The Capacity to Forgive Oneself

Karissa Friesen
3 min readJun 19, 2023

Does the capacity to forgive oneself exist? For a lot of us raised in evangelical Christianity, that answer has been “no.” God could forgive us, and our peers could choose to forgive us, but we had no model of what it could look like for someone to forgive themselves.

A classical painting depicting a healing scene. Two figures are reclining in a forest, focusing on working on healing a heart in-between them with various healing instruments.
via DALL·E 2

After all, why would that model even be necessary if God had it covered? All I had to do to resolve my guilt would be to apologize through prayer and move on, trusting that divine, all-encompassing forgiveness would be granted to me. The only condition to receiving this resolution was to ask for it.

If I felt guilt in any of my personal relationships, all I knew would be to do the same thing — apologize and move on. If they didn’t forgive me, that was their problem. They should be “like Christ” and unconditionally accept me, and I would do the same. There was no room for personal preference or nuance. I had no idea how to resolve relational conflicts besides apologizing and submitting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of dissatisfying and ultimately dissolved relationships.

A major stepping stone on my way out of identifying as Christian was realizing that virtues exist outside of my Christian culture. I saw it! I interacted with genuinely virtuous, good-hearted people, people who exuded such a state of calm, light-heartedness, and strength. They were respectful of others (as well as themselves), and their particular faith identification was besides the point.

I wanted what they had! I thought that I would be able to access this quality, this sense of peace, after I left my faith culture. I figured that my culture was what was holding me back. Once I left it, I assumed that my relationships would just improve on their own.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. I just found myself more alone, and in some ways, less fulfilled. I knew that what social connections I did have through Christian culture would probably just fade away. I was semi-prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was to be stuck operating in the same cycle of guilt-and-apology as I had always been. So many friendship and relationship dynamics still didn’t make sense to me. So many relationships were continuing to break down and dissolve all around me, but I had no idea why.

God as I knew Him offered me purely unconditional forgiveness —I was always under the impression that there was nothing too big to forgive. And my model for my personal relationships was based on my model of God. So when I stopped identifying as Christian, even though God as I knew Him wasn’t in the picture anymore, I still leaned on that model of “unconditional forgiveness” to try to resolve my personal problems.

I didn’t have a model for how the non-Christians I admired were able to deal with their vices. And actually, I don’t think I even really had a firm grasp on how they were able to embody their virtues either.

A classical oil painting depicting a variety of ancient people gathered around an outdoor fountain in the middle of some modest stone-and-wood buildings. The sky is blue with big white clouds, and there are trees in the foreground and background.
via DALL·E 2

Looking back, I’m starting to understand why my relationships, both pre- and post-Christian, would ultimately break down. It can actually be healthy for people to operate and engage with each other under conditional acceptance.

I’m starting to understand that just how people can have virtues that stand on their own, exclusive of any religious or spiritual figure or system, they also can have vices that stand on their own.

What I mean is, those people I have admired who seem so secure in their virtues also seem to be accepting of the consequences of their vices. They are responsible for them. Not God, not any system, not anyone else. And I think this is what I’m starting to understand: that the capacity to forgive oneself, the capacity to accept the consequences of one’s actions, can exist with or without God.