In our last post, we examined the commonly held view that those who are struggling with guilt over some past sin need to learn to forgive themselves, and we noted that such a viewpoint is never found in Scripture. Rather, the Bible discusses vertical forgiveness (God forgiving man) and horizontal forgiveness (a man forgiving another), but the concept of forgiving oneself is not found anywhere in the Scriptures.
We also discussed two reasons why some individuals may struggle with a seeming inability to forgive themselves and the remedy for those problems. We will now continue with a discussion of this matter and look at three more reasons why some individuals can’t seem to overcome guilt and only focus on self-forgiveness.
3. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be venting his regrets for failing to achieve a certain cherished desire.
In essence, this individual is saying, “I had the opportunity to get something I really wanted, but I threw it all away! I can’t forgive myself.” The desire may have been to get rich, be married, receive the approval of their boss, have children who respect them, or even to see a dying relative come to faith in Christ.
So the individual will say, “Because of my sin, I’ve blown it…” And they add something such as, “I lost my money in a bad investment,” or “I embarrassed my boyfriend and he broke up with me,” or “I made a mistake that lost a big account for our company,” or “I was still afraid to speak up for Christ to my dad and now he’s gone.” And then they add, “And now I can’t forgive myself for squandering the opportunity to get what I always wanted. I was that close to being happy and I blew it!”
This person is behaving as though he or she could control the world and guarantee getting what they want. When their desires are thwarted, the result is self-reproach and a lingering case of “if only I had…” This individual is blind to his underlying urge to control his own happiness.
Such an individual needs to hold up the mirror of Scripture and see the deceptiveness and power of his ruling desires. It is nothing more than idolatry. He has decided that his desire to have whatever “thing” he wants is so important that he can’t be happy without it, and when that takes place, he has created an idol of the heart. What he needs to do is recognize it as idolatry, confess it as sin, turn from it, and begin to cultivate a relationship with God that sees Him as sovereignly causing all things—including what he believes are bad things—to work together for good in his life (Rom. 8:28).
4. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be trying to establish his own standards of righteousness.
In this case, the statement “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I haven’t lived up to my own perfect standards” or “I haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations.” This individual’s longing for self-forgiveness arises from his failure to measure up to his own standards of performance, his own image of how good he is or ought to be.
In essence such an individual has proudly erected his own law or even embraced someone else’s law. He is chasing not only “a righteousness of [his] own” (Phil. 3:7-9) but a righteousness of his own against a standard of his own. But the Bible tells us that God is the only One we must please. His law must be our sole standard of self-measurement.
Advocates of “self-forgiveness” rightly observe our tendency to criticize ourselves and the fact that this is a problem. But the answer is not self-forgiveness; rather, it is to stop our God-playing propensity to erect and obey our own laws.
For example, the person who can’t forgive himself when he makes a mistake on the job has erected an unbiblical standard: “I must be a perfect worker.” He is playing God by rejecting God’s law and establishing his own. Yes, we are to be hard workers who strive for excellence. But we are not to place a false standard upon ourselves which replaces God as the only sovereign qualified to rule over our lives. Similarly, the woman who can’t forgive herself because, in her words, “If only I had persuaded my husband to go to the doctor, he wouldn’t have died,” is assuming God’s role.
5. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may have ascended to the throne of judgment and declared himself to be his own judge.
In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is the equivalent of “I’m the one in the role of judge and I will dispense forgiveness as I decide.” Such a person has convened the court, rendered a guilty verdict upon himself, and now believes that he must grant the needed pardon! But the Bible declares that God alone is both judge and forgiver, as well as penalty-bearer for those in Christ!
This role issue is important. What is the person actually saying when he speaks of forgiving himself? Has “he” sinned against his “self,” or has his “self” sinned against “him”? Who is the “he” who forgives his “self”? And who is the judge who determines that guilt even exists? This whole notion of self-forgiveness proposes that one individual as the offender, judge, and forgiver. The only Person who can stand in all three of those roles is Jesus Christ. So when someone else does it, he or she is playing God. They are usurping Christ’s role. It is very important that this person look away from self and to Christ alone as the only judge and forgiver.
In conclusion, what do we say then when someone says to us, “I just can’t forgive myself?” First, we should recognize that he or she has a true problem of guilt. We should take that statement seriously and respond to that person compassionately. But we must help them see that they have mislabeled their problem and how the Bible provides the only accurate, helpful diagnosis and solution.
When the person who is struggling with guilt begins to understand the depth of God’s love and grace, grasping the fact that God alone is in sovereign control over the circumstances of our lives, and only He retains the right to both judge and forgive us, that individual will begin to see that their thinking patterns which require self-forgiveness are unnecessary, self-centered idols of the heart. He can then confess and forsake his sin, with an understanding that God retains absolute authority as both righteous judge and gracious forgiver, making self-forgiveness an unneeded concept.