Self-Forgiveness: Acceptance or Pride?

Psalm 143

O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy….

Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you…

So my spirit grows faint within me, my heart within me is dismayed…

I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done…

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love…

Teach me to do you will, for you are my God….

In your unfailing love, silence my enemies…

One of the classic penitential psalms, Psalm 143 expresses a deep need to experience God’s unfailing love and mercy on the part of one whose depressed spirit is overwhelmed with the presence of enemies and self-condemnation. The Psalmist seeks a renewal of God’s grace and call in life after a season of sin and oppression from enemies.  I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that this Psalm has something to share with those of us who yearn or have yearned for self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is my topic in this third installment on forgiveness.

There have been times when I wondered–not out loud, of course–whether verse 2 of Psalm 143 was simply an excuse.  Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you. It can sound like “don’t judge me since everybody sins” or “everybody does it, what’s the big deal?”  Today, however, I hear it more as a confession that I am human, a sinful human…just like everybody else.  The cry for God’s mercy is also a cry for self-compassion…to give myself a break just as God gives me grace.

Self-forgiveness is a controversial topic. Many believe it is too tied to self-help and self-esteem pop psychology and that it is actually a reflection of pride and lack of faith.  There is no text in Scripture which explicitly commands self-forgiveness, so it is said, and only God can forgive. Others, however, genuinely punish themselves by denying themselves self-compassion. They feel a need for self-forgiveness and their life is stuck in cycles of guilt, depression and self-hatred. I have been stuck in that cycle myself in the past–and it still raises its ugly head on occasion.

At one level self-forgiveness, in the strictest terms, is not what we need. What we need is divine forgiveness.  What some call self-forgiveness is, I believe, actually the process of accepting God’s forgiveness and removing the barriers to that acceptance that burden our hearts. In this sense, I think, self-forgiveness is an expression of a biblical notion of self-love that is grounded in God’s gracious forgiveness and unfailing love.  But we cannot receive and feel that grace if we erect walls between God and our true selves.

What hinders self-forgiveness?  Here is a partial list and I’m sure others could add more out of their own experience.  All of these we might list under the broad rubric of pride.  

  • unchanged behavior–we continue the sinful behaviors even when we don’t want to
  • given our past failures we fear that we will do them again
  • burying our unresolved guilt that becomes a festering wound
  • “fixing it” by doing good stuff to restore the balance
  • perfectionism–our expectation that we are better than that; we should have know better!
  • lack of trust in God’s love, feeling unworthy of love
  • no experience in grace–we have been judged by others and we habitually judge others
  • self-anger and self-hatred over past behaviors which leads to self-punishment

If self-forgiveness is actually the acceptance of God’s gracious movement toward our real selves, then it is fundamentally about relationship with God, about being with God and accepting his love. Here is a partial list of what that might entail as we move from intellectual acceptance of grace to the authentic experience of grace in our hearts that yields self-forgiveness through a healthy self-love because of what God has done and who he is.

  • confession of sin to God and trusting the promise of forgiveness (e.g, 1 John 1:9)
  • seeking transformation through spiritual disciplines instilling a hope for recovery
  • recognizing our unrealistic perfectionistic expectations (let go of self-anger)
  • mutual confession of sin in a supportive, safe community of believers
  • making amends to those we have hurt
  • accept responsibility for sin and its consequences (let go of “making up” for sin)
  • contemplative prayer on the nature of God who is full of mercy, compassion and love
  • meditation and visualization of God’s word to us:  “you are beloved”

Should we forgive ourselves?  Yes, but not because this arises out of our own self-will, self-esteem or self-worth.  Rather, we forgive ourselves because God has already forgiven us and we have accepted that forgiveness which gives us worth, joy and authentic love. We forgive ourselves because God is greater than our hearts and he has received us as one of his children whom he loves.

