Forgiving Yourself

Love is always a gift, never a reward.

Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness. No wonder. Forgiveness is essential to being a whole person and can be remarkably difficult to do. 

Most people who try to follow the teachings of Jesus have gotten the message that God is forgiving just because God is, well, God. God forgives before we can even begin to feel remorse.

God won’t withhold forgiveness, even in response to our uneven records of forgiving others. We seek to forgive not to earn God’s forgiveness, but because we see that the alternative is bitterness, cynicism, and alienation.

It’s very hard to forgive someone who has injured us deeply. But even for those who have made forgiving a habitual practice, there often remains one act of forgiveness that continues to elude them. They cannot forgive themselves.

Some people struggle with guilt about one specific incident in the past. They betrayed a confidence or injured someone in a car crash, for instance. Confessing and making amends frequently liberates them from the regret they’ve been carrying.

But in some conversations people have told me something more general like, “I’ve been a rotten parent.” They’re not being evasive or refusing to admit some horrible incident. Tellingly, you could recite a long litany of this person’s good parenting practices and she or he would still say, “Yes, but…”

In other words, somewhere deep within them a voice is muttering that they do not measure up. And they don’t know how to silence that voice. When they report that they can’t forgive themselves, they’re talking about grappling with shame. They cannot accept their imperfect selves and their messy lives.

I get that. I’ve been there. 

I’ve struggled with shame. And while I have worked on, and am still working on, forgiving myself for specific things done and left undone in my past, I have needed a different strategy to silence the shame-voice within me.

I recently shared my thoughts about this with my friend David.

We were participating in a four-day meeting at a conference center in the hills of North Carolina. After lunch one day we walked the wooded trail circling the small lake adjacent to our meeting space.

We kept a comfortable pace. More than a saunter, less than a march. Our feet were drawn forward by our conversation, not by a destination. And so midway, as we emerged from the trees onto an earthen dam, we sat on a wooden bench to talk and to gaze out onto the water.

Part of our exchange went something like this:

“David, for the past few months, I’ve been experiencing gratitude in a way that’s new for me. It’s changing me. I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful for this life, exactly as I’ve lived it. I’m grateful that my father was my father.”

“Really,” he said. “That’s saying a lot, given your history with your dad.”

My father had fashioned charm and intimidation into a sort of weapon. He was funny and a great story teller. He had a way of making me yearn for his approval and affection.

This same man also unleashed emotional abuse on my mother and on me. The punches and the mortal threats he reserved for my mom. 

His strategy for controlling us lay in projecting a glittering image of himself while implying our worthlessness.

My mother was bruised and battered both physically and spiritually, and yet she never fully succumbed to my father’s gaslighting. Taking me in hand, she fled the little town he had dragged us to, escaped his abuse, and began a new chapter in her life. 

Gradually I realized that, even though I had made a geographical move as a child, the echo of my father’s voice had hitched a ride. Deep within me his voice continued to mutter about my flaws and inadequacies well into my adulthood.

For a long time I tried to achieve my way out of shame. Good grades, awards, career successes. Surely enough of these things would make me worth loving. Right? But trying to earn love didn’t work. It couldn’t. Love is always a gift, never a reward.

Addicted as I was to achievement, I had unwittingly focused on arriving at a final product that would pass inspection once and for all. I now realize that this is the lens of judgment. Jesus taught me to look at life through the lens of love.

From the perspective of love, life is a growth process. A messy and imperfect, frequently beautiful sometimes terrible growth process. And, crucially, we are not alone in the growing. God is in it with us, not sitting back and waiting for us to hammer ourselves into an acceptable shape.

Jesus put it this way:

A man noticed that one of his fig trees wasn’t bearing fruit. He wanted to chop it down, but his gardener talked him out of it. “Look,” says the gardener, “let’s work with the tree and give it some time. Believe it or not, this tree will grow right through all the manure that gets heaped on it.” 

Notice that the gardener does whatever it takes to promote the fig tree’s growth and fruitfulness. In other words, God is up to the divine elbows making from life’s manure the very stuff of new life.

That’s what God has done in my life, specifically in the case of my abusive father. I am not grateful for the abuse. I am grateful for what God has—with my admittedly on-again, off-again participation—made of it.

Paradoxically, when we accept ourselves as imperfect, we open ourselves to the love that will make us grow.


21 Comments

  1. This blog reminded me of something from Springsteen on Broadway: “We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors, we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way and some transcendence.”

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    1. That’s terrific stuff. It’s flattering that what I’ve written brought that mind. The passage you quote also reminds me of passage in his memoir Born to Run. Thanks, Bob!

