Reflections on Self-Forgiveness

“How about how to forgive ourselves?,” my friend suggested as a topic for this blog.  It’s a subject that comes up often in workshops and discussions.  My initial response is to ask the person what they are hoping to be able to do, or what they are seeking to have happen.  Their perceptions are vital.

I have been making a case here for forgiveness as (among numerous expressions) the removal of limiting  obstacles, the lifting of long-carried, distorting  burdens, and a holy jailbreak from the life-taking prisons that have stifled our being.  Each of these things is extremely hard to do for ourselves, particularly when there is already a heavy weight crushing us.  When people inquire in exasperation or ache how they might forgive themselves, they are communicating the lack of success they have experienced from their many efforts in seeking relief.  To those who are already broken or bound, not “being able” to forgive ourselves threatens to become additional pressure and to add further to our debilitating struggles.   Also, in the context of injury, forgiveness is the initiative of the wounded party toward the one who has done the wounding; this is a thicket when the wound is perceived as self-inflicted, and the remedy as an internal exchange.  Where to begin?

Let’s consider what kinds of conditions precipitate the longing for self-forgiveness. I would include:  (1) failure that is perceived as catastrophic (2) having caused an injury that is “unforgiveable”  (3)  assuming responsibility for violence inflicted upon us (4) perceiving the deep disappointment of others  (5) paralyzing guilt  (6) having efforts at making amends rejected  (7) a poverty of experience vis-a-vis God’s forgiveness.  The categories are not mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive.  Please add your own descriptions.

The late Lewis Smedes authored some classic books on forgiveness.  While I do not adopt his terminology of “forgiving ourselves” and “healing ourselves,” I find his work quite  helpful.  Smedes wrote about what he called The Four Stages of Forgiveness: (1) We hurt (2) We hate (3) We heal  (4) We come together. Let’s take these dynamics in a process  of forgiving others and apply them to our own mending.  When we honestly acknowledge our hurt, and the hurt of others whom we have impacted,  we are moving beyond excuses that just aren’t working.  This is hopeful and can be very good news.  Forgiveness is only necessary when something is inexcusable.  The second stage– claiming the anger, bitterness, paralysis of unfinished business and unhealed wounds–brings  the need into honest, clear focus.  The third stage, when forgiving another, is when you begin to see the person who hurt you in a different light.  In the case of one’s own need for mercy, this stage would involve the grace of being able to see ourselves as God sees us.  This is God’s initiative, and is available to us in the context of relationship. It may become apparent to us in any “stage,” and through any of God’s manifold agents.  The fourth stage, then, the”coming together,” can be a translation of wholeness within as well as between.

The Revised Common Lectionary is leading us through Mark’s Gospel this year; for the last several weeks, in Mark’s initial chapter.  Jesus moves from the limited  definition of life in Nazareth to immersion in the beautiful, broken lives of all God’s people.  His wilderness sojourn is one of increasing clarity and claim (in Matthew and Luke, declining the temptations to “prove himself” in order to be himself ).  Entering Galilee, he proclaims the intimate nearness of God’s realm in the present, with a liberating invitation to life lived fully in God’s transforming love.  In the Capernaum house of worship, he draws the repressive, disabling powers that distort individual and communal life to the surface, where they can be distinguished from the blessed humanity they distort.  This “calling out” is an enactment of healing, the promised release; the resulting, necessary convulsions of deliverance are disarmingly familiar.  Jesus’ subsequent reaching out and lifting up of those laid low “at home” brings on the tumultuous, yearning stampede of people longing for healing and freedom (some wishing they could “forgive themselves?”). He carefully recognizes each person, and makes the God-gift in us clearly visible.  When Jesus emerges from desert-ed prayer with the determination to go on to the neighboring towns, to take the embodied announcement of grace across even more boundaries, he does not leave the people of Capernaum destitute; the power that he has infused them with can be shared freely with one another in a new economy (one that is not dependent on consuming products or people).  His choice to touch the untouchable man changes the dear man’s state of “being” (“Be made clean”) in a way that redefines his life and destabilizes the life-taking, sacrificial order that has “uncleaned” him!  Each of these stories  is powerful blessing, accompaniment, and inspiration in our own journeys. The social and the personal are forever linked, but in ways radically redefined.

James Alison’s essay, “Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self” (, is an insightful piece in this regard, one that is highly  recommended.  In the midst of the article there are two sets of passages that I find particularly meaningful, as Alison reflects on the connection between loving the other and the experiencing of love ourselves:  “Only by means of a human mirror do we have access to ourselves . . . we can start to see the genius of our Lord’s instruction, one which, as I say, completely takes for granted the mimetic, projective nature of humans and of the fact that it is how we are in relation to others which runs our own reason, and not our reason which runs the way we are towards others.  He makes it clear throughout the Sermon on the Mount that the only path towards having a non-divided self is by loving our enemies, forgiving those who do us harm, and praying from those who persecute and hate us.  And this is because it is only in our relationship with others, “out there,” that we have any access at all to what constitutes “in here.” (page 9)

