Self-forgiveness is a hoax

One of the ways to deal with lack of forgiveness, I have often heard, is to “forgive yourself”. It’s a popular saying. The problem is I found this idea being at odds with my own experience. In fact I have no concept of self-forgiveness. It never worked for me, and I really had to face the question why I was missing a concept which seems so widely accepted by others.


A while ago I saw self-forgiveness again being presented in an article: Do atheists need absolution? W. Hamby, atheist and ex-Christian so it seems, did a good job addressing basic issues on the subject of guilt and forgiveness. “When we’ve hurt someone, our guilt is a measure of our empathy” is obviously an adequate observation. Empathy does this to people, as opposed to apathy. Then the author goes on explaining how people will usually attempt to deal with their mistake by doing two things: (a) they express remorse and (b) they try to fix things by making amends. So far so good.

Then he says “It helps a ton if the person we’ve wronged also forgives us”. Right. But what if this doesn’t happen? The author suggests we then move on to the alternative plan: “we forgive ourselves”. And this is, so goes the suggestion, is what atheists do too, they bypass unnecessary theological detours. Wow. Is this…. is this really what’s behind forgiveness? The writer makes a leap from ‘divine’ forgiveness to ‘self’-forgiveness – is this just a wild guess or what is this?

As an ex-Christian, the author seems to have theological notions on the subject. But maybe those notions are part of his problem. He seems to believe that Christians usually asks for divine forgiveness: “they pray and feel better”, but what these Christians are essentially doing is “to forgive themselves” (like atheists do). Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds to me like Christian beliefs must be extremely naïve and very shallow.

Let’s look closer, just to make sure we understand what the author meant. Here is a good summary line I think: “There are pitfalls to the Christian model. … If the goal is divine forgiveness, earthly amends are not strictly necessary. Certainly not all Christians believe this, but if someone were looking for a way to feel better without the work, the loophole is there.” — Okay so this is about a certain danger of interpretation. I can see why an atheist wants to point out a potential loophole here. But why doesn’t the author see the potential loophole in self-forgiveness then? Sure there is no lack of people around who ‘self-forgive’ themselves all the time after they’ve hurt someone, without even thinking of making any amends. And I can assure you I’ve seen a ton of atheists on Myspace and Facebook (oh blessed environment for those who love slitting people’s throats from a safe distance) who were very good at self-forgiving themselves when their guns were empty and satisfied. Not to mention their equally armed adversaries.

But here is the point: whether we talk about “divine forgiveness” or self-forgiveness, it’s overwhelmingly clear that improper use of such ideas is possible. Forgiveness then becomes little more than a cheap mind-trick. You could just hurt someone, then simply believe that God – or you yourself – will forgives. But that would be very “creative theology” resp. “creative humanism” if you ask me. The problem here is not theology – at least not at this level.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this self-forgiveness thing is typically an atheistic figment of sorts. I do believe that at some point it IS a reflection of an idea that lives within Christianity itself. And hasn’t atheism always been this kind of mirror? Atheism is, one could say, always wrong because there is always something wrong somewhere with Christian beliefs. Or, to put that in a shorter way: we are all human.


Indeed I do suspect that the concept of self-forgiveness came about in a context of self-protection, and it has been around in this self-centered shape for a long time. Also but not exclusively in religion.

It has always been clear that forgiveness doesn’t mean you won’t protect yourself. Certain people hurt you and you know they don’t even care about it. Or, you hurt them (unintentionally) and they hurt you by not forgiving you – but in all those cases you may not really be connected with those people. They are not your bothers or sisters or friends. When, under such conditions, you decide to “let go” (or self-forgive, if you really want to call it like that), we can all understand that. But when you dump a friend, there is another kind of dynamic going on. We can’t just say “I had to let it go” or “I had to protect myself”, because that’s just rephrasing things in a more passive, victimized language – it doesn’t change the fact that you had a connection with that person. If this person was a friend, then you have already agreed to cut each other some slack – this is the level of trust you accept from the very moment you have a friendship. But let us look into this more closely.

