In Forgiving the Unforgivable, David Stoop tackles the issue of self-forgiveness, noting that the process can be the most difficult type. Rather than pride or a self-centered nature, he identifies a “sensitive spirit” as the characteristic that causes people struggle with accepting what God provides for us when we repent.
Do you know what hurts so very much? It's love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.
― Corrie Ten Boom, TheHiding PlaceWhen we block the flow of God's love into the deep parts of our heart, we suffer and continue to feel pain. But we have to trust God enough that He can deliver us. When we really allow Him to forgive us, we come face to face with the fact that He is God and we are not. We have to admit that, apart from Him, we cannot make it on our own. We don't have enough love of our own to make up for our own mistakes, but He not only overlooks them and wipes them out, we must realize that He laid down His life to do so. The King of Heaven loves me that much and did what I can never do, even to help myself. We feel our helplessness, and we become acutely aware of how powerful God's holiness really is. “Woe is me!” cried the prophet when he felt this, and he fell on his face as if to die. We realize that without Jesus, we can do nothing. We can't make ourselves pure again. It is a harrowing thought. But if we can trust God enough to acknowledge who we are and who He is, we can let Him love us. We can even pray for Him to help us trust the process.
How Can We Forgive Ourselves?
To illustrate the process of self forgiveness, in particular, Stoop examines the conversation between Peter and Jesus, just following the Resurrection when he sees Jesus for the first time. Though the passage teaches many things, Stoop notes three principles that emerge from the scene and the “Do you love me, Peter?” passage. They lay out the best thing that we can do if we want to heal from our lack of forgiveness for ourselves.
- Don't isolate yourself. (Unlike Judas who ran away in shame, Peter faces the discomfort of what he has done by staying close to those he loves. I also see this as akin to what Judith Herman notes about recovery from trauma. You're not entirely healed until you reconnect with other people, reestablishing your connection to community. Trauma involves great loss and disappointment, so in some sense, this is much like the problem of failure to forgive oneself. People also feel inadequate and ashamed following a trauma as though they have failed in not avoiding misfortune, and this is the same type of feeling one has after making a mistake.)
- You need to put yourself in a place where you are loved and where you can be loved. (Peter answers Jesus' hard questions which prompted soul searching, but it also forced Peter to consider the love that he had in his heart for Jesus, in spite of his failure.)
- Do something meaningful that God wants you to do. (Jesus follows up His questions with an admonishment for Peter to move past the failure by refocusing himself on the work of the Kingdom of God. Our mistakes do not disqualify us from moving on to serve God, even though we are imperfect in some paradise lost. In some sense, too, I think that Jesus is also encouraging Peter to take the wisdom he's learned through his failure in order to use it to help others. This also reminds me of a subtle element in Matthew 5:21-24. When one has reconciled with their brother, they are called again to go back to the altar to serve God through worship with the Body.)
How Does This Aspect of Self-Forgiveness Affect Us?
Stoop cites a research study in Forgiving the Unforgivable showing that those who more readily forgave others were also more readily able to forgive themselves. They also found that depressed and anxious people struggle with forgiving themselves, lacking compassion for themselves when they needed it most. It highlights just how miraculous forgiveness really is. We don't deserve to be forgiven, but we make the choice to do it anyway through love. It also proves what Jesus said in the Two Greatest Commandments: that self-love and love for others are connected. Loving and forgiving others is contingent upon our ability to love and care for ourselves. Our lack of love for ourselves keeps us from being well disposed to forgiving those who have offended us.
We come now to the subject of forgiveness which is the very crux of the healing of memories-forgiveness in the sense of forgiving and being forgiven. It would be impossible for me to exaggerate its importance in the healing process. It is at this point that the greatest struggles of prayer will take place, and where counselors will expend the most spiritual energy. (pg 150)
Will you right now ask God to give you the grace to forgive yourself? To abandon your strange desire to have higher standards than God does? Will you give up your right to condemn yourself? Will you ask God for the grace to never again remind Him of things He says He doesn't remember? (pg 159)
~ David Seamands, Healing of Memories
After some excellent quotes,
on to wisdom from Corrie Ten Boom,
to be followed by a forgiveness resource book/list.