Have you, or someone you love, ever felt this way?
I have punished myself for my mistake more times than I can remember. Each day I wake in the court of conscience to be judged guilty and unworthy. In this sorry realm I am the judge, prosecutor and jury and, without defense, I accept the verdict and the sentence, a lifetime of regret and guilt to be administered by myself. (The Mistletoe Promise)
The central theme of my latest book, The Mistletoe Promise, is forgiving ourselves. This is crazy-difficult for many, but especially for the most caring among us–those with good hearts. (Sociopaths don’t have this problem.) Not only do these souls condemn themselves harshly but, in a cruel act of injustice, they try themselves over and over for the same crime. There’s a name for this–double jeopardy–and it was considered to be an act of such injustice that America’s founding fathers specifically added this line to the fifth amendment of the constitution.
“[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb . . . .”
The goal of the double jeopardy amendment is to avoid multiple punishments for the same crime. Yet that is precisely what many of us do to ourselves. We try ourselves over and over for the same offense, inflicting multiple punishments of self-hate, guilt and rejection. This is wholly unjust and wrong.
There is nothing wrong with feeling guilt for doing wrong. In fact, people who don’t feel guilt scare me a little. But once we have regretted our mistake and, if possible, made amends, the just and right thing to do is to let it go. Holding on to past wrongs is as foolish as a professional basketball player perseverating over a missed shot in a previous game. It not only distracts from the current game but increases the chance of repeating the same mistake.
There is another reason to pursue self-forgiveness. Oftentimes we specifically attack others for the crimes we are unable to forgive in ourselves. The act of forgiving ourselves opens us up to the possibility of forgiving others.
How do we forgive ourselves? It begins with the decision to do so. But it usually takes more than that. Since humans are ritualistic by nature, here’s an idea for a Christmas gift to give yourself. Take a piece of paper and write down your mistake in great detail. Be very specific–when the offense took place, who was harmed and how many times you’ve punished yourself. (It could be in the thousands.) Then wrap the paper up as a Christmas present and put it beneath the tree. On Christmas Day open your present, take out the note and burn it. Let it go. Be free. (For Christians, this may add even greater significance to the season. Isn’t freedom from our sins what Christmas is really about?)
The memory of your mistake may come again but don’t worry. When the thought pops back into your mind counter it with, “Nope, already paid for that. There’s no return policy on that gift.” Eventually, your condemnation will completely vanish.
Remember, in considering past offenses, both yours and others, the most important question to ask yourself isn’t whether or not anyone was wronged, rather “what are you proffered by your unforgiveness”? Victimhood is a cage. Free yourself. Be just and let it go.
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Richard Paul Evans is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Christmas Box and the Michael Vey series. His latest book, The Mistletoe Promise, is currently the #1 Holiday book in America.