“I don’t need a god to forgive me. I can forgive myself,” she proudly declared.
Could she, really? It never worked for me. Maybe it did, but just marginally and for a short time. It was like giving myself positive-affirmations. They proved to be drugs, and I always needed a higher dose. Afterwards, they stopped working, but not after they had addicted me to my inflated affirmations and blinded me to the truth about myself – that I wasn’t the wonderful person I had coaxed myself into believing in. This addiction left me with a sense that I really didn’t know myself – who I was and how I should live life authentically.
Self-forgiveness partakes in these same costs. For one thing, it has a short shelf-life. It quits working! It’s also an exercise in self-delusion, which alienates us not only from ourselves but also from others. (Only when two people share the same fantasy can they find common ground for relationship.) It deludes us into thinking that we are not that guilty and prevents us from taking a complete and accurate inventory of ourselves. Instead, we make excuses: “everyone gossips and lies!” This will place a lid on growth and meaningful relationships.
Well, what is the difference between sociopathy and self-forgiveness? In both cases, the ultimate goal is to walk away from our misdeeds without any sense of guilt or shame. But is this a good thing? Should we forgive ourselves and what are the costs if we succeed?
What if I cheat on my wife? Can I simply tell her, “I feel fine since I have forgiven myself?” This response is not only ridiculous; it will not bring healing to the relationship.
The alternative is to find someone else to forgive us. My wife’s forgiveness is crucial, but it doesn’t cover all the bases. We seek other forms of affirmation. The psychologist is paid to do this. In response to my free-floating shame and self-loathing, they reassured me, “You are really a decent person. You care. I know many who don’t care.” After a while, these predictable “professional” responses also lost their impact.
Nevertheless, we are designed for relationship. (It’s the difference between masturbation [self-forgiveness] and sexual intercourse.) Therefore, the words of a friend or a group will penetrate deeper and more convincingly than self-talk. Nevertheless, these kinds of reassurances, although more gratifying than self-talk, never penetrated to the place of pain and self-loathing. They never healed.
Nevertheless, they too proved to be addictive. I required regular reassurance that I was okay – codependency! When I didn’t get my fix, I became resentful or jealous of the one who did receive it. The approval of others was just too important.
Consequently, because of the need for this approval, groups of teens or even adults commit crimes that they ordinarily would not do by themselves. When we depend upon others for our okay-ness, we sell off part of ourselves and become slaves. We are no longer able to live according to our own internal dictates.
Instead, what if we violate an objective, unchanging moral law when we do wrong? What if our wrongdoing is more than just a matter of violating a social or personal norm or standard? When we violate a physical law, there are very real consequences. Just think of what happens when you defy gravity by jumping off a building. You will break bones.
The moral law is equally tangible. When we murder someone, it feels like we have violated something far more substantial than a mere social taboo. If murder is merely a social taboo, why then would we continue to feel guilty about it? Even if we encircle ourselves by an entirely different culture - the society of thieves and murderers – we are still unable to escape our guilt and shame. Yes, such company might mitigate these feelings, but they could not eradicate them.
Besides, if these feelings are merely a matter of our former conditioning, we should be able to re-condition ourselves or at least swallow a pill to make everything okay. However, human history has shown that these feelings are integral to the human condition. To separate ourselves from them – if that were possible - is to become less than human. Perhaps, instead, we need to accept these feelings as reflections of reality. After all, we regard our seeing and thinking in this way. When we drive our car, we take what we see as reality and base our driving decisions upon this sensory feedback.
And so, what if violating morality is akin to violating gravity – both entailing some very real costs? If this is so, forgiveness requires more than self-affirmations or professional- or peer-affirmations. It would seem that absolution requires stronger, more tangible stuff.
The philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis argued that we have personal evidence of an objective moral law:
- Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, “It’s not fair."
He automatically assumes that we all partake of the same, inescapable law:
- If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. (Mere Christianity)
And so, if our feelings of guilt and shame are more than just mere feelings but a reflection of an unchanging moral law, then we have to listen to them as we would a fire-alarm. In the same way that a fire-alarm points to an external reality apart from the disturbing noise of the alarm, our disturbing feelings point to a moral reality that exists beyond our feelings.
It would be foolish to turn off the alarm and go back to sleep. Instead, we’d have to confront reality – the fire! If this is so, then we have to understand the message of our feelings, and shouldn’t dismiss them with a set of affirmations, like “there is no fire; there is no fire.” Instead, perhaps our feelings are pointing to a real moral problem that must also be addressed.
King David learned how to address this problem after years of burying it:
- Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (Psalm 51:1-4)
Instead of self-forgiving, David took full responsibility for his sins and found relief. Elsewhere, he confessed:
- Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered… For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer… I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)
Perhaps our emotional struggles are God’s way of reeling us in, revealing to us a deep-seated problem that requires examination. David was brought to his knees before God. He only found relief and forgiveness after he acknowledged that he had sinned against the Lord Himself.
Forgiveness, to have any meaning at all, must be understood as relational. So often, my confession to my wife and her forgiveness of me have been healing and restorative. If this is what forgiveness is meant to be – relational and healing – how much more does this principle pertain when we offend our Creator with our sins!
This doesn’t mean that there is absolutely no place for self-forgiveness. However, it is more correct to put it this way – receiving the forgiveness coming from the Other. Our Savior wants us to know that when He has forgiven us, we are forgiven completely! To continue to punish ourselves for our moral failures denies the very thing that He has guaranteed – that He has paid the price in full.
If we refuse to accept this provision of grace, we condemn ourselves to an endless drudgery – our attempt to establish our own righteousness to compensate for our moral failures. As we attempt to lift ourselves up, we put others down, determined to prove that we are more deserving than they.