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Ficticious Forgiveness: Why We Cannot Forgive Ourselves

– by Eric Davis

It’s heard often in the throes of life. “I just can’t forgive myself.” “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive myself for this.”

We do something that we never thought we could; a sin against a spouse, child, unborn baby, good friend, or the like. The guilt snowballs. Despair lingers. We can’t shake it. It may have been something we did a few days, or decades, ago. And the burden hasn’t gone away. “Why can’t I forgive myself?”

Dozens of books have been written on the topic of self-forgiveness. Much ink has been spilled, proposing step-by-step guides, in an attempt to walk individuals through forgiving themselves.

Some psychologists say that the battle to forgive oneself is rooted in a struggle to shed shame and blame. The goal becomes feeling better about oneself. Corresponding methods follow. For example, it is said that replaying what you did over and over again in your head isn’t going to heal you or the one you hurt. Instead, it only makes you feel bad. And that shouldn’t happen. So, if you find yourself meditating on your mistakes, stop, and refocus your attention on something more positive. One such technique is Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique. It’s a self-promoting procedure aimed to convince yourself that you are better than past mistakes.

Others advocate dealing with self-forgiveness by fighting off the bad things you’ve done. Preach to yourself the good things you’ve done. You should meditate on what an amazing person you are to leverage self-forgiveness.

Still others prescribe a form of self-pampering. Treat yourself to your preferred pleasure. Sure, you made a mistake, but it’s toxic to feel bad about yourself. So, drown out the negative with your favorite treat or trinket to self-actualize yourself once more.

We could go on.

But surpassing the crux of self-forgiveness has nothing to do with a secret technique rooted in self-actualization, self-esteem, or self-pampering. In fact, that only pours fuel on the fire. Any approach to this issue which has as its goal making oneself feel better or look better is utterly dangerous. Why? It has two catastrophic things in common; the deifying exaltation of self and the suppressing elimination of God. Self becomes god. God is suppressed. It’s the same old trick that got us here in the first place.

There are at least seven problems with the “I-can’t-forgive-myself” dilemma which demonstrate that self-forgiveness is a fictitious forgiveness.

1. Self-forgiveness clashes with the definition of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a transaction conducted between multiple parties in which a debt is acknowledged by the violator, pardon sincerely requested, and pardon granted by the violated. Thus, forgiveness involves multiple parties. The issue has nothing to do with me transactioning with myself, and everything to do with others; those against whom I sinned.

Therefore, self-forgiveness is rendered fictitious simply by the definition of forgiveness.

2. A struggle with self-forgiveness may actually be an unwillingness to accept the depth of my sinful nature.

We’ve all done terrible things. It’s inescapably human. Then the dilemma comes: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive myself.” But what we really mean is, “I still can’t believe I did that.” “That’s just not me. I’m not that kind of person.”

But, as hard as it may be, we need to believe it. We are that kind of person. In part, this is the crux of the issue. If we can get here, contrary to many psychologists, we are on the path upward.

Self-forgiveness is often simply an avoidance of healthy self-evaluation. We are not proverbial puppets being unwillingly forced by a conniving puppet master into sin. We are sinners by nature.

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:14).

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 17:9-10).

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).

We really are that bad. And this is key to the problem. If we are unwilling to go here, then we will never escape the actual toxicity of the self-forgiveness issue. We shouldn’t stay here (see #7), but we need to get here.

3. Fueling the battle with self-forgiveness could be severe self-righteousness.

Similar to a failure to accurately embrace our depravity, we may be stewing in extreme narcissism. We perceive inability to forgive ourselves. However, we really have a high view of self. We cannot believe that we sinned in some way because we, if unspokenly, esteem ourselves as far greater than we really are. Our self-esteem has rotted our soul into the delusion of self-forgiveness.

The real problem is quite simple, however. We are proud, self-worshiping egotists. Thus, we refuse to come down from the mythical cloud upon which we esteem ourselves. This always compounds the problem.


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Ficticious Forgiveness: Why We Cannot Forgive Ourselves

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