Do I Need to Forgive Myself?
Compelled by the Gospel, PPL equips Presbyterians to champion human life at every stage
By Pastor Brian Janssen
From PPL's Archives
Forgiving others is a very basic and important teaching of Scripture. But are we also to forgive ourselves? What if one of us commits a terrible offense, one that is against God and against others? Suppose, for example, a young woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock and aborts her unborn child. Or, suppose a husband gets too friendly with a woman at work and in a moment of weakness commits adultery. Suppose a teenager is drinking and driving and kills a young family on the highway. For anyone with a normally functioning conscience, these sins would be very difficult to live with. And even if the person sincerely repented before God and sought forgiveness of the victims, it is easy for most of us to see that the person would find it hard to live with the shame of such actions. Even in situations of less consequence, you will hear people say, “I can never forgive myself for what I have done.” So, we need to ask whether restoration requires that we forgive ourselves.
This notion of self-forgiveness is quite popular even in Christian circles. Well-known Christian pastors, counselors and psychiatrists endorse and teach it. But the concept is rooted in modern secular psychology. The assumption among those in the church appears to be that making God’s forgiveness effective for us requires self-forgiveness as well.
What about it? Should we forgive ourselves? How many times does the Bible address the subject of self-forgiveness? The answer is zero. You will never find it taught, either in precept or practice. The Bible does record some incredible sins by God’s people: David’s adultery and murder, Peter’s denial and desertion of Christ, Paul’s persecution of the church. But never once do we find these people either instructed to forgive themselves or expressing self-forgiveness.
What’s wrong with self-forgiveness? Let’s go back to our understanding of an offense and forgiveness. An offense is a violation of God’s law, a trespass against another that incurs a debt and fractures a relationship. It causes a right sense of moral outrage. And it requires punishment as an act of divine justice.
With that understanding, there is no need for self-forgiveness, because the offense is not really against us but against God and another person. We need God’s forgiveness, and we are to seek the forgiveness of those we offend, but how do we go about forgiving ourselves? Do I first need to apologize to myself: “Self, I’m sorry I did this?” No wonder the Bible never mentions self-forgiveness. The idea is silly.
So, what do we say to those who still feel truly awful?
Yet what do we say to the person who has committed abortion or adultery or vehicular homicide, who has repented but still feels truly awful, and who says, “I can never forgive myself”? Here are several insights suggested by my friend, Pastor Robert Jones, in a booklet he wrote on forgiveness*
First, perhaps the person is unable or unwilling to grasp God’s forgiveness. Perhaps this person does not understand that every sin is first and foremost a sin against God. Remarkably, he does not understand how truly awful that sin is or any sin. And so, he does not understand that his greatest need is for God’s forgiveness.
Or perhaps he does not truly grasp the remarkable grace of God. He does not truly know that our awful sins were paid for by an awful cost – the death of Christ on the cross.
Or perhaps he has failed to grow in grace, to begin to put away this particular sin and replace it with its godly counterpart. This sin is ongoing, and the struggle is really about stunted sanctification. The answer to this is to understand the radical grace of God in Christ. It is only the Son of God who can rescue us. But he really did rescue us. We really are forgiven.
Second, the person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may not be willing to admit to the depths of his or her depravity.
What she may be saying is: “I can’t believe I did that. I never thought I would stoop that low. That sin was certainly beneath me.” This person is denying the fact that sin has truly decimated us. Some might think this attitude is evidence of “low self-esteem.” Actually, it demonstrates a self-esteem that is too high, called pride. “Others may do those things, but not me. I’m too good to do that.”
We should be grieved when we sin, but not surprised. If we were to witness the worst and most despicable sinner of all, we could only say, “There, but for the grace of God, goes I.”
Third, the person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be referring to instances that are not sinful. Instead, they may be producing feelings of failure to achieve a certain desired goal, or a failure to live up to a personal code. Perhaps they are regretting a wasted opportunity. I know a man who at one point had the opportunity to purchase a quarter section of land for $200 an acre, including the house and outbuildings. He could be kicking himself for squandering that chance at wealth. In another case, someone who had an opportune moment to witness to a loved one, but froze at the last moment, may feel the regret of that lost opportunity.
In this same category, could be the person who has created his or her own standard of behavior. It may be a person who places a high value on making the basketball team, or getting all “A’s” in school, or keeping a spotless house. When that standard is violated, the person is plunged into despair and self-recrimination. “Why didn’t I try harder? Why didn’t I do better?” But the point is that the standard itself is artificial and often impossible. Not making the team, getting a B+ instead of an A, having dust on the door sill: none of these are sins! None of these require anyone’s forgiveness. You don’t need to forgive yourself; you need to submit to God and live according to His standards instead of your own.
Fourth, maybe the person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” is attempting to take God’s place as Judge. And what the person is really saying is that this sin is inexcusable. It is unforgivable that I should have done this. This person has usurped God’s place when the Bible tells us that there is only one Judge. James writes: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.” (4:12) Stop taking God’s place! Stop disagreeing with the only Lawgiver and Judge. If you have sinned, confess it to God and accept his forgiveness. But don’t argue with God and pretend your sin is unforgivable.
Once again, the answer is not in trying to make ourselves feel better when we feel guilty. A man went to visit a psychiatrist, complaining that he felt guilty. In the interview, the man admitted that he cheated on his wife, neglected his children and skimmed off the till at work. The counselor declared: “I have found the answer. You feel guilty because you are guilty!”
At the bottom of it all, the answer comes through knowing both the holiness and love of God, who demands a terrible penalty for our sins, and then pays that penalty for us with the life and blood of his own Son. The answer comes in repenting and receiving his forgiveness and allowing his Holy Spirit to work restoration of our lives. It is just what he wants to do. It is exactly the reason he died for us.
*Forgiveness: I Just Can’t Forgive Myself! (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ) 2000.