Sarah Newhard, LCPC, LMFT.
“If God forgives us we must forgive ourselves otherwise it’s like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.” Although C.S. Lewis penned this truth over half a century ago (found in “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis”), the message of self grace, trust, and forgiveness still wars against the shame, fear, and mistrust in our hearts.
A consistent theme that shows up in therapy, whether it be individual, family, or group sessions, is this very real struggle to forgive oneself. It is remarkable to hear the young ladies I have the privilege of working with discuss how readily they would forgive a friend for the same behavior and that they confidently know that Jesus would forgive that friend, yet the task of self-forgiveness for the same infraction seems unfathomable. “How can I possibly forgive myself for what I’ve put my parents through?” “I can’t forgive myself for the damage I’ve done to my body through drugs and self-harm.” “I wasn’t there for my sister when she needed me most, I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”
Forgiveness towards anyone can be a challenging endeavor. C.S. Lewis humorously spoke to this reality in “Mere Christianity” when he wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” It’s not easy. And yet it’s what God calls us into. Paul reminds us of this calling to forgive in Colossians 3:13b, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Prior to writing that, Paul stated, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). These Biblical directives to forgive and act in a way that embodies compassion, humility, and patience can be complex when directed towards ourselves. And yet profoundly crucial for a life of growing freedom, peace, and ability to authentically offer these same gifts to others.
The forgiveness process towards self can be harder at times than forgiving others, yet it involves a similar process. It’s helpful to see forgiveness as a process–forgiveness is rarely a one-time decision. Even if we’ve initially committed to forgiveness, new moments of grief will arise and we will progress in processing and feeling emotions about the same situation as new reminders come up. Throughout the process, we will continue to be confronted with the ongoing decision to pursue forgiveness and grace and compassion.
E.L. Worthington offers some practical steps towards forgiveness known as the REACH Model as found in his 2001 book. These aspects of forgiveness can be directed towards self in the process of self-forgiveness: 1. R- Remember the hurt; 2. E- Empathize with yourself and see your humanity while envisioning yourself through God’s eyes; 3. A- Altruism, offer the gift of goodwill towards yourself by desiring good things for yourself and refusing to punish yourself; 4. C- Commit to forgiveness and as needed have others hold you accountable to pursuing forgiveness; 5. H- Hold onto forgiveness even when you don’t “feel” it. (Worthington, 2001).
Forgiveness of self can be challenging because we may hold ourselves to a higher standard than others. The young women I have the honor of working with in therapy often confidently declare they could forgive a friend, though they admit they struggle to forgive themselves even though they realize the glaring double standard in their statement. It is important to explore our beliefs associated with forgiveness and the implied assent that we are indeed imperfect; it is humbling and even initially painful to embrace our imperfection and accept our universal human need for grace.
An added challenging dimension to self-forgiveness can be the feelings of shame, fear, and mistrust in our hearts. It is easy to equate forgiveness with trust. When we’ve made mistakes or made decisions that are painful, even if we were doing so with the best of intentions, we can struggle to learn to trust ourselves again – to trust that we won’t do something similar that may be just as painful or detrimental. It is key to understand that forgiveness is not the equivalent of trust. When thinking about forgiveness towards others, we can choose to forgive an alcoholic parent or an abusive partner, but in no way does this forgiveness mean carte blanche trust. No! We would want that individual to undergo intense treatment, experience strong accountability, and demonstrate a significant period of healthy and appropriate behavior.
Similarly, forgiveness towards ourselves does not mean automatically trusting ourselves. It is also wise to intentionally consider what prompted our behavior and what contributed to our decisions (even if well intentioned). Learning to trust ourselves also means speaking about our struggle and being open to accountability in the future. Depending upon the situation, it may mean processing with trusted friends who can speak into our struggle and provide guidance and wisdom in similar situations that may arise in the future. It may mean seeking out counseling. Or like the courageous young ladies I work with, it may mean entering residential treatment with intensive individual, family, and group therapy to build a strong set of coping skills and healthy interpersonal skills; as these ladies see that they are learning and applying these skills and have healthier and more effective ways of interacting with the world, they build their trust in themselves. Nevertheless, I’d suggest that without forgiveness, a new way of relating to the world through behavior will be limited and empty without releasing the weight of the chains of unforgiveness towards self.
May we seek to live out Paul’s encouragement in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” May this kindness, compassion, and forgiveness be generously offered to others as well as ourselves.
Worthington, E.L. (2001). Five Steps of Forgiveness. New York: Crown Publishers.
Sara Newhard, LCPC, LMFT. As the Spirituality and Christian Program Coordinator, Sara leads, supervises and facilitates trainings for the primary and family therapists in the Christian team. She oversees the Christian programming across campus, which includes groups, various worship services and holiday services for residents, and supports the chaplain who serves on campus. Additionally, she supports general spirituality across campus to encourage those of all faiths to nurture their spirit and connect with their Higher Power. Prior to joining Timberline Knolls, Sara worked as a family therapist in the Chicago area where she specialized in multi-systemic therapy for adolescents and their families who were part of the juvenile justice system. Sara also spent several years living and working in Asia before pursuing further education and training in clinical psychology. Sara earned her undergraduate degree in family psychology from Oklahoma Baptist University and her Master’s degree in clinical psychology from Wheaton College in Illinois. Sara is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) and the National Board for Certified Counselors.