In my last blog, I gave several reasons why forgiving yourself is important when healing from abuse. Today, I’d like to share some practical steps for doing this. The following is taken from my upcoming book, A Journey to Healing after Emotional Abuse.
Step 1 – Seek God’s forgiveness
God is a god of forgiveness. Giving everyone in the world an opportunity for forgiveness was the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, (John 3:16). God knows every sin we’ve ever committed. We can’t hide them from Him, any more than we can hide them from ourselves. 1 John 1:8-10 says:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us.
Yes, God already knows our sins, and He is the only one who can give us the strength to forgive ourselves. Therefore, going to Him is the first step in forgiving ourselves.
When you ask God’s forgiveness, be honest about what you have done. Have you ever had a child say, “I’m sorry” to you because they knew you expected it, but you knew they weren’t sorry? God can also tell when you aren’t sorry. When you fully accept the blame for the things you’ve done wrong, and humbly ask His forgiveness, He is faithful and just to forgive you for your sins.
You must also take responsibility for your sins. You will never be able to truly forgive yourself for your sins if you don’t take responsibility for committing them. If you just “let yourself off the hook,” and make excuses for what you’ve done, or try to forget your actions, your sub-conscience will not allow you to forget the offense. It will bring up your actions again and again until you humble yourself and admit the wrong you’ve committed, and make an effort to make it right. Taking responsibility for your sins leads to Step two.
Step 2 – Make restitution
What does making restitution mean? Webster’s online dictionary* defines it as:
- The act of returning something that was lost or stolen to its owner.
- Payment that is made to someone for damage, trouble, etc.
In other words, restitution is attempting to fix something that you’ve broken by an action you’ve done; to make something right.
For a former abuse victim, making restitution can be tricky, depending on what you are trying to forgive yourself for. For example, you may feel guilty for behaving poorly toward your abuser, believing your actions may have been part of the reason he abused you. Apologizing, and making things right with him may bring you back into relationship with him – putting you in danger – which would not be wise. Or, you may feel guilty for wasting years of your life with him. In this case, you cannot go back and relive the years you wasted, but you can decide to make the best of your future years. On the other hand, if you feel guilty for putting your children in harm’s way by staying with your abuser too long, you can make restitution with them. Hence, deciding how to make restitution may require you to think creatively.
To make restitution with a safe person, you need to see how your action has hurt them from their perspective. Try to simply own what you did, leaving off the “but.” For example, you might say to your children, “I am sorry for all the pain I caused you by staying with my abuser for so long. I can only imagine all the ways living in a house with so much fear has hurt you throughout the years.” You won’t help your kids if you then add, “But you will never realize how hard I tried to shield you from some of his abuse.”
Don’t expect your kids to instantly forgive you. The hurt they’ve experienced cannot be forgiven instantly. Be prepared to apologize more than once. Also, be prepared to do things to make amends for the hurt you’ve caused them. What are some ways you can do this?
- Get them some counseling to help with their healing.
- Become strong yourself.
- Find a good job and/or get some education so you can provide for them.
- Help find them some good role models.
Your children may not forgive you for many years. You don’t need to wait many years to forgive yourself, however. Apologize; then begin performing actions that will help them, and begin forgiving yourself.
Step 3 – Make a Decision to Consciously Forgive Yourself
After you have asked God to forgive you, and done whatever you could to make things right with others, you will need to make a conscious decision to forgive yourself. At this point, you may not feel forgiving toward yourself, but at some point you will need to decide to do it. In their book, The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller describe the gospel as this:
“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”**
Accepting you are a flawed, sinful person might seem counter-productive. Aren’t we trying to help you forgive yourself? Yes, but stick with me. You are more sinful than you are aware of; this is true. But guess what, so am I. Your mom, your best friend, your boss and your neighbor are also more sinful than they ever dared believe. We all spend a lot of time and energy hiding this fact from each other. That’s OK, just don’t hide it from yourself, or from God. Once you accept the fact of your sinfulness, you can begin accepting the amazing, joyous fact that God loves you more than you will ever imagine. Ephesians 3:17b – 19 says:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Sometimes things we read in the bible are just words to us. Try to really feel how much God loves you. Put it into real terms. Pick someone you love more than anyone else in the world. If you have a child, s/he will be a good choice. If not, choose a sibling, parent, or even favorite pet if there is no human you can think of. Now, picture in your mind another person you love. Lets say the only way that second person could live was if your loved one died a horrible, humiliating, painful death. Could you sacrifice your favorite person/pet for that second person? That is what God did for you. He loved you enough to sacrifice His Son, his only son, to come to earth, suffer, and die a painful, humiliating death.
You may think God didn’t do that specifically for you. Yes, He did. Accept this. This is the extent of His love for you. If you haven’t accepted this sacrifice Jesus made for you, now is the time to do it. Pray to God. Ask Him to forgive you. Tell Jesus you want Him to be your savior. You will be amazed how joyous you will feel.
If you have just accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for you, I urge you to tell someone right away. You probably know a Christian who has been praying for you. Call that person immediately. If not, you can call KLOVE***, a Christian radio station that has pastors on call 24 hours a day. They will help you find a church close to you that will help you grow in your faith and relationship with the Lord.
Forgive yourself. Now is the time. Make the decision; your feelings will catch up.
Step 4 – Challenge Negative Self-talk
Once you have sought God’s forgiveness, made restitution with others and decided to forgive yourself, you may find you still obsessively focus on your past sins: all the ways you have hurt others, or let yourself down. You may not realize you constantly rehash your shortcomings throughout each day. It’s like a broken record that plays over and over in your mind. You won’t be able to be at peace with yourself until you break this pattern of negative self-talk.
Here is a good way to challenge your negative thoughts and break this pattern. Write down every automatic thought you have for a week. Once you see what you are saying to yourself, you can turn those negative thoughts into positive ones. For example:
Negative thoughts Positive thoughts
I am a terrible person I am loved by God
No one will ever forgive me God has forgiven me
I never do anything good I have done/am doing
all I can to make amends
for the wrongs I’ve done.
Whenever you hear yourself speaking negatively, purposely exchange the negative sentence for the positive one.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can also help turn around negative automatic thoughts. Try questioning your thoughts. Ask yourself, “Am I being a perfectionist? Am I holding myself to a higher standard than I would someone else? What would a friend say about this? What would I tell a friend if they were struggling with this? How long should I suffer for this sin?” If you find you cannot break out of your negative self-talk, consider seeking a CBT therapist.
Step 5 – Continually and instantly keep forgiving
Like any hard-won battle, forgiving yourself is not something you do once and are finished. Satan will try to tempt you to keep ruminating on your failures, and bring you back into the bondage of despair, shame and unforgiveness. You may need to fight this battle daily for a while as you train your mind to think in new, healthier patterns. You may feel you have won the war against self-reproach for a long while, and an incident will remind you of your past, and you will be seem to be back to Step 1. Don’t despair. Once you have fought these hard battles, going through the steps again won’t be as difficult the next time. Forgiving yourself will get easier over time. Be patient, and give yourself grace as you walk the journey to forgiving yourself.
May you feel the Lord’s presence as you do this.
** Timothy and Kathy Keller, The meaning of marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY:Riverhead Books, 2011). 44
*** http://www.klove.com (800) 525-LOVE (5683)