'Be kind to each other, and compassionate, forgiving yourselves and one another, just as in Christ, God forgives you.'
I hadn’t come across the concept of forgiving yourself for much of my Christian life. It is only more recently that I’ve heard it talked of in one or two places. One instance has stuck in my memory; I attended a youth group run by a vibrant young lady in my previous church and, as she was talking over the matters of forgiveness, she said they needed to be ready to forgive themselves. Now this lady had grown up in a strongly Christian family but then, for whatever reason, turned into something of a teenage rebel; one night she went out and got drunk and by the end of the night she was pregnant. In the ensuing upheaval, she found God and gave herself to him and was now bursting with Christian love and enthusiasm. However, she was having to come to terms with an event that had made, and was going to carry on making, a massive impact on her life. So her words of advice came over to me as spoken from the heart and very much out of her own experience. The advice also rang true to my own experience of dealing with my own mistakes.
However, there was a query in my mind; should we really be talking in these terms when, so far as I was aware, the Bible said nothing like this? Then I came across this verse in the original Greek. I have to admit that I don’t know of another bible version that translates it in any way other than just, “forgiving each other”. So some explanation is due as to why this is and why it is that, even so, I am offering another way of translating it.
There is a Greek word allelous that can only be translated each other (or one another) That’s the word Paul uses at the beginning of the verse; be kind and compassionate to one another. But he uses another word, heautois, for the next bit – which is a Greek word that can be used as another way of saying each other, but which can also have the meaning of yourselves. Of course, forgiving each other follows on very naturally as an idea from being kind and compassionate to each other, which is why it gets translated that way. But I think it possible that Paul had both meanings of heautois in mind – forgive yourselves and forgive each other – and in doing so he would be inferring that there was a connection between these two things.
I really do think it is the case that there is a connection between forgiving ourselves and being able to forgive each other. If we can’t forgive ourselves, it becomes impossible to accept forgiveness from others and from God on a real heart level and, if we’re no good at receiving forgiveness, we’re not going to be any good at giving it out to each other. Yes, we might still be prepared to put up with some one treating us badly in some instances but isn’t necessarily the same as being ready to forgive them. We might only be putting up with it because we don’t want to face up to the fact it is wrong or we can’t face confronting them about it, which would give them an opportunity to change, and us an opportunity to forgive.
On occasion I’ve head people say “I can’t forgive myself for what I have done” when referring to something they’ve done which they bitterly regret. I remember some one who did something they greatly regretted in hindsight; the situation was not helped by the fact that the people affected by it did not handle it at all well, making the mistake seem much worse than it really was. I could say “God forgives and accepts you even if the people affected by what you have done do not”, but I knew they would not be able to accept this on anything beyond a purely mental level if they carried on with not forgiving themselves.
So forgiveness may be a wonderful thing, but that does not make it easy in some instances to apply it when needed, whether it is in forgiving ourselves, or others. I remember reading about a time in church history when the church came under intense persecution. Under threat of torture and death, some Christians caved in and denied the faith and, after the persecution was over, there were many who had a problem with forgiving and reinstating those who had disowned Christ under pressure and who wanted now to come back. We might take this as an indication of the church’s zeal that they took so seriously the need to hold on to the faith under persecution. But to refuse forgiveness for such people presents us with such a painful contrast to the way Jesus dealt so graciously with Peter after he had disowned him three times.
We are so familiar with the story and with Jesus’ readiness to forgive that we are inclined to overlook just how serious Peter’s failure was. Matthew’s account tells us that his denial was accompanied with swearing and cursing. This doesn’t mean he used obscene language; what he did was far more serious, he swore an oath, and expressed it negatively in the form of a curse. He would have said something like “may God strike me down and curse me if I am not telling you the truth.” Such oaths were not just a turn of phrase in that culture; they were taken absolutely seriously on a literal level. Anyone but a godless man would fear heavenly retribution if they didn’t keep to their oath or weren’t telling the truth. The equivalent for us would be committing perjury in court.
Given the seriousness of his failure, what is striking about the gospel accounts is how they assume forgiveness for Peter without seeing the need to go into the matter at all. I imagine that when the Lord appeared to Peter alone after his resurrection, something which Paul refers to but the gospels don’t mention, the matter was dealt with then. If that was the case, the gospels take forgiveness for Peter so much for granted that they see no need to go into it. It just seems to be taken as read that Peter would be forgiven and was forgiven. The conversation Jesus had with Peter by the lake, when he asked him three times if he loved him, was not so much about forgiveness as ensuring that Peter fully faced up to his failure and properly dealt with it given that he was going to be fully reinstated. It was prior to that conversation that Peter had leapt into the water to be first to meet Jesus on the shore, an action that hardly suggests that he still felt himself under a cloud over his denials. He is already a forgiven man and it’s as if the gospels are saying to us that we don’t need to know how and when.
But all this does not mean that Peter would have found it easy to forgive himself. He had over a day in which he was left on his own to face up to the enormity of what he had done. How embarrassing and shameful the memory would have been, after he had boasted he alone would stand by his Master even if the others didn’t! I don’t imagine for a second that Peter would not have been tempted to give up on himself, to collapse in despair and hopelessness. No doubt he would have found it hard to forgive himself but, if he not been willing to let such feelings go, he would not have been in a place to receive the forgiveness Jesus had for him when he appeared again from the grave. This is why when Jesus had predicted Peter’s betrayal, he said he had prayed for his faith not to fail; he knew the temptation Peter would face to collapse and give up after he had fallen. For Peter to have given up on himself would have meant giving up on receiving forgiveness and on everything Jesus had in mind for him to do. Therefore, we need to pray for each other because we all find it difficult to deal with our own failures. We can try to avoid the pain of it by denying the problem or we can be weighed down by painful thoughts of our failure; we may want to turn against ourselves, or give up on ourselves. The better we are at forgiving ourselves for our own failures, the better we can receive forgiveness; and the better we can help and forgive others with their failures.