The Personalist Project

In my earlier post on forgiveness, an interesting tangential point arose in discussion about the (possible) nature of "forgiving oneself" or "self-forgiveness."  Some would deny such a thing is even possible, others would say it has a meaning, though only derivative or secondary.  Herewith, a further attempt to sort out a few thoughts on the topic.

It might seem at first glance that “self-forgiveness” is a dangerous concept.  Why?  First, is it not substituting a relation to self for what is by its very nature an interpersonal act?  Does this not imply an encapsulating self-centeredness?  Second, don’t we have to ask for forgiveness and be forgiven by the one we have wronged?  Otherwise, are we not skipping the most essential dimension of the act?  Thirdly, is this not just giving ourselves an easy way out, setting things “in order” for ourselves without reference to the offended one?  Fourthly, since it is ultimately God Whom we have offended in all sin, are we not putting ourselves in the place of God Himself when we vainly try to forgive ourselves?  Who would presume such arrogance?

This is the negative side.  Now, what might be said in defense of this concept?  Can any answer be given to the above objections?  Initially, it must be acknowledged that “forgiving oneself” is at least an awkward term, and must be regarded as derivative from the full interpersonal meaning of forgiveness.  Nonetheless, I think we can make some sense out of it.  But in what contexts?  Well, first in reference to God and second in reference to man.

In reference to God always (and secondarily in reference to a fellow human being who genuinely forgives the offender), “forgiving oneself” might be understood as having a derivative meaning relative to accepting or subjectively appropriating God’s (or the other’s) forgiveness.  However, in reference to some men (this would never hold for God), "self-forgiveness" may involve the problem of how to proceed when the other steadfastly refuses to forgive, even if the offended one ought to do so.

In other words, in the first case, someone may know by faith that God’s mercy is endless, his love constant, his forgiveness assured—that he is in fact forgiven by God; but, he may refuse or be unable to accept or acknowledge this forgiveness concretely or existentially in his own life, his own self-understanding, his own consciousness.  Why?  He may think he is simply unworthy of any forgiveness, even God’s, because what he did was so heinous.  So he can’t accept himself as lovable because of what he did; he can’t accept the reestablishment of the love relationship, he can't accept mercy.  Thus, he needs to allow himself to be forgiven, to see himself as forgivable, and this requires in some sense that he forgive himself—accept himself as potentially forgivable even with the fault.  Alternatively, he can wallow in self-pity, self-condemnation, and despair.  This is one of the types of despair Kierkegaard outlines in The Sickness Unto Death, a despair of not-willing-to-be-oneself because of a fault or weakness in the self.  One hates the self because of its lack of perfection. 

To break out of such a trap, one has to admit the fault, admit that it is truly his, admit that he really did x (whatever horrible thing it was), and that it is now part of what he has done with himself, yet that self does not thereby become worthless.  So, “forgiving oneself” here is not easy, is not an excuse, is not merely self-centered or self-encapsulating, and is not substituting the self for God; rather, it is preparing the way for asking and accepting the forgiveness of the other, for breaking out of a downward spiral of despair and self-condemnation.

This is even more crucial in the second case, when a human person refuses to forgive but rather continues to condemn, reject, hold a grudge, wants punishment, revenge, wants to cause pain, or wants to keep the offender miserable precisely by refusing to forgive.  It was pointed out in the comments to the earlier post that the offended one cannot allow himself to become the victim of the offender:

one places the victim way too much at the mercy of the culprit, making it hard for her to recover from the injury and move on with her life. It is difficult enough, this student argued, for the victim to get to a place where she can genuinely forgive her wrongdoer. It is both cruel and unjust to also hold her responsible for the culprit's unwillingness or inability to properly receive the forgiveness.

