I recently came across a great article written many years ago in The Journal of Biblical Counseling titled “I Just Can’t Forgive Myself”: A Biblical Alternative to Self-Forgiveness. The author is Robert D. Jones who was, at the time the article was written, a pastor in Hurricane, West Virginia. I thought the article was so thought provoking that I decided to write a two part article which is based upon and adapted from that article.
I think this is a particularly relevant topic because it is not uncommon these days in evangelical circles to hear about Christians who are struggling with guilt over a particular sin from their past, and well-meaning friends, counselors, or even their pastors will say these words: “You just need to learn to forgive yourself.” Unfortunately, the question that most Christians never ask is, “Is such a concept biblical?” If we say that we believe that the Scriptures are the final and sufficient authority for all faith and practice, we need to ask that question about every suggestion, recommendation, and supposed answer that we encounter in life. The biblical Christian—the serious follower of Jesus Christ and His Word—is never content to drift in the wind and waves of the world’s philosophy. He hungers to know what God says about this and every other matter. Nothing less satisfies.
What does the Bible say about forgiving yourself? It may surprise you to hear that it says nothing about it! You can search the Word of God from cover to cover and you will not find the concept of self-forgiveness taught anywhere in it—not by direct statement, not by example, not by precept. The Bible speaks of vertical forgiveness (God forgiving a person) and horizontal forgiveness (one person forgiving another), but it says nothing about internal forgiveness (a person forgiving himself).
Now, there are many Christian teachers and counselors who use various biblical passages to support their view that the Scriptures do, in fact, teach such a concept. However, when one examines the texts which they purport to teach self-forgiveness, what will be found is that the context of every passage is speaking of either vertical or horizontal forgiveness.
This is important, because what it tells us is that the idea of self-forgiveness is not the result of careful exegesis of the Scriptures, but from some other source. That other source is secular psychology which focuses on the “felt needs” of the counselee. Then so-called Christian psychologists have claimed that certain Bible verses support the self-forgiveness idea and thus, many Christians have been bilked into believing it is a biblical concept. Another problem with this approach is that it neglects to carefully determine what is going on inside of those individuals who are struggling with their past sin. It takes their experience at face value rather than exploring why they say “I can’t forgive myself.”
So what is the believer who is struggling with his or her past sin to do? Are such individuals powerless to overcome their problem unless they forgive themselves? Not at all! Their struggle with self-recrimination is a real problem. But rather than misdiagnosing their problem as an inability to forgive themselves, we need to instruct them in what the Scripture says is the proper approach to solving their forgiveness problem. So how does God’s Word address this issue that is commonly misdiagnosed as an inability to forgive oneself? There are five possible reasons why such an issue exists in an individual’s life. We will only deal with two of them in this post and take up the others in a subsequent post.
1. The person who says “I just can’t forgive myself” may be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness.
This is the most common explanation behind the “self-forgiveness” concept. The person says he can’t forgive himself because he really doubts that God has forgiven him. So being unsure of a solution, he proposes a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy his lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness.
This may come about because the individual has failed to see his sin as a direct offense against God, so his conscience isn’t quiet because he has underestimated the heinousness of sin. He fails to see the magnitude of his sin. It is as an infinite crime against an infinitely holy God and thus, a finite creature can never do anything to forgive such a crime. So he reduces it a mere “mistake” rather than a treacherous assault against his Creator and King. Consequently, he is not driven to seek God’s grace for his sins, but rather he continually ponders on his “mistakes.”
It may be that the individual has not yet grasped the width and depth of God’s forgiving grace and power. He doesn’t truly believe that God can forgive even the worst of sinners. Holding to a view of such a limited God, he sees his sin as unforgivable. In effect, he reduces the value of God’s grace to a level that it is “cheap grace,” which is incapable of breaking the hold of sin in his life.
Another possibility is that the individual has experienced on-going failure with a particular besetting sin, and because he has failed to grow in the grace of putting off the old self and putting on the new self (Eph. 4:22-24), he comes to doubt God’s forgiveness because he keeps repeating the sin. So eventually, he subtly accepts defeat and surrenders to the idea that victory over that sin will never come, and the expression of that surrender is found in the words, “I just can’t forgive myself.”
The remedy to such a problem is to properly understand, believe, and live out the gospel. Grasping God’s forgiveness in Christ undercuts these errors and removes the risk of misdiagnosing our true problem (which is the need for deliverance from sin’s guilt and power) as “self-forgiveness.” We need to replace our thought processes which focus on our past sin with thought processes that focus on the amazing love and forgiveness of Christ.
2. The person who says “I just can’t forgive myself” may not see or be willing to acknowledge the depth of his depravity.
When a person says the words “I just can’t forgive myself,” what he often means is “I still can’t believe I did that!” Such a statement is not evidence of low self esteem, but rather it is actually a form of high self esteem; that is, a form of pride in which we think that we are incapable of such evil deeds. The so-called inability to forgive oneself is often an expression of an underlying problem of self-righteousness. We may think others are capable of doing such a horrible thing, but not us! But the truth is, we are totally corrupted by sin and thus, we are not above doing the most deceitful and desperately wicked acts (Jer. 17:9, 1 Cor. 10:6-12).
Our ability to do utterly wicked deeds shouldn’t surprise us, especially if we understand the depth of depravity that reigns as king in the unbeliever and still remains as a deposed but subversive enemy in the believer. James 1:13-15 portrays the power of our corrupt desires to bring us to spiritual ruin. It was the great Puritan theologian John Owens who observed that any kind of sin carries within itself the seeds of total apostasy.
So a second remedy to the false concept of self-forgiveness is to recognize the depths of our depravity and the wretchedness of which we are capable. And rather than adopting a prideful attitude that denies the awfulness of our behavior, we must prostrate ourselves before Christ and receive His gracious, merciful forgiveness.
In my next post, I will take up the remaining three reasons why many people feel that they cannot forgive themselves, and what the proper biblical approach is to such ideas.