I hear it all the time. Pastors, gurus, and Facebook philosophers alike all say “forgive yourself” for past mistakes, responses to traumatic events, or anything else that might have created a hurdle in our lives. And I get what they are trying to tell us. They mean that we should let go of the past because we can’t change it. We should make amends, if possible, but then release ourselves so that we can move forward. All of this, I think, is important to do.
But is it really possible to cancel our own psychic, emotional, spiritual debts?
I often wonder if telling someone to forgive themselves is a kind of futile set-up. Is it even possible for a person to forgive themselves? We can surely forgive others. We can choose whether to let go of an offense made against us; to not hold another person’s debt against them. But is it within our realm of power as human beings to forgive ourselves? Can we do for ourselves what we do for others? Because if so, then why aren’t more people doing it? Why are so many of us carrying the weight of past mistakes to the extent that we cannot see past them? Sure, there is certainly a population of people who find dwelling in the past familiar and comfortable and therefore choose to carry their stuff into every encounter or relationship they have. But there are also those of us who genuinely want to move on without harming those around us even more. People who want their slates wiped clean; a fresh start. Unfortunately, too many times, the latter folks still find themselves tripped up and trapped by things they thought they’d “forgiven” themselves for.
Here’s my take…and to be clear, I’m still wrestling with this, so my thoughts are by far not absolute truth. As a person of faith, I’m not sure that forgiving ourselves is within the reach of human capacity. I’m wondering if the only way to get free of something is to surrender that thing to a power higher and greater than ourselves. Maybe we remain entangled in our past and unable to move forward because we are trying to do a job only the Spirit can do. Maybe if we lean into those things we think we need to forgive ourselves for, examine them carefully, unearth the lessons in the experience, and then lay them at the altar of the Creator for resolution, we will have better success in walking out our lives without the guilt and/or shame that seems to overwhelm us whenever we try to independently free ourselves from the pain we’ve caused others or ourselves.
It sounds good to say “forgive yourself” but maybe it’s better to say, “Beloved, you’re okay. You don’t have to forgive anything. Just surrender that thing to the One who can actually cancel that debt. Then just keep living.”
What do you think? Is it possible to “forgive yourself” or is that above our pay grade?