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.