The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week. To see the previous chapter, click here.
Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness is available from Deseret Book.
One of the most common expressions I hear these days is the idea of how important it is, and how difficult, to forgive oneself. It seems beyond question in most people’s minds that this is a real and legitimate problem that needs a real and earnest solution. But the scriptures give me pause. If forgiving oneself is such a real and important need, then why is it not mentioned anywhere in all the standard works? Why did Jesus never mention it, even when it would have been obvious by modern standards to do so—such as to the woman taken in adultery? He didn’t say, “Woman, forgive yourself,” even though the circumstances were such that she might struggle mightily with what she had done. Rather, he told her to “Go, and sin no more.”196
Nor did Jesus help Peter to forgive himself when his faith wavered on the water. Quite to the contrary, he gently rebuked him: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”197 Likewise, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the morning,198 a prophecy that he knew would leave Peter reeling when it was fulfilled.199 He apparently didn’t, however, feel the need at all to soften the blow or to counsel Peter to let it go and forgive himself. Nor did the angel tell Alma to quit beating himself up over what he had done, to forgive himself and move on.200 And neither the Lord nor King Benjamin told the diligent, commandment-keeping people who had gathered to the temple in Zarahemla to get up from their knees and forgive themselves.201 No, as we discussed in the previous chapter, we are not in the forgiving business, even of ourselves. There is One who actually forgives, and that isn’t us.202 Rather, we are to be in the repenting business. And in repenting, we discover the immensity of God’s love for us—a love we ourselves, perhaps, might have departed from for a time, but that we will feel in abundance the moment we approach the Lord in “meekness, and lowliness of heart.”203 As counterintuitive as it may sound, in the cases where we are struggling to forgive ourselves, what is needed is not forgiveness of self but more repentance.
“But repentance from what?” one might object. “Am I not already ‘meek and lowly in heart’ when I’m struggling to forgive myself?” Here is the crux of the matter. What seems meek and humble in this case is pride in disguise, as we discussed in chapter 10. Think about it: Is it meek and lowly to believe that whether or not God forgives me, I cannot rest until I can forgive myself? Is that not pride of the highest order?
When we feel that we are struggling to forgive ourselves, we are usually upset at ourselves for something we have done that we think was bad, or embarrassing, or faithless, or perhaps reprehensible. We struggle with the idea that we ever did such a thing (often, although not necessarily, in part because we feel terrible that others might know that we did it). Our own concept of self has been injured, so we both feel the need and experience the difficulty of “forgiving ourselves.” But it’s a revealing thing that we feel the need to forgive ourselves only when our self-concept feels injured. This reality implies two possibilities: Either the injured self is telling me the truth and I need to find a way to forgive myself, or else I need to repent of the self-concept that makes forgiving myself seem like the issue.
One of my favorite passages in the scriptures is Nephi’s lament in the fourth chapter of Second Nephi about his own personal struggles with sinfulness. He was in the kind of depressed state of mind that might lead a person to the conclusion that he needed to forgive himself. But forgiving himself was not Nephi’s answer at all. Nor, his story implies, should it be ours.
Notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, [Nephi wrote,] my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.204
This sounds very much like a person one might counsel to forgive himself, doesn’t it? But Nephi turned in a completely different direction. Instead of turning to himself, he began a turn to the Lord. He began by turning in remembrance to the great mercies that the Lord had shown him over the years. These mercies are detailed from verses 20 through 25. This remembrance awakened within him a realization of a need for repentance that he, in his despair, had been missing:
Oh then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions? And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy? Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul. Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.205
After Nephi’s mind turned to Christ, the antidote for his despair turned out not to be some self-centered forgiveness of himself but a new resolve to repent. This turn away from himself and to Christ became complete as he turned to Him for the help he would need on this deeper path of repentance. Notice in the following passage how many times he refers to and appeals to the Lord, recognizing that what he needs is from Him and not from himself.
O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation. O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin? May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road! O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way.206
Rejoicing now in the Lord rather than feeling depressed that he cannot rejoice in himself, Nephi expresses what he has learned from his journey into personal despair and back: that there is no way back from self-loathing by relying on the “arm of flesh”—which is to say, upon oneself.
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.207
The lifting help of forgiveness is the Lord’s, not ours, to give. And to think otherwise is to render the Lord’s forgiveness insufficient and secondary to our own.
Jesus showed us the way in his exchange with the woman taken in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman before him in another attempt to entrap him in the web of the law. “Master,” they said, feigning respect, “this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”208 Jesus didn’t immediately respond, but crouched down and wrote with his finger in the dirt, as if he hadn’t heard them. The scripture says that they “continued asking him”—they badgered him—whereupon he stood up and uttered one of the most oft-quoted lines in all of holy writ. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”209 He didn’t deny what the law said, but he taught them what Paul and James later wrote about—that the law catches and condemns all of us, as all of us are convicted as transgressors of the law and are therefore, effectively, guilty of all. One by one, the men who stood round were “convicted by their own conscience” and left, one guilty soul at a time.
Jesus’ statement to these men was meant not only for them. He was teaching a principle—a truth that was crucial for the woman to understand as well, a truth that those of us who might be struggling in the misguided quest to forgive ourselves have not yet fully understood. All are guilty under the law, a guilt that separates us from God. What does it mean to forgive ourselves when we are, in effect, “guilty of all”? Clearly, the power of such forgiveness is not within us; the guilty cannot render themselves innocent. Only the judge—in this case, the great and Eternal Judge210—can do that.
So “forgiving oneself” is a misnomer. We, ourselves, are not the aggrieved party, and we, as the guilty, cannot render ourselves innocent. We are just feeling bad for having done bad, and we want to find a way to quit grinding our own faces in the sand. And here, Jesus’ final words to the woman, in combination with his teaching that all are guilty, provides the release we are looking for but in all the wrong places: “Woman, where are those thine accusers?” he asked. “Hath no man condemned thee?” She answered, “No man, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”211
Think about those words: Neither do I condemn thee. If she understood who it was that was telling her this, she would be released forever from any perceived need to forgive herself. For this was the great and Eternal Judge himself—our “advocate” with the Father212—telling her that he did not condemn her. And if he didn’t, then why should she still feel the need to condemn herself? The guilt we feel in our hearts can be taken from us only “through the merits of [the] Son.”213 It is the adversary who tries to get us to worry about forgiving ourselves.
“To day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Jesus reassured the thief who hung humbly and repentantly next to him.214 His promises to us are not frustrated by our sins. Rather, they can be frustrated only by our lacking a desire to repent of those sins. “Go and sin no more” was the Lord’s direction to the woman to live a repentant life—a life we are diverted from as we search in vain for a forgiveness that we cannot receive from ourselves.