divine blood.