How I Learned to Forgive Myself

Coulda Shoulda Woulda. If only. Wish I could go back.
Forgive myself…?
It sounds so easy. But it’s not. Especially if your mistake stares you in the face every day.

It’s the guy who goes home to an empty apartment every night because his drinking split the family up. Oh sure, she had the affair, but it was his drinking that drove her there. And he knows it. The single mom who wakes up to her four kids every morning. Each one from a different Mr. Mistake. Every time she writes on a form each different last name than hers, she cringes. Or like me, I come home from working all week only to pack up two kids who really don’t want to go to their dad’s for the weekend. And I really don’t want them to. They’re arguing with each other and letting me know very clearly that they don’t want to go. And there’s nothing I can do to protect them. I should’ve put stronger boundaries down early on with my husband. I didn’t love him with honesty. Instead I hid our problems because I was too proud to reach out for help. And it turned into a nightmare divorce. As if there is any other kind.

And there it is. Our mistakes stare us in the face every day. Friends, counselors and self-help books say we need to learn to forgive ourselves.

But do we really need to?

I had never seen it in the Bible. Maybe I’ve skimmed right over those verses. I don’t remember hearing a sermon on this all those years I’ve sat in church. What did it even mean? What steps do I take? Did God really instruct us to “forgive ourselves”?

This had been rattling around in my head for quite some time. So, I double checked with a theologian friend of mine. He has a degree in this stuff. Was I missing something that seemed so obvious to everyone else? He confirmed it. Not that he knows of — no explicit instruction from scripture to “forgive self.”

I’m no stranger to forgiveness. Through years of a difficult marriage, I had to shake hands with “forgive others” and “love your enemy” on a regular basis. You’d think as much practice as I got I’d be better at it — especially towards myself. But I still find myself waiting for an apology from others before I truly forgive them. I pout and withdraw sometimes. And even though my ex-husband has been dead for almost ten years now, I find myself getting angry and unforgiving towards him because he took his own life and robbed our two sons of their dad. (I blogged about his suicide in an earlier post that you can read here.)

All that to say, I was finding that forgiving myself was so much harder than forgiving others.

Maybe because forgiving myself is — of all of them — the most impossible kind of forgiveness.  Not only because I might see the result of my sin every day but because I have this thing called “my memories” that whir inside me like the internal fan on my laptop. It’s constantly reminding me of what I coulda shoulda woulda done.

Could that be what separates “human forgiveness” from “God forgiveness”?
I was beginning to sort a few things out.
There is guilt.
There are consequences.
And there is forgiveness.

Guilt (or regret) and consequences are little streams that feed into the big river of my memory. God designed my river of memories. Hard-wired inside of me as a gift. So, that I learn from my mistakes. Either because of the consequences I’ve had to pay or someone else has had to pay. Or because of the guilt and regret I feel deep inside myself for the sins that no one sees. Memory is one of the reasons why I dated for seven years before I re-married. Both my husband and I had clear memory of how bad it can go. (The statistics on second marriages didn’t have us running to the altar either, but that’s another blog!) Memory. It’s good stuff.

Could Satan be taking this wonderful gift called “memory” and using it to drive a wedge between me and God? So that I think because I remember my sin, He hasn’t forgiven me of it? Hmmm. . .probably. That seems like something Satan would do. And then He sneaks in this little phrase. . . “forgive yourself” . . . knowing just how hard that would be. So that I’m sure I can never really do it, forever creating a chasm between me and God.

So I push back. I don’t think there is a need to forgive myself. I think it’s like going to the store to buy milk when you own the largest dairy farm in the U.S.

I mean you can, but why would you?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still need to repent of my sins and make amends to people I’ve wronged. I still may have to pay consequences for my sins. And, again, sometimes that stares me in the face. Every.Single.Day. But there’s also a part of me that really wants to remember what I did wrong. It protects me and keeps me from (hopefully) doing it again. That doesn’t always work. But in a perfect world, I would always learn from my mistakes.

But to say I need to forgive myself? It’s a lie. Satan had twisted it all around to make me believe that if I could forget what I shoulda woulda coulda done, then I would be able to forgive myself and then God would forgive me too. Then I’d be free. I’ve seen people trying to forgive themselves for years. And it breaks my heart.

I asked myself what good would it do if I hung onto this? I’ve learned from my mistakes (because of good ol’ memory).  I’ve tried to make amends to people I’ve wronged. So what’s the point of working so hard to forgive myself?

Two things motivated me:
First, I knew my kids would sniff out any guilt I would carry like a dog sniffing around at a dog park. I have seen it so many times. I don’t know how they do it. But kids — especially as they get older — will sense that big bag of guilt you’re carrying around and they’ll use it. “If you hadn’t of….[fill in the blank with what you did wrong]…then I wouldn’t be…”  It starts when they’re adolescents and they aren’t getting their way. They say, “I’m going to live with Dad!”  I have seen people doing this all the way into their 50’s. Children holding their parents hostage for something that happened 40 years ago. Still pulling that card out of their back pocket as an excuse for the mess of their own life. It’s crazy. And usually guilt-ridden parents – who’ve been forgiven by God a long time ago – jump right into the game because it’s all they’ve ever done.

Second, I knew that not forgiving myself would do me no good at the Gates of Heaven. I pictured myself dragging this big heavy bag of un-forgiveness — carrying it around for most of my life. ‘Cuz I probably deserved it. I’d drag it up to the pearly gates only to find out that I couldn’t take it in. I could put in all that hard work of forgiving myself, but why? I call it “why bother” work. And I think I’ve got better things to do in this life.

So how did I finally learn to forgive myself?
I quit trying to forgive myself.
This may surprise you, but I kinda faked it until I really believed it.

A few questions to myself:
“If I felt truly – I mean, truly – forgiven, what would that look like?”  “How would I act?’  “What if all of that was really truly wiped away? How would I feel?”

My answer:
“I’d be free.”
Really, really free.
And clean.

I could look at the kid who’s starting to make a mess of his life and say, “Don’t look at me. You’re making these dumb decisions on your own and it has nothing to do with me or anything I’ve done.”

I would think about the people that judge me and then say to myself, “Nope. They’re wrong. I’ve been bought and paid for by the One who knows me for the masterpiece He created. Not for my mistakes. And certainly not for what they think of me.”

To anyone who said, “If you’d only have done…”  I’d could say, “I’ve been forgiven of that. I’ve asked for your forgiveness too. But now it’s your problem. Not mine.”

Every time coulda, shoulda, woulda comes into my head, I tell myself that it is not from God. That is the non-God side of myself that is hanging onto that. The part of me that doesn’t quite believe that The Sacrifice was good enough. If I’m not careful to learn from the memory and then move it along, Satan will grab it. He’ll turn it into a wedge jammed between me and God like a popcorn kernel wedged between my teeth. Sure I can still function. But it’s super annoying and I can’t really be free to flourish. God wants so much more — not from me. But FOR me. He wants me to live in the freedom that cost Him so much.

So if you’re dragging around a big bag of guilt and wondering when you’ll ever learn to forgive yourself. I hope you drop that heavy ol’ bag. If you’ve already repented and tried to make amends with anyone you may have wronged, don’t worry about the forgiving yourself part. Lucky for you and me, that job’s already been done. I believe it’s really that simple.

Forgiving yourself is like a cold shower when you’re already clean. Why not just relax in the hot tub of God’s forgiveness. He’s done all the hard work. Let it rush over all your sore muscles. And warm you and soothe you and give you confidence and strength. It fortifies you to continue on with other more important stuff ahead. Hold your head up! You’ve been forgiven! It’s pretty amazing stuff. And it really is that good.



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