Is it okay to forgive ourselves?

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 family… 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: “I’m realizing that I’ve been beating myself up for so long that it has become part of my identity. I know I’ve worked hard to repent, but if I decide to forgive myself instead of dwelling on my inadequacies, who will I be?”

His comment made me think of the Savior’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 God’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 didn’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 isn’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 Christ’s atonement and find out it really only applies to people a lot better (or a lot worse) than we are? What if…?

What if Nephi’s lament, “O wretched man that I am,” had never evolved into “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted”? What if Lamoni had concluded after Ammon’s teaching, “I’ve killed too many people to ever hope for forgiveness”? Or if Alma the Younger had ended his story about three days of self-harrowing over his sins, “and after that I just couldn’t forgive myself”?

Of course we must never forget the debts we owed, the absolute necessity of sincere repentance, or the miracle of Christ’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.

15 comments for “Is it okay to forgive ourselves?

  1. June 17, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Wendy, I really like what you say about the spiritual destructiveness of an identity based in self-flagellation–and about the necessity, and the difficulty, of abandoning cherished identities.

    But I confess that I have my doubts about the concept of self-forgiveness. I suppose it depends on what exactly we mean by it. If you mean that, in a sense, we put an end to our repentance by refusing to revisit wrongs we have done, or are doing, all we can to correct, then I completely agree that such ends are necessary. Or, to put it differently, that the gospel calls us to revisit our own sins efficaciously by realizing the atonement in our lives through repentance, rather than revisiting them destructively.

    I read the scriptural accounts you refer to somewhat differently, as acceptances of God’s divine mercy and forgiveness (“I know in whom I have trusted”) rather than as acts of self-forgiveness. It seems to me that what we need isn’t so much to forgive ourselves as to exercise faith in God’s forgiveness and mercy, the exercise of which faith brings us to repentance. I think that faith in Christ unto repentance is precisely what differentiates self-forgiveness from the acceptance of the divine forgiveness that has the power to cleanse, heal, and save.

  2. June 17, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    I think learning to forgive ourselves is part of learning to accept God’s love for us.

  3. StillConfused
    June 17, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    I like #2’s comment and have found that to be the case!

  4. Ray
    June 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Wendy, I agree completely with the general idea you express here. I also think we label many of our own transgressions as sins, taking things for which our 2nd Article of Faith says we will not be punished and punishing ourselves regardless.

    The ancient Israelites defined perfection as following all established rules with exactness. The mothers of the Sons of Helaman, living pre-Christ, defined it the same way. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, defined it as becoming “complete, whole, fully developed”. (See footnote b in Matthew 5:48.) Too many of us throughout our modern history have reverted back to the ancient idea – beating ourselves up endlessly for not being able to do everything “perfectly” – for not being now what we are supposed to work throughout our lives to become eventually.

    After all of that, I echo Stephen’s #2. God’s gracious mercy is much more powerful, imho, than many of us realize, and learning to forgive ourselves when forgiveness from God has been granted really is an acceptance of His love.

  5. June 18, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Fine post, Wendy. Personally, I can’t help but think that perfectionism and self-flagellation isn’t a personal quirk of the good man you allude to in your post but is the natural result of certain LDS doctrines and scriptures. While senior leaders often encourage LDS to grant themselves forgiveness rather than guilt, perfectionism is never really repudiated, so the wind always seems to blow away from forgiveness and towards guilt. Maybe we should all read your book.

  6. norm
    June 18, 2008 at 5:06 am

    speaking from personal experience, i find it impossible to live up to “certain LDS doctrines and scriptures” although I believe that, in better moments, I am learning the lesson that Wendy advocates. Nonetheless, those pesky doctrines and scriptures, instantiated the “bare minimum” form of “temple worthiness” (but also in other more stringent forms of our dialogue) are generally irreconcilable (at least for me, though certainly not for everyone) with a healthy self-forgiveness and abstention from perfectionism/self-flagelattion (as shorthand for the ideas in the post).

  7. BruceC
    June 18, 2008 at 11:58 am

    In one sense, I am proud of who I am. I am the person with sins that God shouldn’t forgive. In that way I stand out. Being humble means I need to let God forgive me. I am no worse than any other sinner who needs forgiveness. I need to let myself be forgiven.

