“The Forgiveness that Comes the Hardest”

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
April 23, 1950

Most people learn the meaning of forgiveness from their parents–especially the mother. The young child, not quite certain why it is that something he has done has made his mother disappointed or angry, is anxious to put the matter right. He wants to feel himself safe in his mother’s affection. So. in one way or another, he seeks a reconciliation. This is his first experience of forgiveness.

Presently, owing to the influence of the father, the matter becomes more complicated. The child may feel that when he loses his mother’s approval he can soon regain it, but in the case of his father reassurance may not be so prompt. In this way, the child may come to identify himself partly with the response of the mother and partly with that of the father, so that one parent frees or indulges him emotionally and the other parent restrains him.

At any rate, this would be the simplest way of putting the matter. Too simple, I am afraid, since the influence of neither parent is consistent; nor is the emotional development of a child as plainly traceable as some of the textbooks would lead us to think. Nevertheless, these are useful generalizations if we use them cautiously, since they reveal to us something of the way in which conscience is formed and how it happens that an individual has standards of behavior which he can neither live up to nor renounce. From one parent or from both–or from the interactive influence of the two parents upon him–the child, without really knowing why, begins to think of some actions as likely to gain approval and other actions as certain to be disapproved. But since he never succeeds in restricting himself to the approvable actions only, he finds himself from time to time in need of toleration or indulgence, or of what he learns to call forgiveness.

When he moves out from the home into a wider social environment–the playground, the school, the homes of his friends–he discovers that this attitude of approval and disapproval is encountered wherever he goes. So that it becomes implanted within himself. Some things he can do and be glad he has done them; other things cause him unhappiness, self-criticism, remorse.

Sooner or later, he learns that this is not an accident: not fortuitous; it is part of the nature of things, decreed by God. And he thinks of God as a good deal like his father but much more powerful, and yet at the same time not unlike his mother; so that the same God who condemns him for what is disapproved may also be asked to reinstate him or–as he says–forgive him.

Out of all this, the child as he grows becomes aware of what he calls his conscience and sometimes is much perplexed by it. If his development is wholesome, his conscience will be such that his reason reinforces it; that is to say, he will consider on his own account to what extent the judgments of his conscience make sense and improve his life and its relationships, and will accept those judgments; and at the same time he will reject his guilt-feelings wherever he sees them to be something left over from his infancy and irrational. But this is not a thing he will do easily. If his parents have been unwise or estranged and quarrelsome, or lacking in affection, or overindulgent or in other ways inadequate, the grown child may suffer for it all his life. His conscience may never be wholesome. Or the same thing may happen through some defect in himself. And thus, when we speak of conscience we are discussing something that is far from simple. In some people, it works straightforwardly and in an open and forthright way. These people are mature. But in other people it works quite deviously and does much harm. These people have been impeded in their emotional development; no matter how bright their minds, they are immature.

When it comes to forgiveness, therefore, which all of us throughout our lives must both seek for ourselves and from time to time grant to other people, those who are mature manage it fairly easily but those who are immature are constantly in difficulties with it. They are in difficulties because their own consciences are confused, and the confusion they find within themselves they project out into the lives of other people.

Let me illustrate. A year or so ago, a lady came into my office hoping that I could help her to find her way out of a rather tangled situation. Some injuries had been done to her, she said, which she had freely forgiven. The people who had done these injuries were very hateful people: she was sure of that but nevertheless she had forgiven them. She was acting generously and wanted to go on acting generously. On the surface it was a very creditable story. The lady had done well. But if she had done well, why was she disturbed about it? Why were there tears of anger in her eyes? Why was she seeking help?

The truth was, of course, that she had not done well at all. The forgiveness expressed in her behavior was not a forgiveness that came from the heart. She hated these people. And why did she hate them? Was it for what they had done to her? Not really. This kind of hatred never persists because of what other people do: it is rooted in what one does oneself. This lady hated her relatives and friends because of her self-hate. She could not forgive them because she could not forgive herself.

Which, after a while, was what I mentioned to her. “Why don’t you forgive the person most concerned?” I asked. “Isn’t the trouble that you can’t forgive yourself?” And then she told me of her childhood, a very unhappy one, and of the tortures of conscience–of a confused and sick conscience–which she had never been able to make well. She was in part the victim of her upbringing–as most such people are. But she was also to blame herself–if one may call it blame. She had fortified herself within her own resentments–resentments, however, which she had learned to conceal. She was outwardly sweet and gracious; inwardly she was seething with hostility. She could not forgive herself for being herself, and for not being better than she was. And she represents thousands of other people–not only thousands but millions.

