Sermons are often preached on forgiving other people, people who have trespassed against us, who have hurt our feelings, and so on. But someone said to me the other day: “My problem is not how to forgive other people, it is how to forgive myself!” I said, “Have you done anything particularly bad that needs forgiveness?” “Oh no, it’s not that I have done anything wrong; I just feel that life is too much for me. I’m inadequate; I’m a failure. I guess I’ve got a guilt complex!”
How to forgive oneself! It sounds crazy, somehow. Psychiatry is probably responsible for popularizing the idea. When I was young, no one would have known what you meant if you had said you couldn’t forgive yourself. Yet it is not so new after all. The apostle Paul understood all about it, and describes the psychology of it very well in his letter to the Romans (chapter 7). “What I do,” he said, “is not what I want to do, but what I detest. Nothing good lodges in me; for, though the will to good is present, the deed is not. The good that I want to do, I do not, and the evil that I do not want to do, that I do. I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Paul knew that God had forgiven him, but he could not forgive himself.
For convenience, we will refer to the “I” and the “me.” The “I” is the higher self, the enlightened understanding, the executive. The “me” is what we actually are: our unregenerate will, our activities in the world, our achievements, the person other people know. The “I” can observe and appraise the “me” and say: “You’ve made a horrible mess of everything. I cannot forgive you. I don’t even like you. What are you going to do about it?” The contribution of modern psychiatry is not to point out that this clash can exist between the I and the me, but to emphasize the danger of it – danger to bodily health, danger to mental health, even to sanity. It leads to the splitting of the mind in two; and the Greek word for a split mind is “schizophrenia,” a word which is in common use today.
We must somehow come to a satisfactory working arrangement between the I and the me. If you feel disappointed in yourself; if you feel you have failed to achieve what you hoped to achieve; if you have contracted bad habits that you seem unable to control, or a mediocre pattern of life which disgusts you: examine and appraise yourself carefully, and see whether perhaps the expectations you had for yourself were unrealistic. It would be ridiculous, for instance, if you were flagellating yourself and feeling guilty and miserable because you had never succeeded in becoming President of the United States – or First Lady as the case might be (or first Lady President!). Or perhaps you had never succeeded in becoming the head of a multi-million dollar corporation. Or a golf champion. Or a world-famous pianist (which I had hoped to be when I was a child!). Only one person in a million gets to the top of any of these big high ladders of life; it is not likely that we should be among their number. And those few who do make it, turn out to be no happier than the rest of us. They have their domestic troubles (many of them are divorced), and their stomach ulcers, and their frustrations, and their fears, like the rest of us. They grow old like the rest of us, and when they die they leave all their possessions behind, and are received in the other world with no more honor and dignity than anyone else. Don’t bother about the big ladders, then, and don’t envy those who have made it in a big way. Choose some little ladder within your competence and climb that, and you will be just as happy at the top of your little ladder as the President is in his position as allegedly the most powerful man in the world.
In moral and spiritual matters, too, be merciful to yourself. To begin with, don’t feel guilty for anything over which you have no control. And don’t be unrealistic in your demands for self-improvement. Make demands of yourself, certainly. The drifter inevitably ends up in hell. But let them be demands that you can reasonably hope to fulfill. And then see that you do fulfill them! The importance of seeing things through cannot be overstressed. We are so made, as human beings, that we need to succeed in what we set ourselves to do. And everybody can be a success in something, even if it is only making a good meal, or being a good friend to someone. Much of the joy of life is derived from setting ourselves new goals and achieving them. Don’t try to do too much all at once. Take one thing at a time. A pianist who wants to learn to play a complex piece of music, can probably sight-read it more or less. He can bumble through it in a slovenly kind of way, messing up runs and slowing down for the difficult chord progressions. He might stumble and fumble through it twenty times that way, making no real improvement. Rather, he should take a few measures at a time, and really work at these until he has mastered them and can play them perfectly without even looking at the score. Then take the next few and master them, and so on, until the whole piece is his. So in life. The man who criticizes himself, saying: “You are a pretty low type; you must pull yourself together all round” – won’t make much progress. He will go on blundering and bumbling and failing; he will grow more and more discontented with himself until he is just a mess. But let him take one little fault at a time and master that, and then move on to something else; and his improvement will be rapid and remarkable. Set yourself a strict discipline in some area where you are weak, and stick to it! This is the important thing – you must succeed! If you fail, you are worse off than before. One success leads to another, whereas one failure leads to another. And it is the pattern of failure that brings on the feelings of guilt and misery which seem to afflict so many people today in this competitive age and culture.
