Eleanor Masters - How to forgive yourself
I am writing on this subject not to provide a thorough and absolute doctrine, but rather in the hope of instigating or feeding your own meditations. We are all on a journey and walking this together as the family God has provided for us can get us so much further than going it alone.
Permission to Forgive
I work as a mental health nurse with adolescents aged 12-17, and one of the most prevalent reasons for young people coming to our ward is trauma which has effectively in one way or another trapped them in a horrific moment in time and rendered them unable to move beyond this. Unforgiveness can do the same thing: if someone else has harmed us, the wrong they have done can repeat in our minds; if we ourselves have done wrong, the horror we feel at our own actions can almost seem to hold us hostage and feel just as real as the present moment in which we live.
In Psalm 51 David says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” in place of burnt offerings – in other words, God accepts David’s remorse as an atoning sacrifice. Remorse itself is not the end point here, and we are not called to remain in a place of perpetual torture over wrongs we have done – this is when remorse morphs into guilt and, as it says in Romans 8:1, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We are free from guilt and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1John 1:9).
God’s grace is always there for you and immediately available for those who ask for it. Sometimes the hardest battle is seeing that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord,” (Romans 6:23) and accepting this: he has already paid the price of our sin for us, but if we cannot forgive ourselves we cannot take the gift he freely offers us. Give yourself permission to take this gift – whatever it is you have done, God’s grace is big enough to swallow it up whole and blot it out forever; letting this be true for you is such a vital part of forgiving yourself.
Sometimes it is the conviction that we have not done all that we can to put things right which holds us back from being able to truly forgive ourselves for something. That is not to say that God’s forgiveness waits for action to be carried out or relies on what we do to be released to us, but Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” and in Matthew 5 verse 24 we are told to drop everything on the way to coming before God and make up with those we have fallen out with before coming back to worship him.
Ultimately, although we will not have to pay an eternal price for what we do wrong, we have God-given love for one another in our hearts and deep down it is very hard to tolerate hurting someone else in some way without ever apologising or taking obvious practical measures to put things right if we can.
If what you need to forgive yourself for is something you have ‘done’ to someone else, and you continue to feel ill at ease with yourself over it despite praying, meditating on and absorbing the fact of God’s infinite grace, it may be that you need to ask him what you need to do to demonstrate to that person that you are sorry. Forgiving ourselves cannot rely on whether or not they choose to forgive us, but I’ve found it’s sometimes not possible to let myself off the hook until I’ve let God show me if there is anything of this sort that I can do, and then carried this out.
What If There’s Nothing I Can Do?
When my little sister Alice was alive, there were times when I had a very difficult relationship with her – it is impossible to explain this in just a few sentences, but troubles in our childhood and her on-going battles with various mental illnesses caused a great deal of our interactions to be seen through a lens of suffering. I didn’t learn about her final hospital admission until she had already been a patient for 3-4 weeks because she had asked my parents not to tell me, saying that she blamed me for her needing to be there. I was devastated and crushed when I found this out, but I was also extremely angry at the injustice of it: I had not hurt her and could not cause her to become so unwell, but it felt like my parents were endorsing this belief. This and the fact that I was in another city looking after a newborn and a toddler while recovering from a caesarean meant that I very much delayed trying to arrange visiting her in hospital.
It took several weeks before I felt I could even phone her: I didn’t want to bring up what I had been told and make her feel worse, but it was hard to think of speaking about anything else. We did have a handful of conversations over time, and the last time I spoke with her I told her that I would visit the following Saturday. I had been hoping that when we saw each other she might see my love for her and that we could be fully reconciled. Unfortunately Alice died in the early hours of that Tuesday and I was unable ever to see her alive again. I had had no idea that the time we had was running out so rapidly, and therefore did not know how much I needed to ensure we had truly cleared the air. In all honesty, I was still angry with her at the time when she passed away.
I am sharing this because it is the clearest example I can think of in which there is nothing I can now do to put it right. In this case, I didn’t cause the hurt in the first place, but nor did I pursue reconciliation while I had the chance and now, two years on, this still fills me with sorrow.
Over the last two years, I have gone from trying to ignore thoughts and feelings about this (because the loss of Alice alone was more than I could bear) to being forced to face this and bring it before God many times. Finally I have arrived at a place of peace – not without sadness, but the anger and the feeling that I need to be punished are no longer with me.
If you are grappling with a complicated situation where there is no clear solution or no way you can do anything to change things, do not despair. Jesus tells us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33.) There is nothing, nothing he cannot heal. Do not be discouraged if there are some things you cannot instantly forgive yourself for: keep bringing them before God, keep standing in his presence and letting his love wash over you and keep coming back to the Bible. I would really recommend the book of Romans and 1 John as full of fantastically freeing truths about God’s forgiveness and a life lived in the light of this. Reading these, soaking up the truth and coming back to worship God again and again will help you forgive yourself for what he, our God, has already forgiven you.
There are so many things I haven’t even tried to cover here, and so much more that could be said on what I have touched upon, but I do hope I have given you some food for thought.
I also want to briefly acknowledge that there may be some specific but serious cases in which seeking professional help may be of use. For example, if you have been through something very traumatic but lost someone else to this and feel you may have “Survivor’s Guilt,” getting someone to talk to might be a good idea. I do not say this to downplay God’s grace and capacity to heal, but rather because you may be experiencing things which most people have little understanding of and this can be more damaging than helpful at times.
I truly believe and have found in every circumstance I’ve lived through that our Heavenly Father will walk with us through anything and can bring healing to our hearts no matter what we have done.