These people, as I have indicated, have become what they are largely through an unfortunate childhood conditioning. For that reason, they should be understood sympathetically. Yet sympathy alone will never cure them. They have to gain insight into their own invalidism; they have to understand that in their cases conscience is not a guide to spiritual health, but only a mechanism for gaining approval. They have to know that a more wholesome state of conscience is possible. And they have to begin by forgiving themselves–which is the hardest kind of forgiveness.

Such people are often very good people–that is to say, in overt behavior. If they are cruel or intolerant, it is always in a quite disguised and very subtle way. If they do other people an injury, they always make it seem like a kindness: something generous–on the surface–which is nevertheless intended as a condescension, or even a humiliation. The rectitude of their outer lives conceals an inner lie.

As I have said, this is not a simple condition–or one that is easy to describe. The extent to which I have described it this morning gives only the barest indications. Nor has it been possible to describe it even to this extent until rather recent years, for in this matter we are much more indebted to modern psychology than we are to religion, or at any rate, to the religion of yesterday. Nevertheless, the condition itself is not new; and neither is its importance. It was this self-hatred, this self-accusing unforgiveness, that gave impulse to heresy-hunts and inquisitions, and to all the harshness perpetrated in the name of religion. It has done the same thing in the life of families. It has destroyed the harmony of human relationships of every sort.

Anyone who wishes to see what its effect was in the Victorian Era can do so by reading Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh. Or if they wish to come a little closer to our time they can read The Forsyte Saga. Or, for a thoroughly modern and very clear and useful treatment they can go to Rabbi Liebman’s Peace of Mind, particularly the third chapter.
There is no forgiveness–none whatever–that comes so difficult as the forgiveness wherewith we forgive ourselves. I sometimes think it ought to have been included in the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive ourselves–as well as those who trespass against us.” It is not too difficult –not usually–to forgive those who trespass against us. However deeply we resent an injury at first, after a while we are ready to forgive it. Our trouble is that it is not the injury done to us, but the injury we do that is hard to forgive. We can forgive others, in one measure or another, but we cannot forgive ourselves. The person who has done us a wrong we are not embarrassed to meet; but the person to whom we have done a wrong –we cannot forgive him because we cannot forgive ourselves. He is a constant reminder of what we want to avoid remembering–that we did a wrong. So we project the wrong we did out on to him; and such is the ingenuity of our minds that we provide arguments to persuade ourselves that we did not do the wrong; it was the other way around; he did it.

But what it comes to is quite plain when we are willing to look at it. We cannot forgive ourselves. And the reason, of course, is that we do not want to admit that we need forgiveness. We want to justify ourselves. Not outwardly, perhaps. No, but in the last analysis. For we do not want to face ourselves as we really are.

And whether this is a condition brought upon us by our childhood conditioning, producing in us a muddled conscience, or whether it is something that we bring about ourselves–or both, and I think that it is often both–what we are up against is that we hate ourselves. And so we project our self-hate out into the world, out to other people.

And from this–or so I increasingly think–comes more unhappiness, more sickness of soul, than from anything else in the world. It is quite frequently from self-hate that people commit suicide. But there is also a self-killing that goes on in day to day existence: a sort of chronic suicide. People kill off a part of their own nature–the best part. And go on killing it off. Because they do so, all their relationships have something of death in them. They kill off the kindliness in other people, the natural friendliness that is offered to them, the spontaneities that make life joyous and bountiful. Wherever they go, these people, they are killers of the soul. Yet, there is nothing that they do to other people that is anything like as evil as what they do to themselves. Human beings are not like serpents, immune to their own poison: they can never poison others as severely as they do themselves.

Well, what may be done about it? Rabbi Liebman, in the book I mentioned, says that “the religion of the future should take a page from the notebook of the psychotherapist.” That is what I have been doing this morning. If we can identify a condition, if we can truly recognize it and not disguise it, we are already gaining power over it. That is what the psychotherapist would tell us. We must gain insight. We must know ourselves as we are. We must recognize ourselves in our true character. Then we can do something about ourselves. Forgive ourselves. And perhaps begin to like ourselves. We can see how comical we sometimes are, how full of tricks and stratagems, how far from the perfections we have tried to claim. And we can get used to ourselves. Instead of living with a tortured conscience, too sick to guide us, we can achieve a wholesome conscience and learn to accept its directions. We can stop being afraid of ourselves; cease using up our emotional energy trying to pretend. We can be ourselves, but with an honest effort to be truly better than we have been in the past. All this we can achieve, says the psychotherapist, through insight. For with insight comes humility. Not a false modesty, covering up an inordinate vanity, a greedy self-conceit, that we do not want other people to know about. But humility: seeing ourselves for what we are and knowing what to respect in ourselves and what to put up with while we try to get the better of it.

