The Fine Art of Self-Forgiveness


by Rev. Dr. Susan Smith 

It is one thing to forgive another person for a wrong done to you, but it is quite another to forgive oneself for the wrongs all of us as human do.

A person who lives in his or her guilt is a tormented soul. The memory of the offense committed haunts and follows that person and sticks to his or her very spirit like a shadow. There is no escaping it. The guilt and/or shame sometimes lies dormant, like a sleeping cluster of cancer cells, but intermittently, the guilt – the cancerous soul cells – pushes through and brings back to us the memory of that “thing” we want to forget.

It does not matter that God forgives us. That is something we know about, but which we probably doubt on some level, because if we believed that God totally forgave us, it might be easier to forgive ourselves. No, we wrestle with our flaws; in those times of relief, when the cancerous soul cells are sleeping, we have moments of blessed reprieve, but then something happens to remind us – or someone says something to remind us – or we feel judged by someone, even if our perception of the same is totally wrong, and we resort to self-flagellation, one more time.

There are some who do not have this struggle, or so it seems. But all of us have skeletons in our closets, and perhaps the bravado of some is just a method of covering his or her shame over what they have done.

I had a conversation with a man who, when he was young, dropped out of sight and out of contact with a woman to whom he had been engaged. “I just didn’t want to marry her and I didn’t have the courage to tell her,” he said. “I changed my phone number. I moved – out of state. I got another job and moved…and I didn’t tell her a thing. I kept her believing that we were getting married until one day, I was just gone. I never spoke to her again.”

The story was troubling on a number of levels; we talked through some of that, but then I asked him, “What bothers you most about what happened?” I was careful not to say “about what you did,” because I wanted him to open up and I was afraid that if he heard blame or judgement, he would shut down.”

“I can’t forgive myself for being such a coward,” he said. “I don’t know what I expected her to do if I had just told her I didn’t want to get married. I was just too chicken to tell her the truth.”

The incident had happened years prior to our conversation. He had since looked for her and found her and apologized, and though she seemed to have accepted his apology, he could not believe that her forgiveness was genuine. Nor did he believe God had forgiven him, and he definitely could not forgive himself.

“If I had been dropped like that,” he said, “I would never forgive the woman who had done that to me.”

Because of his self-loathing, he said he had not been able to have lasting relationships. He said that he hadn’t understood why he had done that to his fiancée and was afraid that he might do it again. His lack of self-forgiveness was eating him alive. He was much older now, and he realized that his days on earth were limited.

This man ended up in therapy, an experience which helped him understand what it was that had led him to desert his fiancée, but not even the therapy could get him to forgive himself. “I caused her a lot of pain,” he said. “I can never change that.”

No. The hard truth is, none of us can change what we have done in our pasts that caused others pain, but if we do not forgive ourselves, we restrict our capacity to grow. Self-forgiveness is like a fertilizer; the winds of life blow our shortcomings into our souls for us to remember but for God to work with. God uses our flaws, our shortcomings, to make us stronger. If we do not allow ourselves to 1) come face to face with our flaws and then 2) give them to God, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to get new life in spite of those things which we would rather forget. Allowing God in is the art of, and what is needed for, self-forgiveness. God takes our lives and kneads our flaws in with our strengths to make us whole …and God moves on. Our mistakes are what give our life power. God in us makes us see and realize that, and gives us the boldness to risk forgiving ourselves so that we can walk in newness.

This man never married, though he wanted to. He beat himself often, though God was done with it. He robbed himself of his fullest life because he could not forgive himself. He let his mistake become his life, instead of allowing his mistake to season and strengthen his life.

There is an art to letting God into our troubled and shackled souls, but if and when we do, God allows us to see our flaws and our pasts as part of what has made us who we are today.  Self-forgiveness becomes the embodiment of the scripture, “Therefore if any person is in Christ, he (she) is a new person. Old things are passed away. Behold, all thing are become new!”

Even our pasts.

Amen and amen.

About The Author

Dr. Susan Smith Dr. Susan K. Smith is the former pastor of the Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. She received her education from Occidental College, Yale University, and United Theological Seminary. She is the author of five books and the proud mother of two children.

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