By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
April 23, 1950
Most people learn the meaning
of forgiveness from their parents--especially the mother. The young
child, not quite certain why it is that something he has done has
made his mother disappointed or angry, is anxious to put the matter
right. He wants to feel himself safe in his mother's affection. So.
in one way or another, he seeks a reconciliation. This is his first
experience of forgiveness.
Presently, owing to the influence of the father, the matter becomes
more complicated. The child may feel that when he loses his mother's
approval he can soon regain it, but in the case of his father
reassurance may not be so prompt. In this way, the child may come to
identify himself partly with the response of the mother and partly
with that of the father, so that one parent frees or indulges him
emotionally and the other parent restrains him.
At any rate, this would be the simplest way of putting the matter.
Too simple, I am afraid, since the influence of neither parent is
consistent; nor is the emotional development of a child as plainly
traceable as some of the textbooks would lead us to think.
Nevertheless, these are useful generalizations if we use them
cautiously, since they reveal to us something of the way in which
conscience is formed and how it happens that an individual has
standards of behavior which he can neither live up to nor renounce.
From one parent or from both--or from the interactive influence of
the two parents upon him--the child, without really knowing why,
begins to think of some actions as likely to gain approval and other
actions as certain to be disapproved. But since he never succeeds in
restricting himself to the approvable actions only, he finds himself
from time to time in need of toleration or indulgence, or of what he
learns to call forgiveness.
When he moves out from the home into a wider social environment--the
playground, the school, the homes of his friends--he discovers that
this attitude of approval and disapproval is encountered wherever he
goes. So that it becomes implanted within himself. Some things he
can do and be glad he has done them; other things cause him
unhappiness, self-criticism, remorse.
Sooner or later, he learns that this is not an accident: not
fortuitous; it is part of the nature of things, decreed by God. And
he thinks of God as a good deal like his father but much more
powerful, and yet at the same time not unlike his mother; so that
the same God who condemns him for what is disapproved may also be
asked to reinstate him or--as he says--forgive him.
Out of all this, the child as he grows becomes aware of what he
calls his conscience and sometimes is much perplexed by it. If his
development is wholesome, his conscience will be such that his
reason reinforces it; that is to say, he will consider on his own
account to what extent the judgments of his conscience make sense
and improve his life and its relationships, and will accept those
judgments; and at the same time he will reject his guilt-feelings
wherever he sees them to be something left over from his infancy and
irrational. But this is not a thing he will do easily. If his
parents have been unwise or estranged and quarrelsome, or lacking in
affection, or overindulgent or in other ways inadequate, the grown
child may suffer for it all his life. His conscience may never be
wholesome. Or the same thing may happen through some defect in
himself. And thus, when we speak of conscience we are discussing
something that is far from simple. In some people, it works
straightforwardly and in an open and forthright way. These people
are mature. But in other people it works quite deviously and does
much harm. These people have been impeded in their emotional
development; no matter how bright their minds, they are immature.
When it comes to forgiveness, therefore, which all of us throughout
our lives must both seek for ourselves and from time to time grant
to other people, those who are mature manage it fairly easily but
those who are immature are constantly in difficulties with it. They
are in difficulties because their own consciences are confused, and
the confusion they find within themselves they project out into the
lives of other people.
Let me illustrate. A year or so ago, a lady came into my office
hoping that I could help her to find her way out of a rather tangled
situation. Some injuries had been done to her, she said, which she
had freely forgiven. The people who had done these injuries were
very hateful people: she was sure of that but nevertheless she had
forgiven them. She was acting generously and wanted to go on acting
generously. On the surface it was a very creditable story. The lady
had done well. But if she had done well, why was she disturbed about
it? Why were there tears of anger in her eyes? Why was she seeking
The truth was, of course, that she had not done well at all. The
forgiveness expressed in her behavior was not a forgiveness that
came from the heart. She hated these people. And why did she hate
them? Was it for what they had done to her? Not really. This kind of
hatred never persists because of what other people do: it is rooted
in what one does oneself. This lady hated her relatives and friends
because of her self-hate. She could not forgive them because she
could not forgive herself.
