Forgiving Myself

With regularity I hear people speak of self-forgiveness. They say something like "I know that God has forgiven me but I can't forgive myself yet." Any person whose standards are higher than God's has high standards indeed!

I cringe a little more each time I hear someone speak of self-forgiveness. Much more cringing and I will be little more than a shriveled ball. Not the weight loss plan I had in mind.

The problem is conceptual: I understand what it means to obtain forgiveness from another, someone I have offended. I understand what it means to seek forgiveness from God. I have a more difficult time understanding what it means to seek or obtain forgiveness from myself.

Forgiveness in the cases I understand is a relationship between myself and another person. So what does it mean if there is only one person, myself, involved? As the word forgive suggests, forgiveness is something that one gives. Can I truly be said to give myself something? From whom was it transferred and to whom?

I can buy something I want but don't really need, perhaps a new pen. If I do, I might say, "I bought myself a gift today." But surely I am using the word gift metaphorically in that case? The word gift suggests that I bought something I wouldn't normally buy, but something I wanted and like. But no transfer occurred in such a "gift," and the transfer of something from one to another seems essential to any gift.

Gifts also seem to require grace. Ultimately the gift of forgiveness requires the grace of God, but all gifts require grace of some kind. A gift comes by the favor of another, not by the right of the one who receives it (as Paul well knows). In self-forgiveness, where is the favoring freedom from compulsion or economic exchange that is the essence of the gift?

Thinking that way, the concept of self-forgiveness seems confused and impossible. But surely there is more to talk about self-forgiveness than a repetition of recent forms of psycho-babble. Surely those who speak in those terms are talking about something real, even if they do so confusedly.

Surely one thing they speak of is the reality of their transgressions. If there is no transgression, then there is no need for forgiveness, so to speak of self-forgiveness as real or potentially real is to speak of real transgression. Whether they have or have not forgiven themselves, those who speak of self-forgiveness implicitly recognize that they have transgressed.

Further, if one person forgives another, the two are at peace. They recognize that a fault has occurred between them, a division, perhaps even an abyss. But forgiveness creates a way across that fault, reconciling those who are separated, healing the cut that has erupted between them.

When people speak of self-forgiveness, it makes some sense to say that they are or have been divided from themselves. Whatever they are at their core—Mormons believe they are the children of God—they have also been something else, something inconsistent with that core. Like the fault between sisters and brothers, that internal division must be healed. We must have integrity. That may also be what people are talking about when they speak of self-forgiveness.

The most important aspect of a gift is that it is always a matter of some measure of grace. It is not clear where we find that in self-forgiveness. It is impossible to truly offer myself grace, even worldly grace. Either it is not mine to give, so I cannot give it, or it is already mine to give, in which case I already have it. But perhaps we find an analog of grace in the care for the self.

Our selves must not be the object of our desires and wants. Jesus teaches us that "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Mt. 16:25). (The Greek word translated life in this verse is psyche, meaning "soul," "life," or "person.") We must act for the good of others rather than our own, and we must do so for Jesus' sake rather than our own. Self-forgetfulness rather than self-regard is the mark of a Christian.

Nevertheless, some level of care for the self is necessary. Philosophers have spoken and written about the care of the self since Socrates, and the Savior seems to enjoin something similar in scriptures such as Luke 14:28: "Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?"

If I am not physically able, I cannot help another; care for another requires some degree of care for myself physically. But the same thing is true spiritually: it is difficult to help another spiritually if I do not have the necessary spiritual strength. Care for others entails a certain care for self.

I cannot give myself a gift. Grace toward myself is an odd concept. So when someone speaks of self-forgiveness, I can understand that person to speak of the care for self that is necessary for the love of others.

It turns out, then, that talk of self-forgiveness may be confused, but it is not merely confused. There's something important in it. In the worst cases, that talk borders on or trespasses into blasphemy. In the best cases, however, it is a metaphor enjoining us to integrity and the proper care of the self.

I should cringe less and give those who speak of self-forgiveness the benefit of the doubt.

5/25/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
  • Forgiveness
  • Mormonism
  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.