by David Vaughn Elliott
"I can't forgive myself for the stupid thing I did." "You need to forgive yourself and put it behind you." "I find that I am usually able to forgive other people for the bad things they do, but I find it so hard to forgive myself for the bad things I do." Why is it sometimes so hard for people to forgive themselves? What is missing in their spiritual lives?
Who Can Forgive?
Let's begin with basic truths about forgiveness. What is forgiveness? There are various ways to express it. One beautiful way is found in Psalm 103:12: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." Or Isaiah 1:18: "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow." And Hebrews 8:12: "For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." Washed away, removed, and forgotten.
Notice that the texts quoted are talking about transgressions, iniquities, sins. Any Christian knows that sin is transgression of the laws of God. Inasmuch as sin is an act against God, it makes perfect sense that forgiveness comes from God. And in their contexts, that's who is doing the forgiveness in each verse just quoted. Jews in Jesus' day, who were mixed up about many things, had that straight when they thought rhetorically, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).
The occasion for that question tells us a lot about Jesus. Because the house where Jesus was teaching was so crowded, some men made a hole in the roof to let a paralyzed man down right in front of Jesus. Jesus' first response, rather than heal the man, was to tell him his sins were forgiven. That's when some scribes pondered, "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus then healed the man as a way to prove that he also had the power to forgive sin. The implied truth was that he was God in the flesh. Those Jews were right that only God can forgive sin; they just did not know or believe that Jesus was God in the flesh.
"If You Do Not Forgive... "
But that's not the whole story. It is quite clear that only Deity can forgive sins, that is, sins in general, sins committed by anybody against anybody. However, we also know that each of us must forgive those who sin against us. "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matt. 6:14-15). "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). "If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4).
The real forgivers are the Father and the Son. And as they have forgiven us (if we are in Christ), so we are to forgive others. Just as it is written that "we love, because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19), by extension we can say that we forgive because he first forgave us. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant carries a powerful message. You can read it in Matt. 18:21-35. The occasion of the parable was Peter's question, "How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Remember Jesus' reply: "seventy times seven"?
The question now is: Where does forgiving yourself fit into this beautiful picture? Where does the Bible tell me that there are times I just need to forgive myself? No place that I know of.
What do people mean when they say, "I need to forgive myself," or "You should forgive yourself"? What kind of behavior are they seeking forgiveness for: 1) a "mistake” or "stupid" behavior that hurt no one but oneself, 2) an unintentional harm done to someone, or 3) a clear sin?
If we are talking about some goof, mistake, or stupid thing that hurt nobody but oneself, then perhaps there is some legitimacy to forgiving oneself. If people made fun of me, or whatever, with only me feeling bad about it, then perhaps the concept has some merit.
On the other hand, if someone else was adversely affected in some way, especially if they were really hurt, even when there was no intention to hurt them, then the person who did the thing needs to offer an explanation and apology with the hope that the other person will offer forgiveness. What value is there in forgiving yourself when it is the other person who should forgive? And if the other person does forgive you, then I submit that the issue is not to also forgive yourself but rather to really accept the forgiveness that is offered. I cannot think of a specific Scripture to uphold this idea, but for issue number 3, there is Scripture, and it may offer the clue here.
The Real Issue
When there is sin involved, we may sin against somebody, but all sin is against God, whether involving some other person or not. When you carefully consider the matter, it is really quite audacious to think that I can forgive my own sin. What authority do I have to forgive myself? It is God who forgives sin. What sins of mine am I capable of forgiving? If I tell a lie, can I forgive myself? If I shoplift, can I forgive myself?
Let's get to the heart of the matter. The Apostle John tells us, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins" (1 John 1:9). It is God who forgives sin. In fact he is "faithful and righteous" to do it. The real issue to face, it seems to me, is not that I can't forgive myself, but rather that I am not confident that God has forgiven me! I am doubting that God is faithful and righteous to do what he said he would do. I am having trouble accepting God's forgiveness!
Let's be clear. John's first epistle is addressed to Christians. He is not telling people of the world how to obtain forgiveness for sins. Peter did that on the day of Pentecost following Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension. "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts. 2:38). No amount of prayer and confession will obtain forgiveness for the person of the world. There must be faith in Jesus (implied in the context), repentance of all sin, and baptism into Christ.
Once a person is in Christ, the Apostle John tells us how to obtain forgiveness: confess our sins, with repentance implied. Is God really going to forgive me or not? "He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins." In other words, he made the promise and he keeps his word. He will forgive sin that is repented of and confessed. Do we believe it? Rather than struggle to forgive myself – which I have no authority or power to do – the struggle is to accept God's forgiveness, to take him at his word, to believe that God did what he said he would do.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.
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