How Can We Learn to Forgive Ourselves?

This column was originally posted on July 25, 2007.

I received a letter recently that was very short, but also expressed profound sadness:






I am 72, and while I am trying to live in the present moment, I am having a great deal of difficulty forgiving myself for past transgressions. Is there a Divine Mercy source that might be helpful to me?

I am tempted to respond to this tender and sensitive person, thusly: "Not only is there a Divine Mercy source that can help you, but only The Divine Mercy can help you. And He definitely will!

The lady who wrote this letter is not alone. Many of us are morally and spiritually frustrated with ourselves. Perhaps we are not making as much progress as we had hoped in overcoming some of our besetting sins. Others of us, looking back on our lives, see so many compromises, so many ways we let others down and let ourselves down.

The past can't be erased. Moreover, our past performance does not give us much hope that we shall do much better in the future. And many of us have committed horrible sins, the memory of which continue to haunts us. We may think, "What a loser I am; what a disappointment I am. And if I am such a disappointment to myself, how much more so to our Lord Jesus! Can He really forgive me for all this? Can He really ever say to me those words in the gospel that He promised He would say to those who enter heaven: 'Well done, good and faithful servant' (Mt 24:21)?"

First point: if that is how you feel, then welcome to the human race. The fact is, according to God's standard of perfect human goodness, except for Jesus Himself, and she who was full of grace, His mother Mary, all of us are losers, all of us fall short, all of us are a big disappointment and are unworthy of forgiveness. Everyone. Anyone who thinks otherwise is lying to himself (see I Jn 1:8).

Second point: our Lord does not love us because we are good; rather, we can be good because He first loves us (I Jn 4:19). His love is a free gift: just because He made us, and bought us with His own blood on the Cross.

We don't have to try to earn His love. All we need to do is receive it and let Him love us more and more. As Fr. George Kosicki, a great Divine Mercy evangelist, likes to say, the rays on the image of The Divine Mercy are always pouring out toward us. We don't have to do anything to make that happen. There is no "on/off" button for the rays on the Image - they are always on! In a section of her Diary entitled "Conversation of the Merciful God with a Sinful Soul," Jesus said to St. Faustina:

Be not afraid of your Savior, O sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know that by yourself you are unable to lift yourself to Me. Child, do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish his graces on you. How dear your soul is to Me! I have inscribed your name upon my hand; you are engraved as a deep wound in My Heart. ...

My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of My goodness? For you I descended from heaven to earth; for you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross; for you I let my Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart. Your misery has disappeared in the depths of My Mercy. Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give me pleasure if you hand over to me all your troubles and griefs. I shall heap upon you treasures of My grace (Diary, 1485).

If we have a Savior who loves us that much: who made us, who cancelled our debt of sin with His own blood on the Cross, who says we are "engraved" deeply in His Heart right now, who promises that He "never" rejects a contrite heart (and we must be contrite if our sentiments are like those of the "first point," above!), and if He tells us that we even rejoice His Heart now and give Him "pleasure" when we entrust to Him all our doubts and all our miseries - if all that is true (and it certainly is, because the Bible says so, and the Catholic Church says so), then what reason can we possibly cling to for doubting that Jesus forgives us?

After all, Jesus has a lot tougher cases than us to deal with! After all, we are contrite for our sins and have gone to confession. Think of the vast multitudes that grieve His Heart that are not sorry in the least for their sins and their betrayal of His love. He loves these souls, too, and yet they are marching blindly to perdition!

So if Jesus - the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the Savior of the world - can forgive us, what reason can we possibly give for not forgiving ourselves? All such reasons vanish away. His mercy is an infinite "ocean" (Diary, 718). Our finite little sins are barely a drop compared to that ocean. By His love, He plunges contrite souls into that ocean of mercy and washes every stain of sin away.

Of course, our memories can still trouble us. We shudder sometimes when we think of the sins we have committed. Sometimes it seems as if our memory is poisoned and needs healing. It's true. That is an after-effect of sin. So entrust that to Him, too, every day. Ask Him to heal your memories on your road to heaven. And He will. Sometimes He will do so all at once; sometimes slowly and gradually. Just resolve that every time you remember those past sins that make you wince - those sins that have already been dealt with in confession - you will entrust the sad memories of those sins to His healing mercy.

Sometimes we think, "But look at all the upset and misery that my sins caused other people, and most of this I can never set right." That's right. Most of it we can never set right ourselves. But HE can, and He will if we ask Him. "In everything God works for good with those who love Him" (Rom 8:28). Even if we do not see how He brings all things around to serve His plan, we can trust that He will accomplish it.

We will not always feel forgiven. Remember that our feelings can depend on many factors other than spiritual ones. For example, our health or our level of fatigue or stress. As North Americans, we put a great deal of emphasis on feelings (probably too much), and therefore, if we don't "feel" forgiven, we tend to wonder whether we really are.

But where does the Bible say that God only forgives those who feel forgiven? And did you ever hear a priest in the confessional say: "And I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, just so long as you feel forgiven"?

Of course not! Jesus Christ's forgiveness is a free gift and a fact; it's not a feeling. If you have trouble feeling forgiven, here is a remedy that may help. First, take very good care of your health and get plenty of rest. Second, don't think about your own feelings. Just think about Jesus' feelings about you. In Diary entries 1487 and 1489, we can read Jesus' feelings about each of us:

What joy fills My Heart when you return to Me. Because you are weak, I take you in My arms and carry you to the home of My Father. ... In a soul that lives on my love alone, I reign as in heaven. I watch over it day and night. In it I find my happiness.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at


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