Making a mistake is not really difficult. Making amends is arguably more difficult, but for most people it isn’t that hard, especially if the mistake is not exactly disputable. To forgive may often be harder – but it would be interesting to pay more attention to the reason why it is harder. The point is, I think, that when the mistake has been made, the victim is next – it is his or her turn ‘to play’, and the other can do nothing but wait. And the victim is both hurt AND “in power” (whether consciously or subconsciously). It doesn’t mean the victim has the intent to be mean. You could compare the situation with two friends who stand close to each other, playing and having fun, and then one of them literally touches the other close to the eyes, by accident The reaction is reflex-driven: the ‘offender’ gets a smack in the face – which hurts more than the accidental touch. This is the kind of situation we are talking about – except we are now talking about the whole area of ‘mistakes’ – including a flood of mistakes where no physical damage is being done. We are talking about the domain of the human mind, where people ‘touch’ each other in many ways, smooth and sometimes (accidentally) rude, and everything that’s going on in our dealings with friends (or family).

With lifelong friends, the danger of calamities happening is limited. Between people who are friends since a short while, things may get very ugly. Likewise – and a big issue these days – people who know each other “online” and not so much in real life. There is probably more damage being done over the internet these days than ever in our “real life” neighborhood – but then what’s “real life”? Do you think there are no real people behind those avatars? Some people seem to think so. They are wrong, obviously.

However, the point I wanted to make is this: the more “remote” people are (at least according to the feelings of one of every couple of friends), the easier it may be for them (or: for one of them) to “cut off” a relationship just like that. But this is not really something new since social networking or so – there have always been those more “casual friends” around. And even in long term friendships there have been this one-sidedness of how one treats friendly relations. Some people are easy going when it comes to cutting off such connections, leaving the other to his or her own devices. In such a context it seems clear how we have made ourselves a concept of ‘self-forgiveness’.

I saw it on some motivational poster somewhere: “Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was okay, and it doesn’t mean that person should still be welcome in your life. It just means you have made peace with the pain, and are ready to let it go.” Wow. Really? At first sight this may sound good – depending on your situation: if someone really has been very mean to you, then yes, it’s clear that such a phrase may feel like a solution. But ONLY because you thought of forgiveness as something you always just HAVE to offer (the phrase “forgive your enemies” is very misleading here – because that is NOT really about forgiveness in the normal meaning of that word). I would say your mind is being set at ease with the wrong phrase because you had an erroneous idea about forgiveness to begin with.

And the “loophole” (see beginning of this post) is there to be misused by anyone who loves to run away with such one-liners, using it at will: if your friend has hurt you, you can just go away because you need to “make peace with the pain and let it go”. However, what really happens is: you are dumping a friend like a piece of trash. You don’t care about his or her amends, about his or her grief over the mistake. In essence, whether you ‘see’ it or not – in essence you are applying the principle of revenge.

This is forgiveness turned upside down. It is very self-centric. It deals with the self rather than with you AND the other. It essentially means the abolition of forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness has a tendency to nullify the original concept altogether. You can tell the difference when you are at the receiving end of this sort of abolition. Your mistake has become a crime, as it were. It is without any doubt the true friendship part that makes this so hard – and the different ways in which 2 people think about the value of friendship. And not just friendship, but the humane aspect of any relations. You feel like you were disposable. You were not supposed to be so much “let-it-go-able”. This has serious implications as to how you are going to feel about yourself, your self-respect, even your sense of identity.

And how could we have missed the point? Even the Sumerian Code of Hammurabi had the notion of forgiveness of depth. This was about real estate. As Tomas Sedlacek argues, in the context of economics (in his excellent book The Economics of Good and Evil), the price of real estate depended on how long there was before a “forgiveness year” (this was maximum 3 years). And Sedlaek also argues: “Forgiveness (of debts, sins) is the key feature of Christianity, which makes it unique among the major religions. Jesus’ role was to redeem men, purchase us at a price, buy us out of debt from the arms of sin, debt.” (p.134). There you have it.

