Of of Jesus’ most troublesome messages is to love our enemies—a great challenge in this era of deepening religious and political hostility, as well as plain senseless violence. But suppose, as Carl Jung once wrote, that the most difficult enemy we must face and forgive is the enemy within? That we ourselves are in need of the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that we may give willingly to others?
Jesus made it very clear, as do most religious traditions, that, in addition to loving our enemies, we are called to love ourselves. This includes loving the enemy within—that truth about you that you avoid, to include your secrets. Perhaps the greatest challenge to loving your own inner enemy is the challenge to forgive yourself.
I have known many very spiritual people, loving and kind, of great service to others. Yet many of these same people treat themselves with a depth of judgment and hatred that is completely at odds with their treatment of others. I recall, for example, a very good man holding himself in contempt for what I viewed as humanness. As I listened to how he berated himself, I asked, “Tell me. If someone came to you and confessed to the same issue, is this what you would tell them? That they’re worthless? Disgusting?”
The man responded that he would never say such things to another person. I then told him that it appeared that he believed his sins were worse than everyone else’s, and that he was unworthy of the compassion he so willingly gave to others.
“Are you really that awful?” I asked. “Apparently so,” was his response.
Many of these people insist they know they are forgiven by God. The challenge is for them to accept this forgiveness and then to forgive themselves. Easier said than done!
Turning to God
The first step is the obvious one—reaching out to the God of my understanding for forgiveness I am immediately confronted by my image of God and my beliefs about God’s forgiveness. Is the God of my understanding a punitive and angry God, much like the God of the Old Testament? Or is the God of my understanding a loving one, quick to welcome me back when I have strayed?
Is the God of my understanding like the father of the prodigal son? Are there limits to God’s forgiveness? Do I believe there are sins beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness? I may be able to adopt a forgiving attitude with things like yelling at my kids or cursing at other drivers or taking a box of paper clips from the workplace.
But suppose I am guilty of child abuse, killing someone—whether in combat or otherwise—or infidelity? Are such sins beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness? If this is what I believe, then the chasm of despair can open up in front of me, waiting to swallow me. It would seem, though, that God’s forgiveness is without limit.
Biblical Examples of Forgiveness
There are two figures in the Gospels who give me hope that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and without limit. The first is the prostitute about to be stoned by an angry crowd (Jn 8:1-11). Prostitutes may indeed be victims, but their sins are ones that most cultures judge harshly. So it was in Jesus’ time.
Yet Jesus confronts not the prostitute but the crowd about to stone her, challenging them to examine their own sinfulness before throwing stones. When Jesus backs them off, he then points out to the prostitute that he does not judge her, and invites her to sin no more.
The second figure is one of my favorite saints—Saint Dismas. His story appears in the Gospel of Luke (23:39-43). You might know him better as the good thief, one of the men crucified with Jesus. What were his crimes?
We don’t know, but it is safe to bet that they included theft and possibly murder.
When the other criminal mocks Jesus, Dismas tells him to back off, saying, “We have been condemned justly.” Sounds like someone who is judging himself, doesn’t it? Yet with hope he turns to Jesus and asks, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus then speaks those powerful words of hope: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Wow! Here is a guy at rock bottom, saying he deserves the excruciating and humiliating punishment of crucifixion. Yet Jesus welcomes him, clearly setting Dismas’ sins aside.
Were these two figures able to accept Jesus’ forgiveness? Were they then able to forgive themselves? We don’t know. But Jewish scholars often complete unfinished stories in the Bible. And so in that spirit, and knowing the power of forgiveness, I can tell you that the prostitute became a follower of Jesus and that Dismas died in peace.
Jesus calls us to forgive and forgive and forgive. Seventy times seven! But Jesus also commands us to love ourselves. The mandate to forgive applies to each of us as well as to our fellow men and women.
Similarly, under unusual circumstances, I may have behaved in a manner completely at odds with what I thought were my values. The result is fierce condemnation. Such is the burden carried by many of our combat veterans. As one warrior said to me, “I know now that I have killed. How can I possibly go to Mass?”
At a deeper level, though, our inability to forgive ourselves seems to reflect an attitude that somehow my sins are worse than everyone else’s. Is this not somewhat arrogant? If I fancy myself the world’s greatest sinner, is this not actually rather egotistical?
