I read a fantastic post a month or so ago on Removing the Fig Leaf over at Patheos, titled Escaping a Culture of Repentance. In the post, the author made a point that has really stuck with me: “If everything is forgivable while everyone remains guilty, we remain trapped in a cycle where healing cannot occur because we are not allowed to fully acknowledge when someone has hurt us.” The article focused on how, when others hurt you in this kind of culture, no one can fully address it because of the shroud of forgiveness, which made actually talking about it taboo. In my experience, I remained trapped in a cycle where I could not acknowledge the good or bad within myself, because I could not escape from being forgiven and guilty at the same time.
Forgiveness was a weird topic for me, growing up as an evangelical. My husband grew up in a much more liberal Christian tradition, and he has explained that forgiveness to him meant that we all make mistakes, but we are still loved. That you should try to be good and kind, but people are not perfect, and we will make mistakes, but it’s ok. I like this message of forgiveness, but my understanding was different. Forgiveness meant that I was a bad person who was unworthy, but despite all this Jesus died for me. Forgiveness was not a message of hope, but a message of guilt and shame. After all, the only one whose blood could cover me was God himself. It’s not forgive and forget; it’s forgive, and don’t ever forget what I did so that God could forgive you.
In the evangelical tradition I was raised in, I wasn’t allowed to forget that I was a bad person.
I’ve been thinking about this lately in relation to my own crippled sense of self-forgiveness. Writing in this blog has been helping me address my past, but in re-examining my past sometimes it’s easy to feel shame, regret, or sadness. In areas of my life besides religion – career path, exercise habits, friendships where I’ve messed up – I often wish I had made vastly different choices. “If only I had been interested in running while I was in high school, I’d be such a better runner now!” I think this is a common experience among many people. I remember my dad telling me, when he was turning 40, that when he turned 30 he looked back at his 20-year-old self and thought, “Oh man, I was so stupid!” Then, turning 40, he could look back on his 30-year-old self and think the same thing. I think his sentiment really came from reflecting on the growth and change that happens in 10 years, but using the term “stupid” does imply a lack of forgiveness to the past self. And I often have felt the same way.
Also hindering my ability to forgive myself was this idea that you need to feel truly sorry in order to be forgiven. So, I make a mistake, I sin. “Did I feel sorry enough about that sin that God has forgiven me? I’d better make sure I am sorry, really sorry.” That kind of thinking really primes you to not be able to forgive or accept your past self. How could I accept my past actions when all I can see are the sins I definitely should not have committed? How can I be happy with the direction my life has taken when so much of it has been sin, which of course is not God’s plan for my life? (I also remember being terrified that I would sin, but not know that what I had done was sin, so maybe I was going to hell. So I’d pray for forgiveness for those sins as well, or maybe sins I had forgotten about, and try to make myself truly sorry for things I wasn’t even sure I’d done wrong. No wonder praying gave me such anxiety!)
I think this also relates to being a perfectionist, something that still is a part of me. Because if you are always striving to live a life without sin, as much like Jesus as possible, there isn’t really room for mistakes. I mean, there is, in theory, but a mistake is not simply something normal that you learn from. Instead a mistake brings a constant feeling of sadness and guilt and results loads of prayer so you can hope you are forgiven.
Looking at this topic feels like looking at a tangled mess of ideas that are so difficult to pull apart. I can understand the guilty-forgiven state of being, I can loosely connect it to feeling shame and guilt about my past self and actions, but I don’t know how to fully address it and learn to forgive myself.
I want to give myself permission to be who I am: a human, who learns and grows and gains new experiences. And I need to give my past self this permission as well. When I look back, there are definitely things I would do differently with the knowledge and experience I have now. But at the time, it was what I knew. I had permission to be the person I was then, too.
I want to give myself permission to be bad at things. I get frustrated when I’m not good at something, and will often quit, especially if I have to be bad at that thing in front of someone else. But, being a bad runner doesn’t reflect on me or my worth. Trying something new and failing, spectacularly, is totally permissible. I can make as many mistakes as I want.
I want to give myself acceptance. I want to be able to accept that I did things in my past that made sense at the time. I want to accept that being human means learning more all the time, so of course 5 years ago I didn’t know what I know now! I want instead to celebrate the fact that I’m always learning.
I want to forgive myself, but more than that. I want to look at mistakes as ways to learn and grow. And, if I really have hurt someone, I want to ask them forgiveness and ask them if/how I can make it right. I won’t always say the right thing, I won’t always act with complete kindness, and I won’t always be thoughtful and considerate. But I can learn to be less thoughtless, more kind and considerate. And often my close friends are the ones who will understand that and forgive me, provided I do my best not to make those same mistakes in the future.
I want to learn to love being a beginner, and I am a beginner at forgiving and accepting myself.
“You can learn new things at any time in your life if you’re willing to be a beginner. if you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up to you.” Barbara Sher