What this humility is in ordinary ways–not heroic ways, or dramatically but just in common ways–has often been illuminated for me when I have remembered an occasion, several years ago, in the State of Maine, when I was driving through a sparsely populated countryside and began to run out of gasoline. Just as I was getting desperate I saw a gasoline pump half a mile down a hill and managed to get to it. But by this time a thunderstorm was on its way. And the old man who had been vending the gasoline took a look at the sky and hurried off into a barn. Nor could I persuade him to leave its shelter and come and sell me some gasoline–not until the storm was safely passing down the river. Then he came out of the barn. Not in the least embarrassed ar abashed, he looked into the car window and with his face wrinkled up into a quizzical, whimsical sort of smile, whispered to me–as though it were a confidence–“I’m not the bravest man in these parts.”

Well, he wasn’t. And he would have been better off if he had been a little braver. But just the same, he was no hypocrite. Nor was there anything wrong with his humility. I’m quite sure that he’ll never have a neurosis–not even a complex. What he is, he is, and I rather think he had done his best about himself. If a bolt of lightning was going to hit the gasoline tank and blow up some city folks–why it was something to watch, not something to share. He was “not the bravest man in those parts.” But he was something–he was honest and humble and he didn’t hate himself.

Perhaps, at his age, he ought to have achieved a little more than that. Doubtless, he would himself have said so. But there are quite a lot of people, both older and younger than he, and with far wider opportunities, who are much below him in accomplishment. For they are not honest–not really–nor humble –and they do hate themselves. They pretend to forgive everybody else–but they don’t; and they don’t forgive the world they live in, or the God who made it. They don’t forgive anyone or anything–not really: because they can’t forgive themselves.

All this, as we said a moment ago, is pointed up for us by modern psychotherapy. Yes–but not alone by that. Valid insights are never altogether new. And this one isn’t.

Or what does this story mean: Two men went to the Temple to pray. One a pharisee, the other a publican. And the pharisee lifted up his voice and said, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men. I lead an upright life. I keep the commandments, pay my bills, give a little to charity, never cheat, never gamble, never curse, never drink. I am respectable…and certainly not like this publican here.” And the publican beat his hands on his breast, not daring to raise up his eyes unto heaven, and cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Which of these two, asked the Man from Nazareth, went down justified?

Let us take another look at them: these two. A pharisee–who hated himself so much that he didn’t dare to take his mind off his piety. ” God,” something deep inside him was saying, “I hate the world, I hate the people in it, I hate you and I hate myself.” But he stifled it by crying out his virtues that much the louder. Otherwise, his prayer would have been something like this: “O God, I thank thee that I am not as other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers–or even as this publican. (I hate him! I hate this publican! He makes me see what I am really like, just as full of temptations as he is–and worse, because I’m cold and cruel and he isn’t.) O God, I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all I get. (Why aren’t you grateful, God? Listen! I fast! I do without things! I give away my money! Why aren’t you grateful, God? I hate you. I hate you for letting me seem so feeble, so stuffy, so pallid, so lifeless, while I do all this for you!) O God, I keep the sabbath, I set a good example, I follow the ritual . I’m not like other men. I’m righteous. (Righteous! I hate other men. I daren’t let myself know how much I’m like them. I’m a hypocrite. But you mustn’t know this, God…in case some day there’s something you have to forgive me. Because I can’t forgive you: for creating me the way I am, to live in the world the way it is. And I can’t forgive myself.”)

That’s how it was–when the two men went up to the Temple to pray. And the other man just said, “Be merciful, O God. (I have loved the world, I have loved its people, I have loved myself–too much. And I love you. If it’s blasphemy for one like me to say it, I can’t help it. God, I think you are different from the stories they tell about you. God, I don’t think you’re like they say you are at all. I think you know that I’ve not done very well; and it’s possible that I may not do much better.) Be merciful! (I’ll do the best I can with myself. But it won’t be very good. And yet I won’t be able to keep on being miserable about it. Although I don’t deserve to be, I’m liable to be happy. I don’t quite know what to make of myself–but I have no other self. This is me and all there is of me. You had it in mind to make me something more than this. I know, God. I’ve let you down. But I shall have to forgive myself. I want to go away from here cleansed. I want you to forgive me.) Be merciful…” That’s how it was when two men went up to the Temple to pray.

And, said Jesus, it was the publican who went home justified. It was he who found peace of mind. What wonderful things would happen to this weary world if its heartsick people should find the same secret.

Prayer: O God, make plainer to us what we come so close to understanding. Amen.

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