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, he raises the very comforting notion that, even after death, we are offered forgiveness. Yet even then, says Lewis, some people turn it down, choosing instead eternal darkness rather than humbly accepting the forgiveness. Is this not a final sin of pride?
So my inability and/or unwillingness to forgive myself are a combination of shame and pride. How can I be released from this self-consuming prison?
What follows are suggested steps that can help you forgive yourself once you have taken the step of asking God’s forgiveness, whether through the Sacrament of Reconciliation or some other dialogue with God.
Steps to Forgiveness
First, I need to consider the idea that, yes, I am a sinner, but an unremarkable one. There is nothing unique or distinctive about my sinning. I am merely one among many.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Our egos want us all to stand out from the crowd, to be distinctive. Yet if I can acknowledge that my sin is no better or worse than anyone else’s, including people I have forgiven, then this allows me membership in the group of the forgiven. Simply put, logic tells me that, if I believe that God forgives others’ sins and that my sins are no different, then I, too, am forgiven.
Second, I need to inventory those issues that I have judged unforgivable. I need to make a list, titling it “My Unforgivable Sins.” This may be a shocking exercise. The list may turn out to be much longer than I anticipated, but I must be searching and fearless in preparing that list.
The obvious starting place for this list is my secrets. We all have them: things about us that we’d just as soon others not know, especially those we love. We may even live in fear of being found out. Secrets typically reflect sins we’ve deemed unforgivable.
Third, I need to look at each sin and ask myself, “If someone else came to me sharing anguish over a similar sin, how would I respond? Would I respond with judgment and condemnation, or with compassion and understanding?”
I realize that I don’t help someone if I make excuses for him or her. Saying things like, “Oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” or, “Well, you were pretty depressed at the time,” may not be a comfort, and it certainly minimizes the matter. Remember that when Jesus healed people by forgiving their sins, he always encouraged them to “sin no more.”
Jesus didn’t tell the prostitute, “Well, you’ve had a tough life so it’s OK.” By forgiving people, Jesus wasn’t giving them permission to go right back out to the neighborhood bar! But Jesus did not judge or condemn.
So ask yourself, “What would I say or do?” If those words you might speak are words of kindness, you then need to ask, “How come those words can’t apply to me?” I need to find some way to speak that forgiveness to myself.
Think about an unforgivable sin on your list. Then look in the mirror and try these words on for size: “I love you. I forgive you. Now let’s come up with a plan of action so this never happens again.” Did those words stick in your throat, or did they bring a sense of healing? If this doesn’t work, then speak aloud the words you would speak to someone else.
Finally, I may need to make amends. This doesn’t mean necessarily that I am confessing my sin to the person hurt by it. Rather, I might borrow a notion from the 12-step program to make amends, except when doing so might cause the other person harm. I may also want to remember that often the best type of amends is to change my behavior so that the offending sin no longer happens.
Clearly if I struggle to forgive myself, I struggle with hope and may also live in fear. I take all the bad things happening to me as evidence of how unforgivable are my sins. Like Saint Dismas, I will see myself as being punished and deserving it. And I live in fear that more will be piled on, in part because my sins are unforgivable.
Finding Peace Within
For some, this negativity is insurmountable. Thus, ultimately, I may need to pray. I may need to ask God for help in forgiving myself. I may need to say to God: “Look, I know you’ve forgiven me, but I don’t seem to be able to accept that and let it go. I seem to be holding onto it, judging myself. Please help me to find a way to forgive myself.”
If I haven’t forgiven myself, ironically I may commit the ultimate sin—preventing whatever light I have within me to shine, thereby not becoming all that God intends me to be. In the book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh observes: “Our capacity to make peace with another person in the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves.” Similarly, Henri Nouwen wrote in The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, “If I could fully accept the fact that I am forgiven and do not have to live in guilt or shame, I would really be free.”
When I haven’t forgiven myself, I am confined by the sourness of resentment and the bleakness of despair. Forgiveness really is freedom. When I forgive, my message is this: “I see who you are, not what you’ve done. Now go and be yourself. Become all you are meant to be. Let your light shine.” As with most elements of the spiritual journey, that cleansing freedom must start within if we hope to give it to others.
Richard B. Patterson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in El Paso, Texas. He is the author of five books exploring the intersection of psychology and spirituality.