Our need for self-forgiveness is generated by our prideful rejection of God’s forgiveness–our pride that somehow we think we know ourselves better than God does!  Such pride is expressed in words like–whichI have said to myself though I intellectually knew better–”How can God forgive me of that when I knew better?!” After all–my mind thinks–if you really knew me, you would not forgive me either, and thus it is hard for me to believe that God forgives me or that anyone else could forgive me.  Yet, he does. And others have as well. This is the wonder of grace, the joy of being loved even when I feel unloveable. Paradoxically, it is pride that refuses to accept, internalize and authentically feel that love. Grace–the active, dynamic, experiential love of God–can heal woundness if we will but open our hearts to it and let go of the pride.  The movement from pride to acceptance is a process, a journey of faith, through which God heals us and transforms us into his own likeness.

So, strictly, I suppose we do not forgive ourselves but rather God forgives us, and when we accept that forgiveness deep within our guts, then we can let go of the self-punishment, self-hatred, and fear of failure. We are then equipped, by God’s grace, to give to others what God has given to us.



13 Responses to “Self-Forgiveness: Acceptance or Pride?”

  1.   Keith Brenton Says:

    If we are to love others as ourselves, and if forgiveness is an expression of love, is it a stretch of logic to say that we should forgive others as we forgive ourselves?

    And if we cannot forgive ourselves … can we really forgive others?

  2.   Q Says:

    It also seems that if we don’t practice self-forgiveness, we are less apt at forgiving others. If we harbor a sort of grudge within ourselves despite having the forgiveness of God, how can we fully believe in the forgiveness of anyone, much less fully forgive?

    Sorry to be convoluted, but my thoughts are extremely fuzzy today. Thank you again for sharing your thinking through this topic.

  3. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    My own personal experience is the other way around. With high expectations of myself, I have always found it more difficult to forgive myself than forgiving others. I think I have forgiven others without forgiving myself. The issue is my own pride–perfectly willing to believe God has forgiven others, it is sometimes difficult for me to believe that God has forgiven me given my “advantages,” maturity in the fact, etc., etc.

    For some people the problem is forgiving others while they have little sense of their own self-righteousness, but for others the problem is showing mercy to others while at the same time having unrealistic expectations of themselves. I think it can go either way or both or neither.

    Ideally, it should go both ways, right? Having been forgiven by God, we find it merciful and a participation in God’s own life to forgive others as well as ourselves. Different people, due to circumstances and life history, have different problems.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I have always thought of self-forgiveness as the ability to accept God’s forgiveness for my sins, which you discussed in your post. I am thinking of the song “East to West” by Casting Crowns as I think of how difficult it can be to actually accept the grace and mercy of God and not continue to lapse into self-hatred because of my sins. Yet I have also come to realize that I have an easier time forgiving myself of certain sins while other sins are not so easily forgiven. Why? Is this so because my view of sin is not the same as God’s view (where I elevate or diminish the serious nature of certain sins over other sins). Whatever the reason, it tells me that I probably do not understand grace and righteousness as much as I would like to believe.

    Thanks for the post. I hope your Thanksgiving was great!

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5.   Greg McKinzie Says:

    Rex, it’s interesting that you mention that song. When it came out I was really irritated by it, thought not for the point the band was trying to make. Rather, I think the incredible popularity of the song is rooted in the fact that the perspective it presents resonates so deeply with the evangelical world:

    “I start the day, the war begins
    Endless reminding of my sin
    And time and time again
    Your truth is drowned out by the storm I’m in
    Today I feel like I’m just one mistake away
    from You leaving me this way”

    It is irritating to me, to be frank, but it is also mind boggling that while “evangelicals” (a broad stroke, I know) are supposed to be the “grace church” types, they (we) are so prone to have this relentless day to day fear of the proverbial straw that broke the Messiah’s back. As one that feels your words deeply, John Mark, I do not doubt their value (or the series’ for that matter), but I do wonder whether we who accept grace theologically and cognitively do not so struggle to accept it actually because, to borrow the phrase, of our overweeningly “introspective consciences.” The centrality and emphasis of grace as the forgiveness of my every personal failure seems to place those failures themselves at the center of concern.