Another reason why we dislike ourselves, I think, is through boredom with the endless round of trivial thoughts which forever occupy our minds: self-centered thoughts concerned exclusively with the external happenings of our daily life. You can travel the world and see all the sights, and go to parties every night, and still be bored stiff. We talk endlessly about ourselves, and it is dreadful! The cure, of course, lies in entering into other people’s interests, learning about their families, seeing things from their point of view. Also, in being less concerned with the external details of life, and more with its deeper issues. Running people down can also be boring, whether we are running down individuals, or whole groups. I always feel uncomfortable when I hear anyone running someone else down, and still more uncomfortable when I find myself doing it! (How I hate myself for that!) I like myself much better when I am praising someone, appreciating people and enjoying them. Appreciation of others is a fine cure for boredom and guilt. If you feel like criticizing someone or running him down; if you think that such and such a person is just dreadful, it might help you quite a lot if you deliberately set about doing that person a kindness, or at least calling him up on the telephone for a friendly chat. This is surely included in what Jesus meant when He said: “Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44).
So we come to the main point. Insofar as you are aware of being a son or daughter of your heavenly Father, and conscious of your dependence upon Him, you will be happy and at peace with yourself and the world. Paul, after exclaiming what a wretched man he is because of the antagonism between the two parts of his nature, says that insofar as he has the Spirit of God dwelling in him, his lower self drops away. “They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit do mind the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5,6). To be spiritually minded is not to covet the things of this world, but to value only the qualities of the heavenly life. If you have not succeeded too well in this world, or made a name for yourself or a heap of money, what of it? Nothing to be ashamed of! The important thing is: have you succeeded in developing the qualities of kindliness and gentleness and helpfulness and outgoing warmth, qualities which attract other people, so that they enjoy being with you and seek your help in time of trouble? And these inner qualities are gained, not by struggle in your own strength, but by total submission to the Lord, by letting Him take over the ego or “I” and bring the whole of the “me” into alignment and harmony with the Divine “I Am That I Am.” The projects we have to undertake on this deeper level are not so much mastering ourselves as yielding ourselves up to the Lord’s control. We get guilt feelings because we have not done this, but instead have been clinging to the idea that we must go our own way and control our own destiny. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” says the evil spirit as he plunges into hell. And if he no longer feels guilty about that, it is because his capacity for guilt has been deadened, his conscience has been destroyed. If you do feel a sense of guilt on this deeper level, it is a very hopeful sign. It proves that your conscience is still alive! But you must do something about it to keep the conscience alive. You must listen to its voice and obey its dictates, otherwise your conscience will eventually cease to speak to you, and then you will be sunk! And what does your conscience tell you? You yourself are nothing but an empty vessel. Anything you yourself put in that vessel is tainted with the poison of self. All the qualities which you are normally inclined to boast of, are tainted with the poison of self. Empty them all out, throw them away, and let the Lord fill you with His life, His joy, His peace. Then you will become His child indeed, reborn in His image and likeness, a prince or princess of the heavenly kingdom. In that you can glory without shame or guilt!
This is the final answer to those people who ask, “How can we forgive ourselves?” They must take that vessel which is their ego and empty out of it all the dirty, unforgivable, boring little oozings of selfhood, and refill it with the exciting and glorious Life of God! Sounds easy, but of course it is not easy. It takes a long while, a lifetime and more. It must be done like learning to play a piece of music on the piano: here a little, there a little, precept upon precept, line upon line. But, to the extent to which we succeed in this greatest project of all, the load is lifted and we are free.
This is also the answer to those people who say or feel that they cannot forgive their circumstances, what life has done to them – the unfairness of their lot; some crippling sickness, perhaps, which they must live with all the time; hard labor, to which they have been condemned for life; domestic unhappiness, from which there seems no way out; poverty . . . whatever it is that they feel resentful about. Some people, in fact, cannot forgive GOD! But to feel indignant about one’s circumstances is to miss the whole purpose of life, which is not just to have a good time and get one’s own way in everything. You would not send your child to a school where he could have everything he wanted, every whim satisfied. There is too much “permissiveness” in the world already, and we can see where it has led us. No, our purpose here on earth is to develop an angelic character or nature, and it is toward this that the Lord is leading us all the time. And He can do it just as well under bad conditions as under good. He can do it equally well in the framework of sickness or health, poverty or wealth, worldly failure or success. The Divine Providence must necessarily be working secretly, out of sight, because if we saw it we should oppose it. But it is working, perfectly! It is helping you to transform your heart of stone into a heart of flesh; it is helping you to acquire gentle humility instead of arrogance. Without interfering with your free will, it is wearing away your resistance to the inflow of life from heaven.
Do not be angry about your circumstances, however, bad they may be. Do all you reasonably can to improve them, of course. But, if you cannot improve them, never mind. The spirit is the important thing; and if you can open your spirit to the Lord, He will flow into it with all the deliciousness of the beauty of holiness. The question of forgiveness will never arise again, whether forgiveness of others, or forgiveness of oneself, or forgiveness of God. You will be forever content in the security of His loving embrace.