Self-Forgiveness vs. God’s Forgiveness
Pope Francis made news this week when he said priests can forgive women who seek forgiveness for having an abortion.
“"The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented," the Pope said, adding that he has met "many women" scarred by the "agonizing and painful" decision to have an abortion.”
The Catholic Church considers abortion serious enough that it can lead to excommunication. Ordinarily, only a bishop can reduce the penalty. (CNN)
To Christians, the story reveals the Pope’s compassion. But the statement can seem strange to evangelicals and secularists. And, as a psychologist I’m wondering about the importance of self-forgiveness and where Christians insert God into their views on forgiveness.
God, Priests, and Psychotherapists
Growing up in conservative protestant churches, it was a badge of self-righteousness not to call pastors “Father.” And we sure didn’t need to confess to a priest and learn from a priest that God forgives us.
Psychologists were below priests on evangelical’s righteous ladder. Despite Christian culture, I began counseling forty years ago. Over the years I have heard many confessions from Christians. Most were within the confidential setting of an office but some were blurted out during friendly conversations.
I learned that many Christians needed to confess their wrongdoing. People need someone to hear their confession. And Christians often need to be re-assured that God had forgiven them.
I’m not one to mess with anyone’s theology—there are just too many theologies to keep up with. But I do see the value in confessing wrongdoing to someone. And if a minister is representing God to a confessor, then affirming God’s forgiveness at least makes psychological sense if not also making theological sense.
For people who have been carrying a load of guilt for decades, it can take courage to reveal the truth—not just to a priest or psychotherapist but to oneself. Confessing aloud allows people to affirm their decision to “come clean.” And in the presence of an empathic pastor or psychotherapist, guilty people can experience hope that God also views them in a loving and merciful way.
In addition to taking responsibility for one’s wrongdoing (sin in church language), hearing another say “God has forgiven your sins” creates a memorable event. I’m not saying God doesn’t forgive repentant folks when they ask in private prayer. I’m just saying that some people need an event that makes it clear, “God has forgiven me.” They are free from the mental burden that may have dogged them for years. The confirming words of another person grants a person “permission” to let go of the past.
Self-forgiveness and God’s forgiveness
Self-forgiveness sounds like a mind game. When people violate their moral standards they feel guilty. The solution would seem to be as simple as forgive yourself and move on. That would be a secular approach. And there’s evidence self-forgiveness works. The concern some of us have is that some people may let themselves “off the hook” too easily and just go on committing harmful acts.
Christians don’t view wrongdoing as violating personal moral standards. For Christians, wrongdoing is sin. And sin is an offense against God. So whether Christians hurt others or themselves, they still sin against God. Silencing the voice of conscience requires confession to God, committing to change (repentance) and receiving God’s forgiveness.
The Catholic teaching that some sins lead to excommunication can sound pretty harsh to an outsider. But it makes sense from the perspective that sin interrupts a Christian’s relationship with God. Many, if not most, Christians view abortion as a serious offense. But there is a way to restore the broken relationship and that’s forgiveness. Not just any forgiveness but accepting God’s forgiveness as sufficient.
I’m thinking that non-Catholic Christians may have a greater need for a process like confession or self-forgiveness than Catholics who can follow a prescribed procedure to obtain God’s forgiveness mediated through the agents of the church. For those Christians who want to skip a visit to their pastor or a psychotherapist, they may need to follow an organized process to make it feel genuine. One example can be found in Ev Worthington’s approach.