Here is the whole point: Can you “justify yourself” when you did something wrong? No, you can’t. You may disagree with a punishment – but would you call that self-justice? No. neither should we invent things like self-forgiveness. Justice, mercy and forgiveness are hard to allot to yourself. We cannot be the inventors of our own values – otherwise we could always make a deal with ourselves, and never be responsible. Self-forgiveness is a hoax, a contradictio in terminis. And frankly, it can’t solve your problem anyway.

Don’t get me wrong: We certainly need a way to work with the hurt and the guilt, but we better look in a different direction.

I will write about solutions in other papers – this is not something I want to deal with in just a few strokes. This subject is too complex, there are too many issues. Let me just pay some more attention now to the whole context of our hurt and maybe a few hints as to where we may be going with this.


It seems that we can all ignore love, but we cannot ignore hurt – the hurt caused by love going wrong or love being taken away from us. But what gives this hurt its dramatic impact? And why does it seem to happen so often and easily?

From a more general point of view love and hurt are paradoxical. “Love hurts”, as we say. “We suffer because we love” (Rick Hathaway). This is no less true for friendship – which is one of the most accessible forms of love. So we must embrace the paradox. In a more philosophical formulation we could say that love-hurt (the hurt that we feel when things go wrong in friendship and love) IS actually love. And the reason for this becomes clear when we think of love as longing. Longing can be a fine feeling, or it can hurt – and it may even do both of these at the same time. There is a famous example of such a feeling which was mentioned by C.S. Lewis when he pointed out that the pain that we feel in our legs after a long walk may actually feel good as well, or something in-between a good feeling and pain. With love, something similar is going on so it seems.

The important, fundamental thing to keep in mind here is that we need to “deal with the pain” somehow, rather than trying to eliminate it (be that with self-made concepts like ‘self-forgiveness’ or anything else). But hurt is something we don’t deal with very well. And we will need to learn it – to accept pain and understand that this is an aspect of love.

How about the hurt caused to a friend by waiting too long to forgive? If you think of all the possibilities here, you may never wonder why we all suffer so much. It seems inevitable. There will be the emotional impact on you when you realize that maybe just one particular mistake of yours has been considered irreparable. Simple as it sounds, it may get you spiraling down, not knowing when you will ever stop falling. Some people seem to have no such problems – they have an elephant skin so it seems. But for others… for instance if you haven’t been loved that much in your life to begin with (sad to say, but this is what happens to a lot of people today), you may not be able to deal with this properly, because you feel like a kid that just broke an expensive piece of tableware, and because of this you have been sent away, out of the house. Isolation from the bond of friendship can be very hurtful and harmful.

And more chaos may already be in the making. The original mistake may have triggered a series of intuitive reactions, very comprehensible if you think of it as a reflex caused by the mistake (think again: accidentally hurting your friend when you were playing), but that doesn’t mean cutting off the other one from friendship is a justified action. Yet, this happens every day, all the time, everywhere. The mistake triggers and generates suspicion in the victim – but suspicion will often damage relationships and trust much more than the mistakes do. (We will tackle the subject of trust in another article).


One particular source of pain may be the fact of not having been believed when you apologized and explained your error. This may damage the friendship more than the mistake may ever have done. A mistake may be a friendship-test, but the ability to forgive is a friendship-test too. And it may hurt immensely when one of both has to discover that your friend treats you as if you are nothing more than your mistakes. The (Christian) band Fireflight has a song that says “I’m not what I have done, I’m what I’ve overcome“. This is fundamental wisdom. Love can see that kind of thing. Skillet sings it out this way: “Love can take a little, Love can give a little more” (in their beautiful song A Little More). Mistakes are not a sign of not loving. But denying someone access to forgiveness? A love that does not want to give that “little more”?

