At present I am reading a book entitled “Om uit genade te leef” by Malan Nel, which is a great blessing and comfort to me. I (we all) struggle to forgive ourselves. Actually, we also struggle to forgive others! I have often wondered what connection there is between these two.
Malan writes of an important truth, that the ability to forgive others often depends on our ability to understand mercy.The more we understand mercy as our being able to be justified through our deeds, the less we will be able to understand mercy. To put it another way, the less we understand mercy, the less we will be able to show it to others that have offended us. There is, of course, the well-known passage in Matthew 18: 21-35 which serves to remind us of our own guilt, in order to enable us to show mercy towards others.
The following conclusion is that we sometimes reach the point when we understand mercy to a reasonable extent, and therefore can forgive others, but cannot manage to forgive ourselves. Malan Nel says that the reason for this is that we think that reproaching ourselves represents our punishment. It is as if our suffering is a punishment, and we must accept it. We have earned it! Through our inner pain and unforgiving attitude towards ourselves, we have paid for our sins, which is, of course, laughable! Has Jesus not already paid for all our sins? Or, is it that we think that through punishing or castigating ourselves we can at least contribute towards the redemption we receive through mercy, as if we have served out our sentence! Is this not a belief in justification through deeds? Is it possible for us to contribute anything towards the suffering of the sacrificial Lamb? It is obvious that, apart from this being laughable, it reduces the honour due to Jesus for His last complete and perfect sacrifice.
Ephesians 2:8-9 reads: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from ourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship…..”.
This brings me to another thought about guilt feelings. How much of this struggle to forgive ourselves is based on deep theological grounds; or should we say incorrect theological grounds? Freud is apparently the first to write about guilt. Naturally, he looked at it from en entirely different perspective. He did not write to provide an answer for people to rid themselves of guilt, but rather to show that it had nothing to do with religion, so that he could eventually reject religion and God (which in any case, he had done). He wrote that “I regard myself as one of the most dangerous enemies of religion” (1) and about God, he said: “I stand in no awe whatever of the Almighty” (2). His whole evidence developed around the id, ego, and superego. Religious writers later adapted this to describe three types of guilt:
- “id” – the ideal self, present in the conscience;
- “ego” – the correcting self, which represents the ideal. A person measures himself against the “ideal” that he has formed out of the educational and religious establishments and then makes the necessary adjustments. This represents a healthy guilt because it represents growth;
- “superego” – the punitive self, which is described as having its origins in destructive ‘guilt’, where you measure yourself against the ideal, but instead of this promoting growth, it results in rejection of yourself, shame and even masochism.
Why this story about “guilt”? Because, if we understand and handle guilt correctly, it can lead to growth and prevent self-destruction. If we combine this conception of “guilt: with God’s redemption in Christ, then it means that people that hold self-destructive guilt feelings concentrate so much on the punishing and condemnation of God that it eventually strips them of any chance of joy in their relationship with God. All motivation comes from the punishment and condemnation of God, and we know that this is not joy. Where there is love, there cannot be fear.
In contrast, a healthy guilt reflects a healthy life-orientated relationship where a person realizes that his guilt drives him into the arms of God, and after forgiveness is granted, there are no guilt feelings left. The mercy of God is sufficient. In Christ, God has cleansed us from all sin, past, present, and in the future, and He thinks no more about them. (Hebrews 7, Romans 1-6)
In addition, I have read somewhere (Jung 1933) that members of the Roman Catholic Church struggle with guilt and self-condemnation to a far lesser degree, and the reason given for this, is confession. The reasoning behind this is that because they confess their sins verbally in the presence of “someone”, who pronounces forgiveness and absolution, they can overcome their guilt more easily than Protestants. We are so ashamed of our sins that we do not want to speak about them with anyone, and meanwhile walk with the pain and self-reproach, and struggle to forgive ourselves! It is interesting to note that 1 Peter also encouraged believers to confess their sins to each other. Was this for the same reason?
What then can comfort us? Heidelberg’s Catechism 1, says that our only comfort can be that we belong to Jesus Christ. If we study this statement carefully, it offers unbelievable comfort, especially during our deepest disappointment in ourselves, our greatest “fall” , because our comfort lies with God our Father who has already redeemed us. Piper (5) puts it so well –
óur greatest tragedy is not disobedience. The greatest tragedy is the manner in which the Devil misuses our feelings of guilt to drive us away from Christ and His mercy! Do not allow the Devil to misuse our feelings of guilt in order to turn your life into a joyless mess, to leave our lives in tatters. Snatch this weapon out of the hands of the Devil! Our redemption is in Christ, rooted and secure!
Healthy “guilt” drives us towards Christ and helps us grow. Unhealthy “guilt” never brings freedom and joy and waits for punishment. It robs us of our joy and of a healthy Father-image of God.
- Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Basic Books); vol. 1, 1953: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries, 1856–1953; vol. 2, 1955: Years of Maturity, 1901–1919; vol. 3, 1957: The Last Phase, 1919–1939.
- Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Ernst L. Freud, trans. Tania and James Stern (New York: Basic Books, 1960), 307.
- Mayhall, C.W. (2008). Civilization and its “Malcontent”: Sigmund Freud and the problem of guilt. Christian Research Journal, 31, 1.
- Jung, C.G., 1933. Modern man in search of a soul.
- Mayhall, C.W., 2008. Civilization and its “Malcontent”: Sigmeund Freud and the problem of guilt. Christian Research Journa;, 31(1).