I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage. He had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison. But the iron bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to the victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he believes God forgives him too.
His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.
He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he is still shocked and shamed by his own aggression against a loved one. How could he have done that?
If we’ve ever done something awful, it’s easy to swim in a sea of self-disgust. When other people nauseate us, we can avoid them, but we cannot so easily escape our own self-loathing. Our undying disappointments ceaselessly hammer their hateful messages:
How could you have done that? You are repulsive. What is wrong with you?
Whatever awful act we committed, from abandonment to adultery to violence to neglect. We cannot live with the shame.
But There Are Other Kinds of People
But some people don’t feel guilty enough. They betray others—maybe you or me—and they say, “God has forgiven me, what’s your problem?” They seem cruel, unmoved by the suffering they unleash and untroubled by the misery they perpetrate.
Honestly, my heart wishes these villains were less quick to forgive themselves, that they could feel what they have inflicted; that they could put themselves in the shoes of their victims and—just for a moment or two—experience that pain.
I’m embarrassed by my fancies. But at the very least, I wish these brutes could experience genuine sorrow at the sufferings they regularly produce.
But I’m sort of schizoid, the worst of both worlds. I once profoundly hurt my wife (well, more than once, but one sin at a time). I said something caustic, painful, and nasty. My first response was self-defense: “I was tired, and she said something to trigger it.”
So I buried my compassion for her beneath layers of self-care for me. Simply put, I was a brute. But that paper-thin excuse melted away. I saw the pain I caused, and my self-consolation failed. I was wracked with guilt and remorse.
She forgave me but I couldn’t forgive myself. I felt that if I forgave myself too easily, then I would be just like one of those heartless beasts I so dislike.
Who Is In Charge?
Easy-self-forgivers don’t empathize with the injuries they inflicted because the shame of self-admission is too great. They refuse the humility to concede, “I’m the kind of person that caused such agony.” Something directs their hearts away from empathy for others.
Unwilling-self-forgivers don’t excuse themselves with that flippancy. They lash themselves with the whip of self-incrimination, “You are vile, rotten, and unforgiveable.” Something controls their hearts too, but it’s still a form of only looking inward.
We are slaves. Either to a force that keeps us brutish or to a force that keeps us ashamed. In Out of the Salt Shaker, Becky Pippert wrote,
Whatever controls you is your lord. If you live for power you are controlled by power. If you live for acceptance you are controlled by the people you are trying to please. No one controls himself. You are controlled by the lord of your life.
Both the easy-self-forgivers and the unwilling-self-forgivers are controlled, controlled by an outside dominatrix screaming for positive self-identity, prohibiting us from accepting either guilt or forgiveness. We may think we are in charge of our lives, but we aren’t.
John Newton was a slave trader. He knew both the dominatrix of non-self-forgiveness and the mistress of easy-self-forgiveness. Someone once asked Newton for help with his own inability to forgive himself. Newton answered,
You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness? Well, indeed you cannot be too aware of the evils inside of yourself, but you may be improperly controlled by them. (Letters, Vol. 11)
Newton addresses the easy-self-forgivers, when he says we “cannot be too aware of the evils inside.” Unwillingness to admit them is cowardly self-compassion. He continues,
You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but also too low an opinion of the Redeemer, which is wrong.
In other words, it’s okay to have a humble self-opinion but it is a sin to have a low opinion of Christ, as though God is good enough for tiny sins but his goodness is too small to heal huge evils. Newton continues,
When I look at your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, and pride that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of.
There is a kindness in Newton’s harshness. He knew first-hand the self-righteous identity that can’t admit any evil within; and he knew first-hand the self-lashing that comes from clinging to the evil within.
He gives an impassioned invitation—not another beating, an invitation!—to find a new identity, the identity of “We are the beloved,” the identity of being redeemed (at incalculable cost) from the slavery of self-identity. Newton knew true freedom of the immeasurable goodness of God.
It’s why Newton, perhaps best of all believers, could write Amazing Grace.