After a decade of no contact, my sixteen year old daughter lived with her father for about six months. While I didn’t sleep a full night during that time, she seemed happy for the first three. After that, things began to go south rather quickly, and soon, she came home, to both of our relief. One day soon after, while we were at the grocery store, she mentioned that her whole life she had assumed that our divorce was her fault. She had never mentioned this to me, the idea that somehow my divorce from an abuser could be laid at her feet. But before I could begin my strenuous objections to this idea, she casually shrugged and said, “But then I lived with him, and then I realized he was a pretty bad person.” She knew from her sisters that he was troubled, and though I always tried to avoid speaking ill of him to my daughters, the revelation that this guilt she held onto was unnecessary and untrue set her free in a way that my words could not have. She found self-forgiveness.
The process of forgiving oneself is a messy one. In ministry sessions, I witnessed the Lord setting people free from self-directed anger and shame. The route to freedom is somewhat the same for everyone. Here is the key:
Each person must take the time to sort out the guilt that is legitimate versus that which is assumed.
The Three Questions:
If you are carrying around a load of self-directed anger or loathing, measure them up against these three critera:
- Of what specific act are you guilty? My daughter, at the age of one, obviously could not shoulder the guilt of our divorce and yet she had, unbeknownst to me. If I asked her what she had done, she might say in her own reasoning, “I was born and that caused tension.” Then the next question is whether she had control over her birth? What specific act could she name that caused these problems that preceded her by a decade? If you cannot name a specific action that you are guilty of regarding a situation, you need to reconsider it. Sometimes others blame you for things over which you had no control. Are you taking on guilt because your own heart convicts you or because of the judgment of others?
- Why did you do it? This is not about excusing your behavior to yourself. But if someone steals from you to feed their starving child, does this affect your motivation to extend mercy over someone stealing from you out of mere greed? Look into your reasoning for your actions. For years I felt terrible guilt for staying married to a cruel man and thereby exposing my girls to his narcissistic abuse. And the regret is sometimes overwhelming. But as I remember my situation closely, I realize the factors in my decisions were complicated by fear of a man who could hurt me. I was afraid of losing the girls. I was afraid that he would make good on his threats against me. And then I remember I was brave enough to run away several times with the girls until it stuck. And I fought him and won. Mistakes were made. Mistakes are always made. I grieve over the loss of time and innocence. But I extend mercy to my younger self because I didn’t know then what I know now.
- Have you done your part in confessing and asking forgiveness? As my daughters process the realities of who their father is and my part in the marriage, I try to cop to whatever grievance they have. If you have wronged people, make it safe to air their grievances and allow them to forgive you at their own honest pace. If you can humbly admit to your mistakes, it doesn’t make them go away, but it helps others get over their hurt. And that helps you put it behind you as well. As others forgive you, suddenly extending forgiveness to yourself becomes easier.
If you know what you have done, why you did it, and have made full confession to God and those concerned, but still struggle with experiencing forgiveness, ask yourself if you have truly experienced God’s forgiveness of your sins. Intellectual assent is not the same thing as revelation. Your brain might agree, but if your heart is still condemning you, it may be time to seek after a more experiential approach. In the times of inner healing prayer that I have ministered over the years, one of the quickest ways to help someone out of the hamster wheel of self-loathing was asking them if they were willing to receive God’s forgiveness. Many times, a man or woman would look into their hearts and say no. They did not feel worthy of forgiveness.
To refuse forgiveness is prideful; it is to judge God’s grace as inadequate.
I do not say this to shame but to encourage, for I have never seen anyone turned away at the foot of the Cross. My next blog in this mini-series will concentrate on various ways to experience God’s forgiveness in such a ways as to make forgiving yourself far easier.
But for today, exercise self-awareness. Ask the Holy Spirit to convict your heart of those things that are true, but to free yourself from false guilt and the shame from the accuser of our souls that wounds our hearts.
For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. 1 John 3:20