Skillet: A Little More

It isn’t just the (temporary) loss of your friend that hurts – but the loss of trust. Trust, of course, is not simply the trust that the other will make no mistakes! (If this were true, we would all be in very bad shape all the time – if every mistake would destroy trust, how would we ever have social lives, friends etc.?) – No, trust must be something much deeper. It’s a basis for comradeship to grow in spite of all sorts of troubles and mistakes. Without some reasonable amount of trust, mankind would never be able to operate as a ‘network’ of connected human beings.

But even so, you may keep hurting for other reasons. You have been sharing some very personal things with your friend. Your friend has been listening to you – you shared your heart with the other. Now the other is “walking away” with it, or rather from it, as it were. You will feel like your heart is being trampled. This is where you will feel worthless, ignorable. I’m not saying you have a license to indulge in self-complaint. Self-complaint is something you should always attempt to resist. But you will have a struggle with this feeling. The emotion will haunt you, and you need to recognize it.

But this still may not be the worst thing. When I went through something like this, I thought I began to comprehend these feelings but I still felt guilty not just for my mistake but also for the hurt – as if I was guilty of being focused on my own hurt all the time. It took me considerable time and effort before I finally began to realize that my deepest agony was not what I thought it was. It was not just that I felt bruised and abandoned. The most painful thing was the fact that my friend had been sharing HER heart with me, her fears and longings. She had accepted my empathy, my tenderness. In other words she had been tapping into my “giving love” – and even while I knew the essence of love is more in giving, not taking, I had not recognized this connection when it comes to my feelings of hurt (so far for all those “obvious” things – in hurt issues, I guess it’s always a little harder to rationalize things, even while I’ve been rationalizing stuff my whole life).

The greatest joy is not just in having fun, but in making it fun for someone you like. And suddenly, all of this was being closed down. That part was crushing me more than anything else. The pain of realizing that your “soul investment” in someone was not being appreciated, was being considered trivial, disposable. I suspect that human beings should know that they have some kind of duty at this point: we should always keep allowing a friend to love us, to offer us their friendship in one form or another. In fact I’ve always (as long as I remember) applied this role to others – including friends who hurt me or even attacked me at some point. I didn’t do this because I’m such a good person. I did it intuitively – probably because I’ve always felt like lacking love, therefore I’ve always felt empathy for people who make mistakes and then feel sorry. It doesn’t matter what they did wrong – from the amends I could see how they were in pains because of what they did. It seems so obvious that we need to forgive. But I do realize that I am someone who has leaned to deal with pain since I was a kid. I do realize this is not how other people experience things – including good people.

Yet we should learn this. Why isn’t this part of our general education? Do we all have to study psychology in order to learn the basics of human relations?

There will be other aspects I didn’t really pay much attention to. The hurt may differ a lot depending on specific conditions. E.g. the friend that I lost was several things to me – things that I had not really known in my earlier life, especially: she was like a sister to me, and also like a mother, in a way. I was being understood and appreciated in a personal way, something I wasn’t used to. A lot of trust goes into such a friendship, a lot of your soul is tapping into it. Of course, we are human beings: we may sometimes hardly realize the impact we have on someone else – but in many cases we do realize it very well, and perhaps we feel like we cannot handle it properly. In these and other cases the effect of ‘something’ that happens unexpectedly may trick us into a series of events that spin out of control quickly. Major grief and heartbreak follows. And it seems like there is nothing we can do about it. But there are always ways back to normal. We are often just lacking courage to walk back and undo the harm as much as possible.

And this is the paradox we are dealing with. Intellectually it would already be helpful if we would have an accepting attitude toward paradox. But in human interactions there is often hurt involved, and human beings often have no accepting attitude towards hurt – even while hurt is in fact simply one of those paradoxes of life.

We are not educated as it should. Maybe that’s the whole point – we are not adults when it comes to things like forgiveness. Or, another “silly” observation: 2000 years of Christianity and still we don’t know what forgiveness really means…

There is this time aspect to forgiveness, as we pointed out in the first paper on forgiveness. Time will rage through the heart and mind of the offender – and the victim should be, or become, aware of this as soon as possible. Otherwise we will be generating a chain of hurt upon hurt upon hurt, until nothing can be solved anymore because the hurt has destroyed trust in the system.

