I always thought of forgiving yourself as psychobabble bunk, but in light of what I wrote yesterday about the prodigal son, it makes sense. (If it is, in fact, psychobabble bunk, that’s what the comment box is for: please tell me.)

When I ask God to forgive me, there’s an implied promise that I’ll accept God’s forgiveness. Asking forgiveness pre-assumes that I believe myself to be forgiveable.

One of the big impediments to forgiving others (according to Mariah Burton Nelson’s book The Unburdened Heart: 5 Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom) is the thought, “But won’t that let him off the hook?”  And no, it doesn’t necessarily. Damage was still done, and there may still be consequences. The forgiven person still ought to make it right or make a gesture toward making it right. But the forgiver lets go of the anger.

Burton Nelson points out that forgiveness and reconciliation are separate actions. I can forgive the man who robbed my house; I’m not going to become friendly with him. You may well reconcile with the person you’ve forgiven, but that’s a decision of its own. Forgiveness consists only in letting go of the anger and reaching a state of acceptance about the deeds of the forgiven person, no longer holding the injury to heart.

In forgiving yourself, I bet the biggest impediment is the same as in forgiving another. “If I forgive myself, then I’m tolerating my own bad behavior. I’m letting myself off the hook.” And worse, “If I forgive myself, I might let down my guard and do it again.”

It’s the equivalent of deciding not to reconcile with oneself, isn’t it?

And if God forgives someone, but the person refuses to forgive himself, it’s an impediment to a relationship with God. It’s a perpetual holding-back. It’s an attempt to take control and keep it. And maybe, when you think about it, that’s the last vestige of pride because I think all people of integrity want to pay back their debts. Only sometimes, when we mess up, we simply can’t. In those cases, accepting forgiveness is all we can do.


  1. Ivy

    There can be a separation between “letting go of the anger” and “acceptance of the person’s actions”. Jump into the Gatchaman universe for a second. Galactor murdered Joe’s parents.

    The very first definition of “forgive” on is “to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.” So if Joe forgave Galactor, he wouldn’t be trying to bring them to justice (or hunting them for revenge). That wouldn’t be the smartest thing for him.

    In your house robber example, this would be dropping the charges. Again, not smart.

    Joe might, after the war, move on and let go. He’ll never have a positive thought about Galactor (aside from “I’m glad they’re all dead”) but he might simply not think about them at all. That’s not forgiveness, it’s transcendence. It’s saying, “These people are so low, they are worthy of as much heart-space and mind-space as a used piece of toilet paper.” It’s a healthy and good thing for a person to do when the person is ready.

    But he could never accept them murdering his parents. There are some things that just aren’t acceptable.

    Of course I’m talking about big things here. I don’t mean “The guy in the Honda cut me off and I’m going to deny his humanity for the rest of my life.” That’s not even so much forgiving it as forgetting it.

    I think it’s the same with self-forgiveness. Sometimes we just know we’ve torn up our membership card in the human race. I don’t think the prodigal son has gone that far, but there are those who have. You say people of integrity want to pay back their debts. I say forgiveness is reserved people who are still people (cull murders, rapists, and people who’ve assaulted the elderly off that list to start) and who actually have integrity.

  2. philangelus

    A state of acceptance only has to mean that you accept it happened and aren’t reactionary to it any longer.

    I accepted that Emily died. Acceptance in that situation meant I no longer burst into tears if I walked through the baby department in Sears. I didn’t get upset if someone announced a pregnancy. I could talk about her without crying. And I could see that God worked good from her death without saying her death was a good thing.

    Joe could accept that Gallactor murdered his parents if he wanted to. It wouldnt have been a good thing, of course, but it would become “something that is” rather than “something that ties me in knots and makes me want to bang heads into brick walls.”

    At some point, you call the debt quits. “You still owe me ten bucks, but don’t worry about it any longer.” That kind of thing. “You still owe me a pair of parents, but I’m no longer seeking repayment.”