  8. June 18, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Wendy: Excellent post, in both a literary and devotional sense.

    It seems we each have different aspects of our character that need overcoming, be it excessive perfectionism or unblinking take-me-as-I-am-ism. I particularly like the concept of “divine discontent” as explained by Neal A. Maxwell, though it can be taken to extremes, and one ought to take care not to go overboard in self-flagellation.

    Ironically, my earliest memory of this concept stems from listening to a Michael McClean song in seminary, which I chuckle at now, to be honest. He has a song saying we should be more gentle with ourselves, focusing on the grace of God. I believe it is called “Gentle.”

  9. CS Eric
    June 18, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    This reminds me of a wonderful poem by James B. V. Thomson:

    Once in a Saintly Passion

    Once in a saintly passion
    I cried with desperate grief,
    “O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
    Of sinners I am chief.”
    Then stooped my guardian angel
    And whispered from behind,
    “Vanity, my little man,
    You’re nothing of the kind.”

  10. The Right Trousers
    June 18, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    I\’ve always had issues with forgiving myself. Even after I decided it was okay to do it, I had difficulty with exactly what that *meant*.

    Then I had an epiphany during a Marriage and Family class on forgiving while I was – for whatever reason – intensely interested in the final judgment and searching my scriptures for every instance of \”judg\”. I realized then that forgiveness is nothing more or less than *not judging*, and moreover returning judgment back to the only true and righteous Judge. (I\’m talking about passing a final judgment, not the intermediate judgments we have to make all the time.)

    Exactly what forgiving entailed became crystal clear, with regards to myself and others.

  11. June 19, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for all the great coomments! One of the challenges of having thought about and written about something for a long time is I forget about the need to start with obvious things like defining terms. Self-forgiveness is sort of an acronym in my mind for accepting the forgiveness of God once we have repented, but since He is the only one whose judgments of any of us can be counted on to be accurate, forgiving ourselves in the absence of repentance and divine forgiveness would generally be a pretty stupid thing to do. Some of us are inclined to get ourselves off the hook much too easily without the repentance that would allow to truly grow and change, a dangerous path. Others are inclined to keep beating ourselves up indefinitely for things we have repented of or are working to change, leading many to hopelessness, misunderstanding of the role of mortality and the atonement, and that “vanity” that leads us to find our identity in thinking we are worse than we are. P.S. to CS Eric #9 – I love the poem!

  12. CJ
    June 19, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you so very much for this post, Wendy. I really needed to read it.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    June 19, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Refusing to regard ourselves as forgiven, after we have repented, is arrogant. It is a way of saying “My standards, Lord, are higher than yours.” (Something else we need to repent of!)

    My personal experience, though, has been more with people who are oblivious to their own need to repent, and who never forgive other people.

  14. Confutus
    June 21, 2008 at 3:00 am

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the notion of forgiving ourselves, for at least three reasons. First, I’m not sure we have the right: If we have offended God, then it is He who needs to forgive us. Second, forgiving ourselves before we have repented is only an excercise in deadening our conscience. Third, I don’t find the concept of forgiving ourselves anywhere in the scriptures.
    For those who may be uncertain about whether their repentance is sufficiently sincere or genuine and doubtful of the Lord\’s forgiveness, or who may be prone to flagellate themselves without mercy for whatteve offense, major or minor, real or imagined that they have or make have committed, I recently came across what I thought was an astute observation that an emphasis on forgiving ourselves tends to be self-centered and ineffective. The person who made this observation recommended instead that we focus on forgiving others. As we do so, we find healing and forgiveness for our own errors as well. I add the observation that this is, after all, what the Lord promised: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.

  15. Roger W
    June 27, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Wendy—-I plan to read your book. I have tried to accept that Christ died for my sins and that through the atonement I can overcome spiritual death. I don\’t know that I am ever going to get over the mortification attendant to my memories or how I have hurt people and cause them great grief. For the past 5 years I have tried to totally turn away from how I was and in terms of behavior I have largely succeeded, but I am daily haunted by what I have done and my inability to fix it.

    Since I can figure out who your dear friend is you can figure out who I am.

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