Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D.
This week, we’re excited to feature a blog series by Dr. Ev Worthington, Jr. of the soon to be released title, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past. Whether you work in a clinical, pastoral, or lay care-giving setting, Dr. Worthington’s insights about forgiveness and emotional healing have both personal and professional application.
Most struggles with self-forgiveness actually boil down more to failure to accept oneself, not forgive oneself. A man who strikes his child can forgive the loss of temper easier than he can accept himself as being a person who would lose his temper and strike his child. How could I do such a thing? We wail.
The problem is, if we’ve spent much time as a Christian, we know we are valuable to God. We have true inherent worth. I must know truly in my heart that God knows me, a fallible human failure who will keep failing all his life on earth, yet while I am a sinner, God regards me of such value that Jesus, beloved Son of God, died for me (Rom 5:8). I can know it in my head, but how does that truth penetrate my heart—especially when I am mired in self-condemnation?
Herein lies the real struggle in forgiving oneself: how do I accept myself as someone valuable when I also accept myself as someone flawed in a more fundamental way than I ever believed was possible? We bounce around morally like a ping pong ball in a wind tunnel. Yet we know as Christians that we have worth. Christ died for us. We might understand in our heads that God accepts us, but that does not always make us feel acceptable to God in our hearts—especially if we have done shameful things. Worse yet, our Christian beliefs might lead us to condemn ourselves a second time. First, we cannot accept our failings. Second, we cannot accept that God can find us acceptable and yet we know we should. A double whammy!
We must work to develop a sense of self-acceptance. It is not a rejection of grace to try to develop a good sense of self-acceptance—one that is informed by the Bible. We are not wrong when we agree with Jesus—that we are worth his life. He showed by his sacrifices that we were—even flawed and fallen—worth accepting.
Viktor E. Frankl had been a psychotherapist. He was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp and was nearing the end of his strength, nourished by only a bowl of broth and piece of bread each day to fuel 14 hours of hard labor. One day, a prisoner stole some potatoes. The camp authorities demanded that the prisoners give the thief up for hanging or go hungry all day. “Naturally the 2,500 men preferred to fast,” said Frankl. But near the end of the day, the prisoners were in their hut with hunger gnawing at their innards. Hope was at low ebb. Then the light failed and physical darkness mirrored their hopelessness. The senior block warden asked Frankl to talk to the men. I cannot hope to do his thoughts justice in my brief summary below. I urge you to read his talk in Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (pp. 129-133).
Frankl first asked the prisoners to think of what they had lost that they could not build up again. For most, the only things of value lost were other precious lives. Life had infinite meaning, including “suffering and dying, privation and death” (p. 132), he said. He asked the men to face up to the seriousness of their position and to consider whom they knew and who knew them. If they died, he said, those who knew them, if asked what precious thing they had lost during the war, would unerringly have said it was those men who huddled with hope flickering near extinction.
We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. If only we could have this as accessible to our heart as it is to our head.
When we have faced up to our failings, confessed them, made amends for the social damage we caused, worked through the psychological damage done by failures and wrongdoing, REACHed emotional self-forgiveness, and accepted ourselves as precious (though flawed) in God’s sight, we have one more step to take. Pursue virtue. Let the book of James be our guide, for it lays out a blueprint for Christian virtue. First, it isn’t founded on our own works but on Christ’s. Second, we are encouraged to glimpse the goal of eternal personal fellowship with the Triune God and with others faithful to death—the crown of life (Jas 1:12). Third, we are to practice virtue (Jas 1:22-25; 2:14-26; 4:13). Fourth, we must realize that our faith and virtue will be tested (Jas 1:2-4; 1:12; 5:7-11). That allows us to see and have intimate fellowship with the Triune God (Jas 1:12). Let us not be weary of acting virtuously (Gal 6:9).
|ResponsibilityStep 1: Receive God’s ForgivenessStep 2: Repent and Repair RelationshipsStep 3: Reduce RuminationReaching Peace
Step 4: REACH Emotional Self-forgiveness
Step 5: Realize Self-Acceptance
Step 6: Resolve to Live Virtuously
Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2013). Moving forward: Six steps to self-forgiveness and breaking free from the past. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Multnomah.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in the APA-accredited doctoral program in Counseling Psychology. He is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Virginia, a Professor for 35 years and a researcher who studies clinical interventions to promote forgiveness, self-forgiveness, humility, better couple relationships, and better mental health through Christian accommodated interventions. His most recent book is Moving Forward: Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness and Breaking Free from the Past (WaterBrook Multnomah).