But I would submit that this also holds true in relation to the offender, the culprit; he cannot allow himself to be made the perpetual, endless victim of the one he has offended, just because the other refuses to forgive and doesn’t ever want to let him get on with his life or move on from his misery over the offense.  Thus the one who has committed the offense and truly needs forgiveness (but it is refused) may have to come to some accommodation on his own, “self-forgiveness” (again only a partial or derivative concept), rather than be stuck in such a fruitless, grudge-filled relationship. 

Two further points, briefly, which (again in a secondary meaning) may make some sense out of “forgiving oneself.”  First, a sin against God and against another human being is also an act of abuse against oneself, no?  We damage and “uglify” the good that we are, the good that God means us to be, we betray ourselves.  So, we must ask God for forgiveness and the other whom we wronged for forgiveness.  But, as part of all this, must we not also forgive ourselves for the damage we have done to our own being?  Just as there can be some sense to self-love, though love itself is essentially interpersonal, I think there is a parallel here with forgiveness. 

Second, one might object, is this Christian or just modern psycho-babble even if some of it sounds plausible?  “Self-forgiveness” doesn’t seem to show up in the Bible, for instance.  In reply, I would agree that it is ultimately casting oneself into the arms of Christ crucified in faith, hope, and charity which is certainly at the heart of Christian teaching on the subject.  This is what saves us from despair and makes us realize that we are forgivable and still lovable.  Yet, when we are told to forgive one another as God has forgiven us, does that phrase “one another” not also include oneself?  I have read that the Greek root here (Heautou, using our alphabet) refers not only to others but also includes ourselves.  This opens up a further dimension of meaning in Colossians 3:13:

bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

However, I am neither a Greek scholar nor a biblical scholar, so I am not really arguing from authority here, but am simply offering some philosophical speculations about possible meaningful interpretations of the notion of “self-forgiveness.”

Comments (18)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Feb 15, 2012 8:15pm

Great post! And I agree with you that the point I made in the earlier comment also applies to the offender. Neither the victim, nor the culprit, should allow themselves to be held hostage by the other.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 16, 2012 8:45am

Thanks, Michael.  I like especially the point that we do ourselves an injury when we commit a wrong against someone else, for which, in a way, we have to forgive ourselves.

I would like to stress again, though, that I think the way "self-forgiveness" is popularly understood, even in Christian circles, is part of a larger view of forgiveness that is poor and weak and thoroughly inadequate both to the mystery of iniquity and the nature and dignity of persons.

I'm thinking of a book on my shelves by a Catholic priest with a "forgiveness ministry", for instance, that stresses the need to forgive ourselves as well as the need to "forgive God."  If memory serves, he has a whole chapter on forgiving God.  In his account, the objective wrong in question is almost irrelevant.  I'll have to look it up and maybe make a whole post.

Michael Healy

#3, Feb 16, 2012 6:52pm

Yes, what you describe is stretching "forgiveness" beyond all bounds.  I did have a friend in grad school who was filled with resentment and anger against God due to certain crosses in his life.  He claimed he refused to 
"forgive" God for these things.  However, in accepting crosses and in overcoming anger and resentment (which we are ultimately call to do), what we have to realize is that the latter are themselves also sins (against an all-loving and all-merciful God) in further need of forgiveness. Perhaps your "forgiveness ministry" priest is (at best) trying to start "where the counselee is,"--even with his (objectively misguided) language--in order to guide him toward a deeper understanding.  Let's hope so.


#4, Feb 17, 2012 8:31pm

Hello, Dr. Healy:  Your post brought a couple of thoughts to mind.  In the first instance, I latched on to the need to accept the forgiveness offered by God (in the sacramental context) - and to activate the personal responsibility inherent in repairing - as far as possible the breach between me and the individual/community concerned. (For me, this is part of the "firm purpose of amendment" involved in obtaining absolution.)

Further, the notion of "forgiving God" may well stem from a misperception of God as having "abandoned" one to cope with the unfolding of circumstances beyond one's comprehension/control.  A willingness to express one's anguish can often be a powerful antidote to a toxic brew of anger and resentment. Job's example is salutary, from time to time.