The complexity of the situation and these emotions, and the charges (if any), together with the pain of being removed from the sacred ground of trust/friendship, and the pain of shared things being taken away by the offended party, together with the feelings of intense guilt that may be present to some degree – all of this together have the potential to turn a friendship into a nightmare. The human mind is an abyss – an endless labyrinth, and it’s easy to feel total-loss in all this.

because love is kind of what we ARE rather than what we feel. Love has its wires connected to so many aspects of our lives – including our beliefs.

When I was in a situation where a mistake of mine destroyed friendship between me and a Christian soul mate, I was being told “there is no way for me to make this easier for you”, “I do not have an interest in pursuing the restoration” and “I am not the least bit sorry”. If you find yourselves in a situation like this, phrases like these will be echoing in our head time and again. Why is it, that at some point there is not enough love to love someone back into the realm of friendship – even while we remember clearly that such a love did exist between our friend and us, before the mistake? Does this mean that I am reducible to my mistakes? Those are very tough questions.


In my first paper on forgiveness I said we can make a decision to forgive. We can also do this with regard to someone who did not forgive us. But of course, it’s not that easy. We may decide to be brave like that, but we will somehow need to have a rational basis for such bravery, or it won’t last for long. At this point we need a reason – or simply: we need reason. (Compare a good old bible verse: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” – Isaiah 1:18).

What can we do when we are in a state of not being forgiven? You have no concept of “self-forgiveness” that really works for you. You can’t just ignore it either – because if you’re honest, the one who did not forgive was dear to you. It was your own brother or sister, parent or child, a close friend, a soul mate. You do not want this person to “fall off your memories” – you freaking-loved them too much. But deep inside it keeps stinging. For weeks, months, years. You are always in need of reviving your courage, hope, beliefs, good memories. But you have no access to updates – your friend or family member has gone. So how do you soften the pain?

Again, I will not even try to present ‘solutions’ in this paper. But, just a few hints. We certainly need to get back to both faith and reason. Faith needs reason to understand, reason needs faith to see where we may perhaps go with this (foresight, expectation).

At some point it occurred to me that while my soul mate did not forgive me, it also didn’t really feel like this was really her. I’ve known her as a very amiable person, mature, responsible, adult in her Christian faith. We loved making fun, the way adults do. So there was this unnatural divide between how I remember my friend before and after we run out of friendship so suddenly. We are, after all, an eye witness within the space of our own memories.

This I would call rationality of love. My mind clearly resisted giving up this picture of my friend as a true friend. This is the belief that my friend would, under normal conditions, have been willing to forgive and to offer restoration for my soul. From my memories I was regenerating this image of my best friend all the time, the way I have known her. I could see how she would, at some point, have to realize she had been extremely over-reacting in a number of ways.

So what we can do is to ‘believe’ in forgiveness as a principle – which is not the same as actually “forgiving yourself” (this you cannot do). But to believe in it means to believe you did deserve to be forgiven – even while it didn’t happen. It may not offer the relief that you feel you need at first sight – but then, just let it dawn on you for a while. Yes, you need some faith perhaps. But faith is a human faculty – we can all have faith in things.

Here is the general rule: forgiveness can never work out well if everyone loves getting it but not giving it. So even while we cannot force getting forgiveness, we can always try a little harder to provoke it in everyone – for instance by showing how it’s done. And to forgive those who did not forgive you belongs to this realm of “showing how it’s done”. Essentially the first one who gets this demonstration is you: while you cannot (technically speaking) self-forgive yourself, you may know you would have forgiven this if the other had made that kind of mistake. This means you are sort of requesting the forgiveness, time and time again – knowing that you deserved to be forgiven. This will be going better after a while – because of the time aspect. No one deserves not to be forgiven. You need to keep that in mind and work with this awareness. You need to chew on it, consciously. We are all in the same boat – even if we can’t see each other.


