Just exactly what does it mean to "forgive yourself"? I have heard the phrase used often, and have always been a bit confused by it. The technical aspects of "forgiveness" are quite easy to explain. Forgiveness involves a reconciliation between two or more people. One or more individuals have done something sinful against one or more other individuals, and the two parties need to reconcile (i.e. be brought to a peaceful state of harmony). The offending party needs to ask specific forgiveness for the specific sin(s) committed, and the offended party needs to grant the forgiveness that was requested, thereby reconciling the two parties to one another once again. This reconciliation is necessary because the relationship of the two parties has been damaged and it needs to be restored to holiness. Nothing new or surprising there.
As we consider this fact, we are led to ask the question, "what about the description of forgiveness fits with the idea of a single person 'forgiving himself'?" Has a person's relationship with himself been damaged by his sins? Do we even have a "relationship with ourselves"? Has he caused a breech in his relationship with himself? Are we speaking about the concept of a split personality (I doubt it!)? There is nothing, as far as I can tell, about the idea of "forgiving oneself" that fits with the technical definition of reconciliation. Admittedly, one can be upset with his own behavior and even be angry at something he has done, but that is not the same as being sinned against by another person. Furthermore, how would one forgive oneself -- "hello there me, I'm sorry for sinning against me, will I forgive myself?"
I do not believe that the phrase (or even the idea of) "forgiving oneself" ever occurs in Scripture or in any official Catholic documents (if anyone knows of a place I have missed, please write to me and let me know!). That, in itself, is a startling admission. Scripture, written over a span of some 1400 years by men in various circumstances, never once even mentions the idea of "forgiving oneself". The silence is deafening. Furthermore, if it does not show up in any official document of the Catholic Church or in the long history of approved Catholic theologians, we at least have to acknowledge that the Church does not consider it a primary concern in our spiritual well being.
Yet, in spite of this lack of reference in virtually all the areas that matter for us as Catholics, numerous people speak about it as though it were an essential factor of the Christian life. That alone says that we should make some kind of comment on whether we should be concerned with it. So then, what is it that people mean when they say that someone has to "forgive himself"? Although there are numerous times when I have been upset with something that I did, I cannot say that I ever felt that I needed to "forgive myself"; does that mean I am calloused (I hope not).
After many years of serving in the pastoral field (both in Catholic and Protestant circles), I believe that many (if not all) of those who talk about "forgiving oneself" are merely using the phrase inaccurately. I do believe that it is a genuine issue that they speak of, but that their terminology is off. Therefore, let me attempt to summarize what I believe is going on. It is my opinion that when someone says "he needs to forgive himself" that he is referring to the need to deal appropriately with the guilt he is feeling for his bad behavior. This may seem simplistic, but I think it goes to the heart of the matter; in addition, I believe most of those who say they "need to forgive themselves" would agree with this. It is their feelings of guilt that leads them to this claim.
The subject of guilt is one that the Church has very often discussed, and has a good deal of literature defining and explaining it. When someone is experiencing the burden of guilt, and does not know how to deal with it in the proper (and godly) manner, he can describe that by the terminology of "forgiving yourself" (despite the problems that entails). Personally, I would like to get rid of that specific usage. The phrase is confusing and a bit misguided. Furthermore, I have had a number of people say to me "I cannot forgive others until I forgive myself". If we, however, translate that into a more accurate terminology, they would be saying "I cannot forgive others until I deal with my guilt", which is decidedly false.
There is nothing about our personal feelings of guilt that prevents us from forgiving another person. In fact, it is often our guilt that is precisely what drives us to seek reconciliation with others (as when we realize how important it is to treat others the way we want to be treated by God). That would mean that large numbers of people who are saying that they "cannot yet forgive" someone are doing so for all the wrong reasons. I do not know every situation, but if someone is using their personal "guilt" as a reason not to forgive someone else, it sounds more like an excuse trying to mask itself as holiness.
So then, how does someone deal with guilt? I could, at this point, dazzle you with a complicated and technical explanation filled with psychological mumbo-jumbo. That will not happen. On the contrary, it is necessary for me to speak about the basics of our religion; the sacraments. Although I do not want to sound like a broken record, the right way to deal with guilt is in the confessional. Yes, I know many people say "I can't go to confession until I forgive myself (i.e. deal with my guilt)" but that is putting the cart before the horse. Our refusal to deal with our guilt properly may have the effect of sending us to eternal hell, but only when we come before God so that He may deal with our guilt does it have the effect of granting us eternal life.
Are you or someone you know struggling with "self-forgiveness"? If so, do not leave God out of the picture. He alone is able to deal fully with our guilt, and the feelings that go with it. I once knew a man who told me that he had to forgive himself before he would ask God to forgive. He died two weeks later; very unexpectedly. I pray that he was able to deal with his guilt properly before that day. Do not fall into the same trap and hold God at arm's length. Open yourself up to His grace and go to confession!