Forgive Yourself

This week we are blessed to hear from Rev. Mike Friedrich as he delivers a message about forgiving yourself in preparation for our all church retreat.

We’re in the middle of a short sermon series on “forgiveness” begun last week by Pastor Craig. Minister Chai will continue with the series next week. It’ll conclude at the all-church retreat the last weekend of this month.

As Pastor Craig talked about last week, there is a rich amount of commentary in the Bible about forgiveness. If we are to inhabit the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about, if we’re to form the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King preached about, if we are to have the world that we pray and work so hard for, then forgiveness is a key virtue.

2012-11-20 - Walk of freedom at NPS MLK exhibit
From the King Center in Atlanta, GA

Without forgiveness the world would be a pretty miserable place, with everyone carrying grudges against you for your entire life. But with forgiveness, we are able to constantly reset the scale back to zero and try to move forward.

You’ll notice that Jesus says in our Scripture reading, “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. Jesus doesn’t say let wrong-doing slide, he says you must confront it, he says you must battle it, he says you must rebuke it. Then, if your intervention changes the offender’s heart, then you are obligated to forgive. Don’t get caught up in the battle, don’t get caught up in the rebuking, recognize when change, when repentance, has occurred. And forgive

In my brief research into all the many and extensive biblical passages regarding forgiveness, I didn’t find a single one directly talking about forgiving oneself. However, there is this favorite passage of mine, from Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-28:

Forgive Smedes

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life/“ He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your should, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. – Luke 10: 25-28

I tell everyone that writing sermons is difficult for me because I was trained at a young age to write comic books, which requires saying things as concise and succinctly as possible, because you can’t cover up the artwork with too many words. The impact of the story is diminished the more the art is obscured.

The reason I love this passage from Luke is that like a good comic book panel, it concisely boils the entire bible down to two commandments: two! love God and love your neighbor as yourself. (repeat) You can say everything else in all our holy writings is commentary.

Natural preachers, like Pastor Craig, know how to explain something in a more layered and nuanced fashion, so let’s think about this for a moment, when it comes to the question of forgiveness.

If forgiveness of others, forgiveness of our neighbors, is important in loving them, then forgiving ourselves is important in loving ourselves.

IMG_0450
An issue of Iron Man written by Deacon Mike (#48, Vol. 1)

Pastor Craig talked last week about how practicing forgiveness is one way of letting go of anger, letting go of revenge. I found myself instantly nodding, again because of my comics writing history. I was the writer of IRON MAN for Marvel Comics each month for 4 years in the early 1970’s. By then the formula was pretty well established that each issue Iron Man, or the other super-heroes, would battle a super-villain with destructive powers that matched or surpassed our hero’s abilities.

The thing was, as a rule, my writer colleagues and I didn’t pay much attention to motivation for this monthly conflict. It was an easy way to start a story by the villain seeking revenge for being defeated the last time by the hero. It was easily understood by even young readers that one trait of a bad guy was their constant search for revenge. It’s forgiveness that lets us let go of revenge.

I saw online a few weeks ago a wonderful YouTube commentary on forgiveness from a leading edge pastor in Denver named Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. In her short presentation, Pastor Nadia talked about how forgiveness is necessary for your own health because it cuts the link between yourself and the action that hurt or offended you. Otherwise you stay linked and the longer you stay linked, the more you’re infected by the hurt and the pain, to the point you become yourself more like the person who hurt you. The more you stay linked, the more you become like the person who hurt you.

This is a very valuable insight. And it occurs to me that it applies to forgiving oneself. We have all done very stupid and hurtful things in our lives and if we have a conscience, we get upset at ourselves for doing them.

Now a conscience is a good thing. It helps discern right behavior from wrong behavior and helps guide us more and more toward doing the right thing. However, if we get stuck in blaming ourselves for the wrong things we’ve done, no matter how bad they actually are, then perhaps we are continuing to infect ourselves with those bad decisions, actually making it harder to move toward the light, toward the right.

2012-05-08 - Me in my Mickey Mouse Speed Racer car
Does driving an Autopia car contribute to global warming? Sadly, it probably does.

Here’s an example: all of us one way or another used fossil fuels to get here this morning (unless of course you walked or rode your bike). We all know that using fossil fuels is directly linked to air pollution and almost certainly linked to global warming. It’s not too harsh to say this is a sin against ourselves, our neighbors and our descendants. And we rebuke ourselves all the time. But we stay stuck, embedded in this huge energy system. How else do we get around? It’s literally unimaginable living with 7 billion other people without this system. Let me suggest we are more likely to take the small steps to wean ourselves from fossil fuels if we repent, meaning we turn around, and first, forgive ourselves, then act as best we can.

Forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness of ourselves. We don’t forget what we’ve done, we continue to recognize it was wrong, but we are able to move forward.

So… now I’d like to try a little something to end today:

think back to when you were young, perhaps in high school, perhaps you’re a young adult. Remember the stupidest, most hurtful thing you did to someone else. [We’re not going to share out loud! so be truthful!]

Now imagine yourself today is able to go back in the past and talk to your younger self about that episode. Now that there’s distance, what would you say to your younger self? You can tell them that you now understand how it happened and understand how it actually hurt that person. And now tell them that it’s okay. It happened. Learn from it. Move on.

That’s what forgiving ourselves feels like.

Let us pray: Gracious God, who forgives us from the moment we take our first breath until the moment when we take our last, help us to learn how to forgive others and to forgive ourselves, so that we can better do your work in the world. Amen.

  • Rev. Mike Friedrich is a deacon in the United Methodist Church and serves in the Bay District as well as at Berkeley Methodist United Church.

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