I had an interesting conversation the other night with a man in my ward. He is a wonderful human being with a wonderful wife raising a wonderful familyâ€¦ one of those people you are delighted to see called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher because you know things are going to get interesting and real, while staying firmly grounded in the scriptures. He is one of my favorite people.
During our visit he paid me the ultimate compliment of telling me he had been reading my book, Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up When We Let Ourselves Down. He shared with considerable candor that self-forgiveness had always been a challenge for him, and then he said something I found particularly astute: â€œIâ€™m realizing that Iâ€™ve been beating myself up for so long that it has become part of my identity. I know Iâ€™ve worked hard to repent, but if I decide to forgive myself instead of dwelling on my inadequacies, who will I be?â€
His comment made me think of the Saviorâ€™s call for the death of the old man and the new life into which we are to be reborn. We often think of that death as having to do with giving up our addictions, our lusts, our spiritual laziness, our disobedience. But his comment reminded me that for some of us the man of sin that has to die is the one who is steeped in perfectionism, in the shame that lies on the other side of pride, in an excessive reliance on the arm of our own flesh, or in a lack of trust in Godâ€™s will and power to save us. This, too, is an identity that has to die if something truer, wiser, more faithful and genuinely humble is to be born.
A few years ago a dear friend of mine lost a great deal of weight. He had become very heavy, and relying on his killer sense of humor he had developed a repertoire of fat jokes that put people at ease with his size and staved off potential criticism. The trouble was, even after losing over 100 pounds and becoming positively slim he had trouble changing his identity. He still thought of himself as fat, and the fat jokes continued. But they didnâ€™t work so well any more. Instead of people thinking he was a good sport about his weight he got either blank stares or uncomfortable silence as people wondered what he thought of them if he thought he was obese.
It isnâ€™t easy to change our identity, even when we have changed our behavior, our appearance, our heart. Old habits of how we see and think about ourselves die hard; in deed, changing those habits can feel not only immodest but dangerous. What if we get smug and then mess up again? What if we dare to think God has forgiven us and in fact we are deluded? What if we decide to trust Christâ€™s atonement and find out it really only applies to people a lot better (or a lot worse) than we are? What ifâ€¦?
What if Nephiâ€™s lament, â€œO wretched man that I am,â€ had never evolved into â€œnevertheless, I know in whom I have trustedâ€? What if Lamoni had concluded after Ammonâ€™s teaching, â€œIâ€™ve killed too many people to ever hope for forgivenessâ€? Or if Alma the Younger had ended his story about three days of self-harrowing over his sins, â€œand after that I just couldnâ€™t forgive myselfâ€?
Of course we must never forget the debts we owed, the absolute necessity of sincere repentance, or the miracle of Christâ€™s redemption. But how grateful I am for these scriptural accounts that remind us that God is not only okay with us liking ourselves again, He prefers it that way.