    (And you can forgive someone without dropping legal charges. I think that’s the best way to handle it. “I’ll let the courts decide how to handle your case, but I’m no longer renting you space in my heart.”)

  3. pamcee

    I read something yesterday that said “Forgiveness means I release my “right” for revenge or judgment.”

    I’ve been struggling with this, so thank you for posting what was on your heart. It reached me.

  4. XDPaul

    Ah, my old nemesis, psychobabble. I hate the stuff. I wrench it mercilessly from my presense anytime it rears its milquetoast head.

    But “forgiving oneself” is not psychobabble. It only becomes that way when unrepentant selfish people claim self-forgiveness. That’s where the psychobabble comes in, and that’s where self-forgiveness gets a bad reputation.

    If an alcoholic liar (for example) realizes that he just needs to “forgive himself” for ruining his 4 marriages and rolling the SUV with the kids in back, that really is just code for “remain hardhearted and guilt free.”

    On the other hand, if the same alcoholic liar has repented (i.e. gone the other way) and is forgiven by God first, then the time has come for him to divorce himself from his old self, which is what self-forgiveness can ensure.

    I always thought Christ’s command to love my enemy was one of his easiest to follow, until I realized that I’m one of those trolls whose chief and mortal enemy is himself.

    Self-forgiveness and self-love are important responses to God’s first forgiveness and love. In their truest (least psychobabbly) sense, they free the individual up to think of and serve others more completely and with greater love. True self-forgiveness begins with God and benefits others, whereas the popularized/psychobabblesque (and far easier) self-forgiveness is a counterfeit.

    Not everyone struggles as deeply with false guilt or against the chains of their old self, and for those people, self-forgiveness is much less critical. But those who have repented of wrongdoing yet are still stuck in the shame and guilt of sins long forgiven, I believe that self-forgiveness can be just another way of saying “therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”

  5. Ivy

    Paul, I think you hit on something, “they free the individual up to think of and serve others more completely and with greater love” because that works both ways. When a person stops focusing on the self and starts focusing on others, that’s when the person can move past and accept forgiveness. It’s not as easy as the self-esteem movement would like. It’s time and work and lasting. The alcoholic liar from your example, goes to AA, then sponsors someone else, and works two days a week in the library teaching kids to read, and builds a business, and suddenly they really, truly, have become a new person. It’s not overnight, it’s over time. Then they can respond, not to the person of five or ten years ago, but of the person of the last few years.

  6. CricketB

    Forgiving yourself is absolutely not psychobabble bunk.

    It’s impossible to be balanced and healthy when ones heart is tied up in knots and consumed by negative emotions. The further we are from balanced, the harder it is to enjoy life and help others.

    Forgiveness is for the benefit of the person doing the forgiving. It’s not about forcing the transgressor to hear it — that’s ego, and forcing him to think about it again is another form of punishment. It’s about your own healing — with scar, but at least no longer bleeding.

    I see it on the playground. When a kid owes a “Sorry,” the transgressor and victim are rarely ready for it at the same time. It doesn’t help that saying it is actually two things: admitting the mistake, and asking for forgiveness. I’ve bothered many parents by saying my kid isn’t ready to hear (or say) Sorry yet, and to come back in a few minutes. Depending on the situation, I’ll say it, or accept it, on my kid’s behalf. “We know she did wrong. She feels bad about it. She’s not ready to talk about it.” Or, “Let me know when you’re ready to hear her say Sorry.” Or, “Say Sorry to me, and I’ll hold on to it until she’s ready.”

    Sometimes, you can’t forgive yourself because you haven’t worked through things. What will Mommy do to me? Everyone is yelling at me. Why did I do it? What does it say about me that I did it? Am I the type of person who regularly does such things? How can I prevent it? Should I make big changes? It’s a scary time.

    Sometimes you can’t forgive another person because you haven’t forgiven yourself for being open to the hurt. “I was stupid to trust.”