    Now, there are those of us who need badly, for one reason or another, to hear a word of grace, but I am thinking of we who have heard it, “believed” it, and still fail to live it. I experienced a degree of liberation from my own perfectionism through this line of thought, realizing that God’s central concern is not my sin or, by association, my forgiveness. Those are important but not central–forgiveness, I think, is only a means to more important ends (think transformation, mission, relationship, etc.). For some reason it was helpful to consciously and psychologically relegate sin’s importance. I confess, though, that old habits die hard, and it is easy for that perspective to become warped into perfectionism too–I should be past the means and on to the ends by now, right?! No, the journey is long.

    for no one living is righteous before you…

  6.   Randall Says:

    John Mark, that was well said. I apreciate your coments. Thanks!

  7.   phil Says:

    Reading your inspired words today has offered a restoration in my soul this morning! Keep up the good work!

  8. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Greg,

    You raise a significant point. Forgiveness is a means to an end; it is not the end itself. The end is communion with God in a renewed world filled with joy, goodness and justice. It is not an individualistic one-on-one relationship with God. And, as you say, we might experience a different dimension and more of God’s grace if we widen our vision to include his whole purpose–a renewed creation.

    At the same time, it is a both/and and not an either/or, in my opinion. Forgiveness–its experience, joy and reneweal–leads (and should lead) to transformation, but that forgiveness is something to be believed, felt, and enjoyed, and it is something that we can believe, feel and enjoy through engagement with a broken world as well as through introspection (or, a better word for me, contemplation).

    I need both the contemplative as well as engagement, which is what we see–I think–in the life of Jesus himself. For the present, this is a season of contemplation for me. Your words are a reminder that I should not get stuck there but recognize the larger vision for which contemplation empowers us.

  9.   Greg McKinzie Says:

    John Mark,

    I certainly don’t disagree with your present emphasis. I hope my comment didn’t come across that way. I was more thinking out loud about the phenomenon of our persistence in self-condemnation. I really appreciate your thoughts. I think I would do well to have a similar season.

  10.   Stan Says:

    John Mark, I’m so glad you have contributed so wonderfully to a needed subject. I believe self-flagellation is a tool of the devil. We take ourselves to the woodshed – it’s not God or others doing it, it’s our own selves – and it keeps us from the life he intended.

    I have occasionally thought about this from the standpoint of how Scripture deals with this, and here’s a thought that has made sense to me: We’re clearly called on to forgive our brother; but what if YOU are that brother that you need to forgive? Doesn’t it all apply to yourself just as it does to others?

  11.   rich constant Says:

    john mark…

    i would like you to get out a concordance and look up sin. and it’s forms of useage. read over every
    verse.
    you’ll know them …
    tell me what you understant from that little excersise concering sin?.

    pleasei did that this morning.

  12.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Greg, I agree with you that there is a problem with the typical view of sin and grace that leaves us constantly beating ourselves up for our sin. Nevertheless there are times when our sin leaves such a profound sense of guilt that we can do nothing but weep as we plead with God in the words of David “have mercy on me, O God…” (Ps 51). At some point if we are to move from paralysis to transformation, we must learn to accept that God does have mercy on us – even if we have been caught in the scheme of adultry and murder, such as David.

    Nevetheless, I hear your point regarding transformation. One example of this is a Christian woman I know whose first child was brought into world outside of marriage (after much consideration was given to abortion) but now in very involved in helping other young unwed mothers experience God’s grace through the ministry of service and compassion rather than the judgment of a world that still often looks upon an unwed mother with a bit of scron.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  13.   Steve Kenney Says:

    I think of I John 3:19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

    God is greater than our hearts. Our acts of self-condemnation (and even forgiveness) do not trump God. So to me, the real issue to accept God’s verdict of me and allow that to drive me to either repentance or confession. I do believe that God’s will is that our hearts be at rest in his presence.

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