"Forgiving" self may well entail not merely excusing certain attitudes/behavior but being willing to accept the reality of one's situation squarely and inviting God in 'freely and without purpose of evasion' to work as He will for us, with us and in us.  

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Feb 17, 2012 11:49pm

Hermitess21C, Feb. 17 at 8:31pm

Further, the notion of "forgiving God" may well stem from a misperception of God as having "abandoned" one to cope with the unfolding of circumstances beyond one's comprehension/control.  

That's an interesting perspective.  And no doubt true from a psychological point of view. 

But I can't reconcile it in my mind with my complete conviction that God is all holy, all powerful, and holding us in His love every moment of our lives.

Gregory Borse

#6, Feb 19, 2012 7:25pm

Well put:  "First, a sin against God and against another human being is also an act of abuse against oneself, no?  We damage and “uglify” the good that we are, the good that God means us to be, we betray ourselves.  So, we must ask God for forgiveness and the other whom we wronged for forgiveness.  But, as part of all this, must we not also forgive ourselves for the damage we have done to our own being?"  I think this point begins to relate to the sense in which we allow the working of God's free gift of grace in His forgiveness of our transgrassions as penitents in our free participation in the entire sacrament through penance and final reconciliation.   


#7, Feb 19, 2012 8:42pm

Katie: this was *indeed* written from "a psychological point of view" - that of my 12-year-old self enduring 2 years of ill-conceived surgical interventions performed by a surgeon who said to my mother (in my presence) "If you do this, I'll have her walking within a year." Since I'm now 54 and use a power wheelchair for mobility, that didn't happen. ("Man proposes, God disposes", I know.)  But the wound of my perceived "abandonment" by God needed tending by my growing understanding that God had not done any such thing; thus, I needed to relinquish the adolescent sense of being forsaken: to "forgive" God...In my prior chaplaincy work with persons who were newly physically disabled, this was often a very important step.  Gregory: I agree wholeheartedly!  I suppose I approached the question from an undoubtably personal perspective. 

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Feb 20, 2012 11:10am


Hermitess21C, Feb. 19 at 8:42pm

But the wound of my perceived "abandonment" by God needed tending by my growing understanding that God had not done any such thing; thus, I needed to relinquish the adolescent sense of being forsaken: to "forgive" God...

 This is very helpful and thought-provoking, Hermitess.  Thank you.  

I can't find that book on forgiveness that I found so objectionable.  I'll keep looking.  This is an important issue.

Gregory Borse

#9, Feb 20, 2012 11:16am

And Hermitess21C, I undoubtedly approached the entire topic form a point of view that tended toward the opposite end of the spectrum.  Long ago, I struggled with the idea of "self-forgiveness" because I unwittingly (for a time) made it a pre-condition of my approaching Christ for His forgiveness--i.e., I attempted through my own strength to be worthy of the graces freely offered.  This is a disaster and rooted in pride (I think):  it leaves me fully in charge of the conditions under which my peculiar failings are to be forgiven--and makes of me a Faust who would rather retain control over my own petty fiefdom then give up my power and enter the Kingdom through an accepting act of humility. 

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Feb 20, 2012 12:09pm

Here's another way of expressing my problem.  

It seems to me that "forgiveness teachings" have been become excessively psychologized.  Pasters and teachers are tending to address "forgivenesss issues" exclusively as a condition in the spiritual patient, without regard for objective reality.

Whether the wrong in question was real or imagined, big or small, intentionally caused or accidental, is seen as irrelevant.  All that matters is that you feel like you were wronged.  That's enough to establish that you need to forgive.

This seeems to me a disastrous approach to the spiritual truth of forgiveness, even if it can have some genuine psychological benefits.  But I need to develop my thoughts in a longer post.

