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.