What If We Can’t Forgive Ourselves?
I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage; he had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison.
Prison bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to the victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he feels God forgives him too.
His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.
He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he just can’t forgive himself.
He now feels doubly guilty; guilt at what he did, and guilty that he can’t forgive himself.
What’s it like?
If you’ve ever experienced the inability to forgive yourself … it’s awful. It’s an overwhelming disappointment with yourself, a witch’s brew of mortification at what you’ve done mixed with shame at who you are. The evil potion poisons your soul.
Think of all the negative “dis” words you know, and you’ll begin to sense the feeling: discovered, dismayed, discouraged, dislikeable, disgraced, distressed, disappointed, and despair (yeah, that last one’s a “des” word, maybe you dis-agree, so shoot me).
If other people disgust us, we can avoid them. But we can’t run away from the self-disgust at ourselves. Our undying disappointments ceaselessly hammer their hateful messages: How could you have done that? You are repulsive. What is wrong with you?
Perhaps we failed a friend, or disappointed our parents, or acted cowardly, or acted too aggressively. We can’t live with the shame.
But there are other kinds of people…
Some people don’t seem to feel guilty enough. They betray others—maybe you or me—and they say, “God has forgiven me, what’s your problem?” They seem cruel, unmoved by the suffering they visit on others, untroubled by the misery they perpetrate.
Honestly, I sometimes wish these villains were less quick to forgive themselves. I wish they could feel what they have inflicted; I wish they could put themselves in the shoes of their victims and—just for one moment—experience that pain.
I’m not proud of these fancies. But at the very least, I wish these brutes could experience genuine sorrow at the sufferings they regularly produce.
What about me?
Where do I fall in this jumble of self-forgiveness? I’m schizoid, the worst of both worlds. I once profoundly hurt my wife (well, more than once, but one infliction at a time). My first response was self-defense, “I was tired, and she said something to trigger it, and maybe it was her fault.”
I buried my compassion beneath layers of self-protection, so I lacked the sympathy to feel what I had done to her. I had become a brute.
Overtime, my dis-guise peeled away. I felt exposed, unprotected from the pain I caused. Self-consolation stopped working. I was wracked with guilt and remorse.
She forgave me but I couldn’t forgive myself. I felt that if I forgave myself too easily, then I would be just like one of those heartless beasts I so dislike.
Easy self-forgivers cannot bring themselves to empathize with the injuries they inflict. Why? Because the ache of self-admission is too great. They can’t concede, “I’m the kind of person that causes such agony.” It’s unbearable. Something controls their hearts.
Unwilling self-forgivers can’t excuse themselves so easily. How could they have caused such suffering! So they lash themselves with the whip of self-incrimination, “You are vile, rotten, and unforgiveable.” Something controls their hearts too.
We are enslaved. A powerful force controls our hearts’ response to what we’ve done.
What controls us?
In Out of the Salt Shaker, Becky Pippert wrote,
Whatever controls you is your lord. If you live for power you are controlled by power. If you live for acceptance you are controlled by the people you are trying to please. No one controls himself. You are controlled by the lord of your life.
And if we live for a good identity, we are controlled by our need for a good name.
What controls both the easy self-forgivers and the unwilling self-forgivers? It’s an outside dominatrix screaming for self-identity, prohibiting us from accepting either guilt or forgiveness. We may think we are in charge of our lives, but we aren’t.
John Newton was a slave trader, captain of slave ships, and an investor in slave trading companies. He knew the dominatrix of non-self-forgiveness and easy self-forgiveness.
Someone unable to forgive himself, wracked by guilt, asked for help. Newton answered,
You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness? Well, indeed you cannot be too aware of the evils inside of yourself, but you may be improperly controlled by them (Letters, Vol. 11, slightly edited).
To easy self-forgivers, he says we “cannot be too aware of the evils inside.” Any unwillingness to admit them is cowardly self-protection. Newton continues,
You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but also too low an opinion of the Redeemer, which is wrong.
To non-self-forgivers, he says we have too low an opinion of Christ; as though God is powerful enough for tiny evils but not powerful enough our huge evils. He continues,
When I look at your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, and pride that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of.
Newton knew first-hand the self-righteous identity that can’t admit any evil within; and he knew first-hand the self-lashing that comes from clinging to the evil within.
He gives an impassioned invitation—not another beating, an invitation!—to find a new identity, the identity of “We are the beloved,” the identity of being redeemed (at incalculable cost) from the slavery of self-identity. Newton knew true freedom.
John says, “If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). We need to release any identity we create for ourselves and simply accept his opinion of us.
It’s why Newton, perhaps best of all believers, could write Amazing Grace.