In recent weeks, I have had several occasions to speak with people who have come to me with the words: ‘I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t seem to forgive myself.’ And for every one that has come and admitted this trouble, there are probably several others who are feeling exactly the same way, but haven’t verbalized it. Perhaps your eyes were attracted to the title of this little article because you feel precisely what I have just described: ‘I understand God’s forgiveness, but I don’t know how to forgive myself.’ And, if you are asking that question, I feel your pain; and I think I know (and have felt) what you’re feeling: ‘Why, if God has forgiven me, do I still feel so bad about what I did?’ It’s a very important and legitimate question.
So how does a pastor counsel a person in that situation? What do we make of this difficulty ‘forgiving ourselves’?
My counsel, in each of these situations, has been the same: ‘Forgiving yourself is not necessarily the answer.’* I know this goes contrary to what popular culture tells us; even to what pop-psychology tells us. But the Bible nowhere teaches us to forgive ourselves! It says a lot about God’s forgiveness. And it commands us, unequivocally, to forgive others. But I know of nowhere that the Bible speaks of forgiveness in relation to how we respond to ourselves. So I stand by my counsel: Forgiving yourself is not the answer to lingering feelings of guilt and shame. Allow me to explain why.
First, as I said already, in our culture, ‘forgiving yourself’ often means no longer having to feel remorse, or guilt, or shame for one’s sins. Perhaps that’s not what all Christians mean when they talk of forgiving themselves … but often, I think this is what it boils down to. ‘I know I’ve sinned, and I’ve asked God to forgive me … and now I wish I could stop feeling so bad about what I did.’ Believe me, I know that feeling! No one likes feeling bad about him or herself! But God’s best for us is not always that we immediately feel better after we’ve repented. Yes, He wants us to be certain that we are forgiven through Christ’s blood (see the latter half of this article)! But that’s not always the same as feeling completely relieved of our own feelings of remorse and self-recrimination. Rather, according to Psalm 51, the kind of spirit God delights to see in us is not the easy-going peace of a person who has completely forgiven himself, but the “broken and ... contrite heart” (v.17) of a man whose sins are ever before him (v.3)!
So if you’re struggling with lingering feelings of shame over your sin, the remedy may not actually be self-forgiveness, but acceptance of the fact that those feelings of remorse and shame are not always a bad thing … and may need to stick around for a few days, sobering and humbling your soul into "a broken and a contrite heart” which God does “not despise”.
Having said that, of course, let us note carefully that the Bible does not call on us to beat ourselves up; or to wallow in our guilt. In fact, it aims to lift us out of such things! But the way the Bible brings freedom from feelings of condemnation and self-loathing is not to urge us to forgive ourselves, but rather to revel in God’s forgiveness of us! It’s what God thinks about you that heals the soul, not what you think about you! And thus the Bible is filled with reminders that, if we are in Christ, our sins have been carried as far as the east is from the west; they have been nailed to the cross, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Praise God, the Bible is replete with verses like these; verses that really do set a man or woman free from self-loathing and condemnation! But they do not set us free by helping us forgive ourselves, but by urging us, rather, to more fully embrace God’s forgiveness of us!
The solution then, when I am weighed down with guilt and shame, is not so much that I need to figure out how to forgive myself, but that I simply need to better understand, and revel in, and appreciate how God has forgiven me. For, what does the old hymn say? “This is all my hope and peace” – self-forgiveness? “This is all my hope and peace” – a positive self-image? “This is all my hope and peace” – learning to love myself? No! “This is all my hope and peace, nothing but the blood of Jesus!” That’s the solution to guilt and condemnation – fixing our eyes on Jesus! Indeed, the more I focus on Jesus, the less and less I am even conscious of myself, much less in a mood to beat up on myself!
So if I say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I need to be able to forgive myself’ … I have it backwards. For, if I really grasp, and meditate on, and revel in, and appropriate God’s forgiveness, I’ll have no need to find any of my own!
*Much of my thinking in this regard has been helped along by hearing the similar thoughts of the great 18th century pastor Charles Simeon, as explained by John Piper in a biographical message on Simeon entitled: "Brothers, we must not Mind a Little Suffering."