The Challenge of Forgiving Oneself


men  prayer handsOne of the most challenging parts of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples — The Lord’s Prayer — comes near the end:

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

That’s not necessarily meant to be a challenge on the surface. At first glance, it actually should bring us great joy. God will forgive our sins!

Then, we realize the second half has huge impact on the first half. Our trespasses, our sins, will be forgiven only to the same extent that we forgive those people in our own lives who have sinned by offending us in some personal way. Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness in the Gospels. Sometimes he stresses that we must repent in order to enter heaven. Other times, like in the “Our Father” and in Matthew’s telling of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, our ability to gain forgiveness even for those great sins is contingent upon us forgiving those even small sins against us.

I love knowing that I am forgiven. But it can take me a while to actually feel forgiven by my Lord.

I think of all the times I have offended God. Often, I am so focused on that part of my life that I don’t even notice when people trespass against me.

I remember attending a workshop on “Forgiveness” several years ago. The priest, Father Joe Nassal, opened my eyes that day. I was taking notes feverishly. The whole time, I was thinking, “I know some people I really want to tell about this. They are hurting so much in their lives. If they just could forgive the people that have hurt them, maybe then they will discover happiness.”

Through all the things Father Joe shared and all I learned about forgiveness, I never thought to examine my own life. Well, at least not entirely. I thought of the “Our Father,” examined my own life and the people in it. I simply couldn’t come up with anyone who had damaged my life even a little with their sin.

Then, a weird thing happened: After lunch, as Father Joe was starting to talk to the group again, a woman snuck around to an empty chair that was directly in my line of sight. I hadn’t seen her during the morning’s session. But I recognized her as the wife of a man I knew.

A man who had hurt me deeply with something he once said to me.

Instantly, tears started streaming down my face. The pain, from an ever-so-slight sin as it might have been, suddenly struck my chest and took my breath away. The greatest insight from the day came in realizing that there are people whom I needed to forgive, but I buried that need because I somewhat mistakenly understood that if I didn’t forgive others, I couldn’t be completely forgiven by God.

And I didn’t think I was worthy of God’s unconditional forgiveness. Still don’t think that many days. I know that has to change, because while none of us are worthy, God offers his mercy nonetheless.

I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions. Usually, they set me up for failure. I mean, I just can’t go a whole year without drinking Diet Coke, never eating fast food or daily making entries in my personal journal. Or doing things exactly the way Jesus would have done.

I knew better than to ask so much of myself. But what can I challenge myself to do or be at which I not only can succeed but draw closer to God in the process?

Remember the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement that swept through this country’s Christian population quite a few years ago? Many people wore bracelets engraved with the abbreviated “WWJD” and thousands tried to pause whenever a decision was at hand. They would ask themselves what Christ would have done in a similar situation.

I never did hear an estimation as to how many of those people actually did what Jesus would have done. It was an honest attempt at piety, and that’s not a bad thing in what oftentimes seems like a soulless world.

WWJD actually came from a book published in 1896, “In His Steps,” written by Protestant minister Charles Sheldon and as relevant today as it was 117 years ago. In the novel, the Rev. Henry Maxwell encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man has difficulty understanding why, in his view, so many Christians ignore the poor. Asks the homeless man: “But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps?”

After reading the book, it struck me that the question had less to do with WWJD — being a faithful Christian in the decisions we make — and more to do with the book’s title, “In His Steps.”

If we seek to walk in Christ’s steps, we can try so much to be like Him that of course every step, every decision, every thought, every desire, every sacrifice and so much more will follow Jesus’ way. We won’t become perfect images of Christ, but we will notice those others in our lives who need forgiveness as the first step toward fully entering in God’s kingdom some day.

And for Mike Eisenbath, that starts with forgiving Mike Eisenbath. Indeed, can I suggest a slight alteration to “The Lord’s Prayer’?

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and that includes forgiving ourselves.

Forgive yourself first. That takes some honesty and courage. Note those who have sinned against you, then forgive them no matter the infraction.

Then, we’ll find that special feeling that comes when God forgives our trespasses.


About Author

Mike Eisenbath has been married to Donna for 30 years; they have four adult children and two grandsons. He was an award-winning sportswriter for 23 years, including 18 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with duties that included covering the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball. Severe depression forced him out of that career. He continues to write, with a monthly column in the St. Louis Review and his website featuring reflections on topics such as his Catholic faith and mental illness. Mike is a frequent speaker and radio guest involving those subjects. Among his three books is Hence My Eyes Are Turned Toward You: Confronting Depression With Faith and the Prayer of Jehoshaphat.