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  2. I identify with everything you’ve said. Since I “saw” my father forgiven and then forgave in full, I found my own forgiveness. The shame thing pretty much vanished then of its own accord, slowly. Then I started to feel a genuine love that I didn’t have to “try” to do. I really felt it.. really feel it. Then genuine joy, not “put on” joy. Then gratitude – this is very new, maybe in the last month I recognised it. I’m still walking along with you Jake, encouraged by the insights you share and I want to affirm what you’re saying, that this is also my experience too. God bless

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    1. Pretty cool that we’re walking along together half a world away from each other. Still grieving for you and all of NZ. And I am in awe of the decisive response by your political leadership. Blessings, Liz!

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      1. We in NZ mourn but the reaching out, both ways, between Muslims and other NZers is nothing short of miraculous. I’ve never seen so many different groups joining together in unity, sharing our hearts as NZers.

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  3. I really resonate with what you say. The more I forgave my father, the more I learned to celebrate his many good qualities , especially the ones I inherited. When I was dwelling on his faults, I projected them on God the Father and my image of God was damaged. During those years, I dwelt moore on God the Creator. Now I am glad to see the image of God in my father…..and in me! Thank you for these good words! Deacon Belle

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  4. Jake, I’ll always remember a time in London, going to see a priest at All Saints, Margaret Street to make my confession. By this time, the priest sat side by side with the confessee. After the sad recitation of my recent misdemeanors, the priest looked at me and said “Ron, do you not know that God takes the rubbish of our lives and makes something good out of it?” I’ve never forgotten that; and my vocation, first as a Franciscan Brother and thern a secular priest became the fruits of that .

    Somehow, after our recent Christchurch tragedy, we Kiwis have learned that Muslims – and everyone else in our community – are our brothers and sisters, beloved of God as each one of us is. That is the stuff of redemption.

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  5. Spot on, reverend. I asked Spirit yesterday what I needed to address next and there you were. In fact, there are several large neon signs pointing to “Your Father.”

    By the way, are you at the DBB retreat at Lake Junaluska? My friend Cathy Keaton is there. You two should meet.

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  6. This post brought tears to my eyes because we all grapple with guilt in one form or another. But God is not about guilt. Guilt comes from our own ego. God is only about love. Your words resonate with me today as I continue to work to find peace in my heart. Thanks.

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  7. Dear Bishop Jake,
    This was the PERFECT post at the perfect time. As someone in the discernment process, focusing on those “cringeworthy moments” (and yes, I used that EXACT term when discussing it with my discernment committee) put a block between what I hear and what God’s call may truly be. I hope that you won’t mind if I pinch a couple of sentences from this Blog Post for my Sermon on 6th Lent. It fits so well with the entire theme….

    Peace in Christ

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    1. Bret, I’m glad to hear that the timing of this post worked so well for you. Blessings on your continued discernment. Mine is lifelong and life-wide, and I pray the same for you! Do please pinch away, and share your work with me if you’re so inclined. It would be a delight to read it. Lenten blessings……

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  8. It was like you wrote this post just for me Father Jake. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight. I have struggled with shame, perfectionism, and earning love and my worth my whole life. I have been reminded by you again today that love is a gift and I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and accepted. I wonder if you have any other suggestions for do the work of forgiving myself? I believe that would bring a lot of healing to me. My brother committed suicide in April 2017 and 10 months later my father committed suicide. I am carrying around a lot of guilt and shame over their deaths. I have forgiven them because I understand why they did it but I don’t think I have fully forgiven myself yet. I keep thinking I should have done more to help them and love them when they were alive, like there was something I should have done to prevent this and I did not do it. I don’t know how to forgive myself for letting this happen to them. How do I forgive myself? Are there any resources out there to help me do this work of forgiving myself? Thank you very much!

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    1. Oh, Tammy, your last two years have filled with such pain! I can see how hard this has been and how hard you struggle to find your footing. I do think that the chapter on Shame in A Resurrection Shaped Life might be helpful. Brene Brown’s work on perfectionism and shame really resonated with me: books as well a TED talk. Time and friends willing to sit through difficult times with you (without offering advice) have been huge in my life. This is such a heavy weight to bear. When I’ve got a burden I can’t carry anymore or don’t know what to do with, sometimes it helps me to imagine handing it (in some form that makes sense to me) to Christ each day or even several times a day as I feel that I need it. The shame I have felt was that kind of burden. Maybe it is so with you. Hang in there, my friend. It might not help at the moment, but I pray that you can remember that you are loved exactly as you are and nothing can change that.

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      1. Thank you Father Jake. I appreciate your kind response. I will continue to work on releasing my shame and guilt and the example you gave of handing it over to Jesus is very helpful to me. Thank you so much! Blessings!

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