    I try to do my public apologies and forgivness quickly, even if I’m not ready. It lets the other people get on with what they need to do. Sometimes, the hardest part is forgiving myself for not being able to forgive the transgressor — which is even more complicated when I’m the one who made the mistake in the first place.

    When I’m ready for the next level of apology or forgiveness, I send it through “prayer-mail,” and have to trust that they’ll receive it when they’re ready.

    As an agnostic, I miss the assurance that God will help me. I miss His forgiveness. I also miss His help in accepting that forgiveness, and His help in forgiving myself. As Ivy said elsewhere, once I’d done what I could, He’d polish the stars. Instead, I’m stuck by myself trying to figure out how to get to the top of the hill, and once there I still need to find a longer ladder.

    I was reading Covey’s 8th Habit last night. “When people behave far below their potential, our affirming attitude and words become, ‘that’s not like you.'” I like that. “You can do better,” is accusing them of not doing their best — a cardinal sin in these days of, “As long as you do your best you’re a good person.” “That’s not like you,” doesn’t deny that our actions describe us, but also doesn’t add “not doing your best” to the list of things they did wrong.

    To me, forgiveness does not mean staying open to a repetition of the same injury, or letting the transgressor go on to hurt others. That’s not doing our duty to protect ourselves and others. There’s always a grey area — you can neither love nor grow if you protect yourself too much — but often enough we can learn a less drastic way to protect ourselves.

    Paul’s comment came in while I was writing mine. I like the idea that, although we are described by our actions, this time we can choose a different action, which, over time, changes who we are.

    “Between stimulus and response there is a space.
    “In that space is our power to choose our response.
    “In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
    – Viktor E. Frankl

  7. Ivy

    Jane, you hit on it in your own words:

    At some point, you call the debt quits. “You still owe me ten bucks, but don’t worry about it any longer.” That kind of thing. “You still owe me a pair of parents, but I’m no longer seeking repayment.”

    AKA, you let the person off the hook, you let them refuse to take responsibility for and deal with the consequences of their actions. In Joe’s case there is no means of repayment (the killers can’t restore his parents to him) so he settles for the next best thing and he’s right to do so.

    I adore the way people redefine a perfectly good English word. John would tell you I drive a two-door compact car. He will go on to assert that it is a two-door because, when you look at it from either side (the only perspective from which you can clearly count doors), you see one back door and one front door. But does saying “Ivy drives a two-door” give you an accurate or a erroneous image of my car? Giving personal definitions of “forgive” is as misleading as changing how cars are classified, two door and four door.

    From Yahoo reference. “To refrain from imposing punishment on an offender or demanding satisfaction for an offense.”

    From Websters. “1 a: to give up resentment of or claim to requital for b: to grant relief from payment of ”

    If we’re going to define it ourselves however, I’d say, “A mechanism by which lawlessness and evil can persist in society without fear of penalty.”

  8. philangelus

    Ivy, forgiving someone doesn’t mean you let the person off the hook. That’s how this entry started. 🙂 The person who murdered Joe’s family (to use your example) would still be thrown in jail for life if caught. Joe doesn’t need to be eaten alive with anger at the unsettled debt, that’s all.

    Jesus was big on forgiveness but he also said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” which I take to mean the government has the right and the duty to prosecute criminals. While we, as citizens, can feel free to forgive them while they await trial for their crimes.

    There’s been so much to think about in the comments. I’ll be chewing on all this for a while.

    Paul, I think you’ve got it: the psychobabble part is the thing where people use their own forgiveness specifically to let themselves off the hook. “Why are you still mad at me for killing your cat? I’ve forgiven myself.”

    But if someone is truly changed, forgiving oneself is letting go of the last vestiges of the flawed person s/he was and really letting that person vanish. Whereas holding tight is like dragging around an anchor. It makes sense. But there’s still the fear of repeating our own mistakes if we let down our guard. And the fact that we expected better of ourselves.

    Like I said, there’s a lot here I have to think about.

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