Michael Healy

#11, Feb 20, 2012 4:25pm

To Hermitess21C, Katie, and Gregory:

All very interesting perspectives, each with some validity.  We seem to be learning from one another, compared to our starting points!

Gregory Borse

#12, Feb 20, 2012 10:45pm

A budding homonoia methinks, Dr. Healy. And the reason for the Personalist Project, no? Like-mindedness forged (gently, as it were) through the hard process of criticism and real disagreement. Well. I'm for that. God Bless~

Teresa Manidis

#13, Feb 21, 2012 3:09pm

If I may still comment on this thread, first, let me say to Hermitess21C how sorry I am for your pain, physical and emotional, and for your doctor not being able to affect positive change for you.  That truly is a loss which, it seems to me, you have very courageously and gracefully survived.

As to the point of forgiving oneself and if that is even possible, I would like to add two spins on this theme I have not seen here (and, like Gregory, I am liking the give and take on this one).

One potentially useful form of 'forgiving oneself' is not feeling guilty when you have to do something necessary but unpleasant.  For example, say a family member has an addiction or other problem that needs to be addressed, even forcibly, in order for that person to get help.  In pointing out the wrong (alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse, etc) you may receive (very) negative comments or feedback from the dependent person - he or she may attack you verbally, demanding you take back your words, even demanding you apologize for bringing this situation to light. But here it would be inappropriate to apologize, or back down.

Teresa Manidis

#14, Feb 21, 2012 3:22pm

In that case, you may feel the need to 'forgive' yourself for doing something painful that is, nonetheless, needful.

My second point certainly exposes me to potential ridicule, but I offer it for what it is worth.  When I was younger, I thought I had commited 'a big sin' (looking back now, I can hardly see the harm in it; but I was more dramatic then).  I couldn't get over it - how many times I confessed that sin I cannot now remember - but my point is, I was not sorry for it because of God's 'just punishments', or even 'because they offend Thee my God, Who art all Good and derving of all my love'; I was sorry for it because I saw myself as so angelically good that this one spot tortured me - I was like the mad scientist in Hawthorne's The Birthmark, who kills his otherwise beautiful wife in an attempt to remove one cosmetic imperfection.  I certainly was not (am not) perfect.  And this sin was what it was.  But I needed to 'forgive myself,' if you will allow the phrase, precisely because I was not perfect - no one is.  Hard lesson learned. 


#15, Feb 22, 2012 12:08am

Teresa: Thank you for your kind words - and your very perceptive thoughts re: resistance to the reality of one's "creatureliness" to a certain extent, one's imperfection;a most necessary but often absent balance between acceptance and acquisence.

Gregory:  Thank you for enlarging on the context of your post!  Pride, in its many guises, bewitches us and robs us of the strength that is at its best in weakness.

Katie: I couldn't agree more that the "forgiveness issues" approach is pernicious; it smacks of a sort of blanket amnesty wherein *everything* is forgiven and *nothing* is forgiven simultaneously.  I got a bellyful of 'non-judgmental' Carl Rogers technique in my 1970s undergrad psych degree...Such 'acceptance', it still seems to me, violates the subjectivity and uniqueness of he person while it denies him/her the dignity of taking responsibility for his/her own actions - to the fullest extent possible.

(I'll be *here* during Lent, while 'abstaining' from several other favorite spots on the 'Net...Thanks for the refreshment and spiritual/mental exercise to all!) 

Jules van Schaijik

#16, Feb 22, 2012 7:12am

Hermitess21C, Feb. 22 at 12:08am

I'll be *here* during Lent! 

 We'll do our best to make it a real penance!

Teresa Manidis

#17, Feb 22, 2012 8:47am

Only Jules has the ability to make me laugh out loud when I am reading comments on my phone in an environment where it is absolutely essential I remain silent!


#18, Feb 22, 2012 4:07pm

Thank you, Jules! (I think...)  Teresa, I agree completely!


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