Forgiving Ourselves

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

For some of us the most difficult person to forgive is not a brother, a cousin, or a father. It is not a sister, a mother, or a daughter. It is someone even closer. It is ourselves.

There may be several reasons why we find it hard to forgive ourselves. Certainly one is that we may have a self-image problem. I am not suggesting we are suffering from low self-esteem. On the contrary, our problem may have more to do with high self-esteem. We may be suffering from an idealized view of ourselves that is out of line with reality. Because we think we are better than we are, we are disappointed when we do not live up to our standards, punishing ourselves emotionally for our failures and being unable to extend to ourselves the grace we extend to others.

One of the pitfalls of belonging to Christ is that God sometimes does such a good job of cleaning us up that we may forget how desperately we still need him. In my case, I began my Christian life with an acute awareness of my need. But as I followed Christ, I began growing in confidence. Gradually, old habits were shed and new and healthier ones were formed. Wounds were healed. I began using gifts I didn't even know I had. As life improved, I became more self-confident and self-reliant.

Because my conversion had been fairly dramatic, I tended to see my life in "before" and "after" terms. After a while, my pre-Christian self receded into the past, gradually becoming someone I remembered but barely recognized. Where I had once felt desperate for God's forgiveness and saving grace, I now felt fairly good about my life. I knew what I was supposed to do and I tried my best to do it. Without realizing it, my brand of Christianity began morphing into something that depended much more on me than it did on God. But all my trying didn't result in a life of peace and joy. Instead, I felt increasingly frustrated, and God seemed increasingly remote.

As always, Christ was merciful, letting me come to the end of my own strength so that I could recognize that twenty years after my conversion, I was still as desperate for his grace and mercy as when his love first swept over me. In addition to recognizing my own self-image problem, it became clear that I also had a God-image problem, a failure to believe that God was really as good as I had once thought he was.

Maybe that's what Christ meant when he exhorted the church in Ephesus, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!" (Revelation 2:4-5).

Our first love wasn't built on our efforts to be perfect, to follow all the rules. It was pure gift, lavished on us because we were for the first time living in reality, seeing ourselves as broken people in the midst of a broken world, in desperate need of grace. God heard us, forgave us, and filled us with his Spirit. That's the "height" from which we have fallen, the height of knowing how good God is, how fiercely he loves us, and how well he wants to provide for us.

Our conversion isn't meant to be only a one-time event, something we merely look back on with wonder. Living in God's grace, admitting our need, become like him by the power of his Spirit--these are to be hallmarks of our lives as Christians. We are the branches, connected to the vine from which our life flows. As we practice the kind of "seven-times-seventy" forgiveness that Jesus urges, we will finally become to ourselves what we already are to Christ: beloved men and women for whom he died and arose.

The peace God promises is not just for the tough times or the extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, God promises us his peace in our day-to-day lives as well.


Originally published September 15, 2020.