The Personalist Project

Accessed on March 24, 2023 - 5:58:51

“Forgiving Oneself”—What Might It Mean?

Michael Healy, Feb 14, 2012

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.”