Getting Life: Is it really OK to forgive yourself?

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other night — a wonderful guy raising a wonderful family of wonderful kids in the gospel. He is one of those people we all love to see raise his hand in Sunday School because we know things are about to get interesting, funny or both. He is one of my favorite people.

During our conversation he shared that self-forgiveness has always been a challenge for him. Then he added with insight and candor, “I’m realizing I’ve been beating myself up for so long it has become part of my identity. I know I’ve worked hard to repent, but if I decide to forgive myself instead of dwelling on my inadequacies, who will I be?”

His comment made me think of the Savior’s call for the death of the old self and the need for rebirth. We often think of that death as having to do with giving up our addictions, our lusts, our spiritual laziness, our disobedience.

But this comment reminded me that for some of us, the man of sin that has to die is the one who is steeped in perfectionism, in shame that is really a sneaky form of pride, in cannibalistic reliance on the arm of our own flesh, or in distrust in God’s love and power. These identities also must die if something truer, wiser, more faithful and more genuinely humble is to be born.

It isn’t easy to change our identity, even when we have changed our behavior, our appearance, or our desires. A few years ago a dear friend lost more than 100 pounds. Before doing so he had developed quite a repertoire of self-deprecating fat jokes that put people at ease with his size and staved off potential criticism.

The trouble was even after becoming positively thin he had trouble changing his identity. He still thought of himself as fat, and his fat jokes continued. But they didn’t work very well any more. Instead of people thinking he was a good sport about his weight, he got either blank stares or uncomfortable silence.

Old habits of how we see and think about ourselves die hard, and changing habits of self-deprecation can feel not only immodest but dangerous. What if we get smug and then mess up again? What if we dare to think God has forgiven us and, in fact, we are deluded? What if we decide to trust Jesus Christ’s atonement and find out it really only applies to people a lot better than we are? What if we decide to give up prayers of desperation, self-flagellation or self-pity only to discover that God only responds to desperation, self-flagellation and pitifulness — not faith, hope and patience? What if ... ?

But let’s try a different set of “What ifs.” What if Nephi’s lament, “O wretched man that I am,” had never evolved into “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted”? (2 Nephi 4:17-19). What if King Lamoni had concluded after Ammon taught him about God, “I’ve killed too many people to ever hope for forgiveness”? (Alma 18). Or if Alma the Younger had ended his story about three days of self-harrowing over his sins, “After that I just couldn’t forgive myself”? (Alma 36).

Of course, we must never forget either the magnitude of the debts we owe or the price paid by Christ for our redemption. But how grateful I am for scriptural accounts that remind us God not only puts up with us liking ourselves again after sincere repentance, he needs us to. Without such an evolution toward trust in God’s forgiving love, Saul would still just be Saul, useless to the cause of Christ.

Forgiveness is God’s gift to the sincerely repentant, grace his gift to the weak yet humble — but belief in the efficacy and adequacy of his gifts is our choice. We must choose, perhaps many times a day at first, to believe God’s promise of forgiveness is real and enough. When we don’t, we trade the inheritance and missions we’ve been given by the one who saves us for a pottage of unbelief with no healing power. Instead of dying to sin, we die to hope.

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), is author of "Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up When We Let Ourselves Down" (Deseret Book).

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