I find it hard to forgive myself for the way I lived my life when I was younger. I thought I was a great guy and smarter than anyone around. It didn't bother me that I treated a number of women badly, leading them on with false promises and then leaving them in bits. I did nothing to deserve a happy marriage, but that is what I have. I often feel guilty about the past. I've confessed all that and I've been told that God has forgiven me, but I can't forgive myself. I'm a practising Catholic again, thanks to the influence of my wife. But there’s still an awful lot of things wrong in my life [….] I'd like to be able to put all that right [….] I don’t seem to be able to help myself though. I want to shake off the past but I don’t seem to be able [….] I hate myself in a lot of ways, but my wife tells me I should love myself, like Jesus said – love your neighbour as yourself. I feel frustrated, and she has started asking me why I'm so intense lately. Have you any suggestions about ways I could help myself? Dave
I didn't reproduce the detail towards the end of your letter. There was no need, since the picture is clear. It would be better, I think, to focus on that picture – the pattern I saw in your letter – rather than on the detail you described. It would be more helpful, I think, since I know nothing about the other matters.
Can you forgive yourself? Can you love yourself? Can you help yourself? Can you fix yourself? Can you save yourself?
All these questions have a whiff of ego about them, don’t you think? The refusal to forgive oneself has something uncompromising about it – which makes it look very religious. It must be coming from an interesting place if it waves aside God's forgiveness and waits for something better. It comes from the ego, which would like to be its own judge and jury, its own god in fact. It would push God off the throne of judgment and sit there itself. It is the normal pattern of the ego: it wants to be its own world apart, with its own god, condemning and acquitting according to its own law. Once you see this deeply it begins to fall away from you.
Forgiveness is something you receive from another. The word itself tells you: it contains the word ‘give’. (This is the case in many other languages too.) Strictly speaking, you cannot give yourself something (who is giving, and who is receiving?), and likewise you cannot forgive yourself.
Can you love yourself? ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ has been called the Golden Rule, and it is usually taken to mean that our self-love should be the measure of our love for others. Can you credit that? Is that the teaching of Jesus? In that passage Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18 in response to a question about the Law of Moses that had been put to him; he was not speaking from himself. When he spoke from himself he said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). There is a big difference between being loved by Jesus and being ‘loved’ by someone’s ego. The ego is able to take over, to possess, to manipulate, to make deals, to control – but not to love. Don’t be tripped up by words. Forget about loving yourself. Try loving an enemy instead, as Jesus said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies…’ (Matthew 5:43f). If you can love an enemy, that is evidence that something deeper than the ego is at work in you.
The best things that happen to us come as gifts and surprises. It would be a dreary thing to receive a birthday card from yourself. My advice, Dave, is: Don’t try to fix yourself, don’t try to save yourself, don’t try to love yourself…. Instead, just try and spot the ego-games the moment they start up. And praise God for giving you a wife who is able to redeem you.