Which, after a while, was what I mentioned to her. "Why don't you
forgive the person most concerned?" I asked. "Isn't the trouble that
you can't forgive yourself?" And then she told me of her childhood,
a very unhappy one, and of the tortures of conscience--of a confused
and sick conscience--which she had never been able to make well. She
was in part the victim of her upbringing--as most such people are.
But she was also to blame herself--if one may call it blame. She had
fortified herself within her own resentments--resentments, however,
which she had learned to conceal. She was outwardly sweet and
gracious; inwardly she was seething with hostility. She could not
forgive herself for being herself, and for not being better than she
was. And she represents thousands of other people--not only
thousands but millions.
These people, as I have indicated, have become what they are largely
through an unfortunate childhood conditioning. For that reason, they
should be understood sympathetically. Yet sympathy alone will never
cure them. They have to gain insight into their own invalidism; they
have to understand that in their cases conscience is not a guide to
spiritual health, but only a mechanism for gaining approval. They
have to know that a more wholesome state of conscience is possible.
And they have to begin by forgiving themselves--which is the hardest
kind of forgiveness.
Such people are often very good people--that is to say, in overt
behavior. If they are cruel or intolerant, it is always in a quite
disguised and very subtle way. If they do other people an injury,
they always make it seem like a kindness: something generous--on the
surface--which is nevertheless intended as a condescension, or even
a humiliation. The rectitude of their outer lives conceals an inner
As I have said, this is not a simple condition--or one that is easy
to describe. The extent to which I have described it this morning
gives only the barest indications. Nor has it been possible to
describe it even to this extent until rather recent years, for in
this matter we are much more indebted to modern psychology than we
are to religion, or at any rate, to the religion of yesterday.
Nevertheless, the condition itself is not new; and neither is its
importance. It was this self-hatred, this self-accusing
unforgiveness, that gave impulse to heresy-hunts and inquisitions,
and to all the harshness perpetrated in the name of religion. It has
done the same thing in the life of families. It has destroyed the
harmony of human relationships of every sort.
Anyone who wishes to see what its effect was in the Victorian Era
can do so by reading Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh. Or if they
wish to come a little closer to our time they can read The Forsyte
Saga. Or, for a thoroughly modern and very clear and useful
treatment they can go to Rabbi Liebman's Peace of Mind, particularly
the third chapter.
There is no forgiveness--none whatever--that comes so difficult as
the forgiveness wherewith we forgive ourselves. I sometimes think it
ought to have been included in the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive ourselves--as well as those who trespass
against us." It is not too difficult --not usually--to forgive those
who trespass against us. However deeply we resent an injury at
first, after a while we are ready to forgive it. Our trouble is that
it is not the injury done to us, but the injury we do that is hard
to forgive. We can forgive others, in one measure or another, but we
cannot forgive ourselves. The person who has done us a wrong we are
not embarrassed to meet; but the person to whom we have done a wrong
--we cannot forgive him because we cannot forgive ourselves. He is a
constant reminder of what we want to avoid remembering--that we did
a wrong. So we project the wrong we did out on to him; and such is
the ingenuity of our minds that we provide arguments to persuade
ourselves that we did not do the wrong; it was the other way around;
he did it.
But what it comes to is quite plain when we are willing to look at
it. We cannot forgive ourselves. And the reason, of course, is that
we do not want to admit that we need forgiveness. We want to justify
ourselves. Not outwardly, perhaps. No, but in the last analysis. For
we do not want to face ourselves as we really are.
And whether this is a condition brought upon us by our childhood
conditioning, producing in us a muddled conscience, or whether it is
something that we bring about ourselves--or both, and I think that
it is often both--what we are up against is that we hate ourselves.
And so we project our self-hate out into the world, out to other
And from this--or so I increasingly think--comes more unhappiness,
more sickness of soul, than from anything else in the world. It is
quite frequently from self-hate that people commit suicide. But
there is also a self-killing that goes on in day to day existence: a
sort of chronic suicide. People kill off a part of their own
nature--the best part. And go on killing it off. Because they do so,
all their relationships have something of death in them. They kill
off the kindliness in other people, the natural friendliness that is
offered to them, the spontaneities that make life joyous and
bountiful. Wherever they go, these people, they are killers of the
soul. Yet, there is nothing that they do to other people that is
anything like as evil as what they do to themselves. Human beings
are not like serpents, immune to their own poison: they can never
poison others as severely as they do themselves.