None of these considerations may make us stop grieving. They did not stop me from grieving – I still felt deep sorrow after more than 2 years and I wonder if it will ever go away completely. I’m not pretending anything at this point. If you thought you meant something to someone and then you are being treated as if you were just an annoying blip on their radar, it will hurt the hell out of you. BUT! Where a quick relief from this grief may not be possible, learning to live with it may still be achievable. I’m not sure yet – but it is my reasoned guess for now, that love can make us accustomed to grief. In love, no one could be more of a layman than I am. But I can observe how love feels more powerful in offering relief, even if it’s often just temporary relief which needs to be reinitiated regularly.

Love may certainly prevent us from going to hate those we once loved. I’m not saying you should never feel anger. Frankly there have been moments that I felt deeply angry for what my friend had done. But those are just the moments that you remember your loss, like it was yesterday. You realize you will never get back what was taken away – and it didn’t have to happen this way, but it happened, and you were not being given a say in it. But then you let this hurt teach you again – it tells you that from your point of view, your loving friendship was real and true. Love is your justification for finding joy in spite of not being forgiven. Your tears should not tell you how pitiful you are (that would be self-complaint, which you need to resist always) – they should tell you how much you have loved.

And you have to accept the hurt, realizing this IS your love. This may encourage you to go on and keep loving. It may sound cruel once you realize this could be a struggle for many years, if not for the rest of your life. You will be longing for a shorter road towards reducing pain. But the shortest road is the one you have to walk every time this thing creeps into your conscious mind again.

No doubt all of this may be too crude that we would get through this whirligig unchanged. There will be scars, open wounds. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful and beautiful endeavors – therefore, missing it will make you realize that someone did not offer you this beautiful gift. This is hard, but these are the things that happen in life. You have, however, ways to deal with the pain, and a responsibility to deal with it to the best of your abilities.

Maybe the God-idea is helpful too. I may not be the Christian that I used to be (I feel better now calling myself a trans-atheist: the only thing I know is that I don’t want to be atheist; I may be too stupid to be a Catholic but I’m not stupid enough to put an ‘a’ in front of someone else’s idea and put that label on my chest). Whatever there is to it, I have felt this need for God, and still today I am in a way aching for it. At the same time I have hated God for this… for this whole forgiveness thing simply not working as it should. I do sometimes talk to God in silence, often when I really feel like there’s no where else to go – and sometimes I curse God. But then I may also call God the ‘World Spirit’ or Manitou or anything like that – someone or something really all-pervading. I don’t know what to believe exactly – but I know in which direction my hope goes.

I’m not longing for God as much as before – “as the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God”… Once my favorite Bible verse – but not anymore (not since my best friend deleted it from her wall when she unfriended me – if you ever wonder how certain things can change our believes, here you have one, and I have hated God with my whole heart for this, as much as I thought I loved God. It’s not that I don’t long for God anymore – but I don’t long for a God who promises “streams of water” anymore. I just need a few droplets, maybe a glass of water every now and then. I’m not asking much. It hurts too much when you ask too much.

Sometimes I’m asking God: Am I really this asshole who You would want to dump and bruise and shatter? And somehow I know the answer is “No, you did not really deserve this”. It’s not that my sorrow and my feelings of guilt are gone when I think of this. It’s not THAT simple. But there is some appeasement in asking God what He’s thinking. Prayer is a concept of getting beyond our own Self. I use the concept to the best of my abilities.

And then I know I can go on, not choosing apathy and bitterness and self-complaint, but choosing love. I’ve been talking about those things with other friends (sometimes about this, often about other things – their own many worries and heartaches). We always need some friends. I have a bit of a tougher time trusting friends now, but in fact they make themselves trusted. And, maybe most of all, I make myself trusted. I am committed to forgiving them when they make mistakes. It really works like self-therapy: I’m proving to myself that love CAN indeed “always give a little more”. This gives me hope, in a world which doesn’t always look very hopeful.