Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Forgiving Oneself

When I ended last week's column on forgiveness, I left you with one of the most difficult of all transactions of forgiveness - self-forgiveness. Did you give any thought to that aspect of forgiveness? I hope you did. Forgiving oneself is an essential ingredient of becoming a forgiven person. The failure to forgive oneself is a self-inflicted wound.

Counselors and clergy are frequently visited by people who have a pervading sense of guilt about something for which they have been forgiven by all the parties involved except themselves. Hardly a week goes by without having someone describing a situation about which they feel guilty, and they end the recitation with this sentence: "I cannot forgive myself." It little matters whether the guilt is real or imagined, whether it has been forgiven by all other parties or not, the intensity of the emotional pain is the same.

The complaint of not being able to forgive oneself, even after having received absolution from all other parties, may be indicative of deeper and more serious emotional problems. When one's sense of guilt has to do with a deeper tangle of unresolved problems which is fueling the anxiety and emotional discomfort, you may be sure that it is not what it is about, it is about something else. The verbalized complaint is but the ‘tip of the iceberg', and indicative of the need of treatment by a professional therapist. Such cases require more attention than a theological explanation; more attention than I am about to offer in this brief column.

Relax. You are not in charge of forgiving yourself. It is not a transaction that you can execute by the force of will. It is not a situation that merely requires more information. It becomes a matter of faith in the absolution that has already taken place.

When Dr. George Buttrick was pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, a woman came to see him about a forgiveness problem. She had nagged her husband to go on a vacation. During their seaside vacation he was hit by a motorboat and killed. The woman fell into a deep depression. Finally, she came to see Dr. Buttrick and said to him: "I cannot forgive myself." We have all heard that assertion from someone in distress, and in fact, we may well have said that at some time in our lives. If so, then the response of Dr. Buttrick is something we need to hear and hear well!

Dr. Buttrick said to the woman: "My dear, forgiving yourself is not your business. It is God's business." There is a real sense in which we cannot forgive ourselves by ourselves. Unless God becomes operative in the process, we will be eaten up by guilt.

You cannot operate on yourself, either, even if you are a skilled surgeon, but you can be operated on. You can be saved, but if you try to save yourself, you will be lost. Can you hear what I am saying to you?

It is necessary for us to find the way to ‘self-forgiveness', for we are the most frequent offender against ourselves. If you cannot forgive yourself even as God has already forgiven, then you are caught in a double bind. You are the perpetrator and the victim. You are the sinner and you are the one sinned against.

There is a biblical solution to self-forgiveness. If you accept the Bible as a reliable source of guidance and comfort, then here is your answer. The first is from I John 8-9: "If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

There is a passage from Psalm 103:10-12 which can enlighten and guide us. "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us."

You can be a forgiven person. The process requires acceptance of the forgiveness of others if it is offered. But, what if forgiveness is denied? It is distressing to be denied forgiveness, but this unhappy experience does not prevent one becoming a forgiven person. If you accept the teachings of Jesus as the final authority for understanding denied forgiveness, the weight of guilt shifts when forgiveness is denied. There nothing in the teachings of Jesus about which he is more specific and clear. Jesus said: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15). When forgiveness is denied, the guilt shift from the offender to the one who has been offended. This is a theological and psychological truth from which there is no escape.

The final and most decisive step in forgiving oneself is faith in the forgiveness of God. When God removes our transgressions from us "as far as the east is from the west", it is a self-inflicted wound to continue wallowing in guilt that is long gone.

If in consideration of the above, you still feel guilty, seek counsel from someone who by training and experience can lead you into the realm of the subconscious and bring you out safe on the other side.