As I shared before, a frequently stated obstacle heard even among those who are eager to learn about forgiving others is, “I’m just not able to forgive myself.”  Here, Alison’s personal testimony is deeply hopeful: “As I have prayed for and tried to look on certain people in my own experience with whom I have been locked into what seemed at first glance as rightous hatred, I have found that the veriest glimpse of the tiniest iota of acceptance towards them produced a huge harvest of self-acceptance and peace within me.  I could have prayed for years to forgive myself and not got anywhere at all: it was in being able to let the other go, to forgive the other, that I began to be able to forgive myself.  It is for this reason that I think telling people they need to forgive themselves is to place a terrible burden on them . . . The only way to forgive yourself is projectively, which is to say, in another person.  As your forgive another, so you will find yourself being let go.” (pp. 9-10) 

Alison’s disclosure may help us to reflect anew on the substance of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we indeed have forgiven our debtors (Matthew)” and “Forgive us our sins, as we ourselves  forgive everyone indebted to us (Luke).” The petition is not a negotiation, but rather an open door to the full experience of what God has already done with us.  It is a celebration of abundance, rather than the management of scarcity.  The yoke of measurement is being removed.  God is not divided, the community of God’s people is not divided, our selves are not divided.  In living toward others, release for ourselves is realized.  And perhaps the need to “forgive ourselves” is also an obstacle that is removed in God’s fore-giveness.

I asked my friend to try to be specific about what she would mean by “forgiving herself.”  She said that the term constantly revealed in her own reflection was “freedom:”   “I think (freedom) means not to live by the bounds of what others push on me as being “acceptable.”  I find myself wrapped up in the “shoulds” of society: “I should be thinner,” “I should exercise more,” “I shouldn’t wear that” . . . It is exhausting to think about let alone live by.  From all these shoulds comes the guilt to “Do better the next time.”  Really!! Why???”

Hers is a remarkably straightforward and honest description of bondage.  It is generous as well:  Any  of us who has ever labored under a “shouldload” of expectation will resonate deeply with her expression.  “Forgiving herself” seems to refer to the longed-for capacity to disentangle herself from expectations she understands as tyrannically imposed on her and yet are articulated as though they come from within her (“I should be thinner”)! This is the territory of Mark 1:21-28 (the “us” of the man in the Capernaum synagogue).  When my friend gives voice to the agony of having a manifestation of grace (being given ever -new opportunities) being twisted into one more guilt trip, it is heart-breaking.

This is a good time to recall that forgiveness is always an interruption in the established order.  My friend’s baptismal identity as Child of God, Beloved, and God’s Pleasure is cause for abundant celebration.  She is one who, at the deepest levels of her experience, receives  her “being” from the One who needs no payment or proof and is ever-creative beyond measurement.  Being affirmed even as her (our) grip on “needing to maintain control” is lovingly loosened is initially experienced as paradox, so a deep breath or two  is in order as we make way for joy.

“Do something different, and over time, you will begin to think and feel differently.”  This was a lesson on praxis that I began to learn in a new way during my time as a  Mission Partner.  Jesus’ embracing invitation, “Follow me,” is a beckoning to movement long before we have everything “processed.”  New readings of living scripture are available “on the Way.”    My encouragement to my friend is to live as though she is a forgiven person.  To live as though death (translate “should”) has no claim on her.  Believe me, she already has a head start as one of the most generous people I know.  She is fitting company for  the woman in Luke 7:36-50, entering into the house of the Pharisee and joining the ointment and tears of her abundant love with her daring, inspired sister’s,  blessing Jesus.  Imagine my friend hearing his words unshackled from Sunday School, as words now spoken about–and to–her! She enters the chapter imagining that she is one who needs forgiveness and must somehow do what is necessary to be worthy of it, only to be shocked to hear Jesus pointing to her as an example to Pharisees of every age of what for-giveness looks like;  she hears Jesus giving testimony to what it is like for him to receive such give-ness from her! We have spoken elsewhere of forgiveness as “giving gifts of ourselves to others.”  Where does Jesus’ example end and my friend’s incarnation begin?  In God’s realm, there is no such distinction!  Love needs no categories.  If I am truly to encourage my friend in this way, it must be in vulnerable accompaniment. Perhaps it will be in working through Smedes’ stages, as they apply to each of us, together, or with a group of inspired sojourners.  Our perceptions and experiences of one another will be invaluable. How “we are in relation with each other” will shape a new reasoning among us!

What is  apparent throughout this exploration is the vocation of the church to live as an unshackled community; as a community of forgiven people. Jesus’ immersed, inseparable presence is made manifest through our relationships with one another, where each of us experiences access to our deepest selves in the context of our relationships in Christ with each other.  My friend’s generous, outpouring ways evangelize our community even as they are openings through which she receives that which is readily available but cannot be acquired.  I wish for her the permission of new freedom even as she makes it real for others.  And perhaps the clarity of Jesus emerging from her own desert-ed prayers.

I conclude this lengthy post inviting contribution and dialogue, as I anticipate the promise of greater “access.”  Though I do not find the frame of “forgiving ourselves” helpful, I would be grateful for input from those who have.  From among the reflections in this piece, what stirs or challenges you? What principles take shape tangibly in your daily life?  What suggests  new space, or strikes you as too limited?  How do your own experiences inform this discussion, or drive it deeper? Is it okay that God has enlisted others in assuring your well-being? It is this kind of input that might eventually transform these reflections into a collaborative essay! If you have made it this far, it is my hope that “what you are hoping to be able to do, or what you are seeking to have happen,” might sound different than it did at the outset.


Smedes, Lewis B.  Forgive and Forget. San Francisco: Harper, 1984.

Alison, James. “Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self.”

Personal reflections from my friend used with permission.