Copyright © 2007
While “forgiving oneself” is widely accepted in the secular world as a legitimate and needful thing to do, Christians are rightly suspicious. After all, God is the one who forgives. When we sin against other people, we need to seek their forgiveness, not our own.
Nevertheless after looking at Vine’s Expositiory Dictionary on “Forgive, Forgave, Forgiveness,” it seems perfectly plausible to me to talk about “forgiving yourself.” It may easily be misused or be premature, but I don’t see how it can be denied that Christians who do wrong not only can, but ought to forgive themselves–that is, to set themselves free, release themselves, from the guilt that they feel for what they did. (I’m not talking about letting go of false guilt here; I’m talking about simply ceasing to care or concern oneself with the real guilt of an evil deed that you have done.)
REASON #1: The Big Objection Fails–“We haven’t sinned against ourselves and thus we can’t forgive ourselves”
It is certainly true that people can talk about “forgiving themselves” in order to evade the fact that they have sinned against God and against other people. This rhetoric can be a sign that a person is so full of himself he understands neither sin nor forgiveness.
The objection overlooks two issues. First of all, we are made in the image of God to reflect his glory. When we sin we are damaging ourselves as well as others. Secondly, while I may be verging into the root word fallacy, as far as I can tell forgiveness means “release” or “sending away” or “looking with favor.” These can all be done in the case of considering someone who is convicted of their own guilt.
REASON #2: Grudges are not to be held
Suppose you had two friends, Brian and Nathan. One day Brian gravely sins against Nathan. Soon, however, Brian regrets what he did, owns up to it, and does all that is possible to make restitution. Nathan says he forgives Brian but you notice a real change in his behavior. When Brian is around Nathan will suddenly become sullen and withdrawn. Other times he will get angry. In both cases he is obviously reliving the incident. “How could you do that?” he will yell. “What were you thinking?”
As a Christian, I think you would know that you should try to help Nathan truly forgive Brian and cease bringing his past sins up before them.
So what if Brian and Nathan are the same person? If each person is to love his neighbor as himself, then how can it be right for someone to refuse to let go of his own past misdeeds and keep accusing himself when we all know it would be a total sin to keep bringing up the past misdeeds of someone else and keep accusing him?
REASON #3: God forgives us to restore us to service.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (Second Corinthians 5.14, 15). Jesus is the one who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2.14). God does not forgive us so that we can be paralyzed with guilt for the rest of our lives.
If a husband sins against his wife in some serious way, he should repent and seek forgiveness. What he should not do, having robbed this woman of a godly husband for some time, is continue to rob her to the husband he promised to be for her by burying himself in guilt. God wants us to serve him wholeheartedly. Constant self-accusations, when God has already forgiven us, are ways we effectively make ourselves A.W.O.L from his call to us. It defeats the whole point.
REASON #4: No one has the right to condemn those whom God justifies, including those whom God justifies.
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (Romans 8.33,34). The answer to the rhetorical question, “Who is to condemn?” is no one.
What if you were a first-century Christian and someone who had lost a son or daughter to the persecutions of a zealot named Saul of Tarsus? Wouldn’t you have to tell that person that he must forgive the Apostle Paul? Then isn’t it just as appropriate to tell a Christian condemning himself over some sin to do the same?
REASON #5: The temptation to condemn oneself must be met with the exhortation to forgive oneself.
To put succinctly what has already been mentioned, we all know that people can make themselves useless by constantly condemning themselves. While it is important for someone who has been denying his true wrongdoing to eventually come to this point, once a person has been forgiven he must stop the self-condemnation and resume his productive calling serving God and others. If we can speak of a person “condemning himself,” as we all do, then we can speak of a person “forgiving himself.” (Again, I can see ways in which this fact could be misused, but that doesn’t change the facts.)
REASON #6: Condemning others is a way of boasting and trying to exalt oneself, and this is no less true in condemning oneself.
When I meet someone who shows an obvious need to condemn and belittle others for their sins, real or imagined, I suspect that their is a real drive in that person to pass themselves off as superior. We certainly see this in the religious elitists that Jesus had to deal with in the Gospels.
But when a person insists on condemning himself and berates himself and is angry with himself for a longer time than is needful or healthy, we tend to think that the only problem is too much virtue–his conscience is so sensitive and he is so sorry.
But is that really it?
Maybe what is actually happening is the person is trying to show that, even if he did sin, he can now demonstrate how good and worthy and superior he is by being more severe with himself than anyone else is. Being pharisaical with oneself is as sinful as being pharisaical with anyone else. If God tells us to restore people gently (Galatians 6.1), then that includes ourselves.
REASON #7: God wants us to be productive with his gifts rather than burying them by not using them in gratitude.
Jesus told a parable of three stewards and the money they were given at least a couple of times (Matthew 25.14-30 / Luke 19.11-27). The final servant of the three does nothing but return what he had been loaned, having nothing to show for the time he had it. He did not even get bank interest to return with it. As a result, he was condemned.
What if this steward had justified his unfaithfulness by saying, “Master, I know I have done bad things and I was too busy flagellating myself to really figure out how to use your money.” Would he have been excused?
God wants use to use his gifts, not get sidetracked by self-condemnation. That’s why he tells us that we are forgiven.
REASON #8: Refusing to forgive oneself is a slander against God
What the unproductive steward actually said to his master is
Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.
That’s a rather breathtaking insult. Would anyone really ever say such a thing?
I suspect the point is that, when you reject God’s gifts or are too fearful to use them, that is what you believe and are communicating about God. To continue to condemn oneself rather than forgive oneself is to claim that God is really still condemning you and his promises to the contrary are not trustworthy.
REASON #9: If we trust God’s promise to bestow a positive verdict on our service the only rational response is to forgive ourselves and press on in new service to Him.
God does not promise to say to us at the Last Day, “Well, even though you’ve constantly sinned, I’ve forgiven you through Christ so I’ll let you in anyway.” Rather, he promises to say something like, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master.”
Continuing in self-condemnation, rather than pursuing new service to God with a sincere and confident heart, demonstrates a lack of trust that God will do what he promises. But God is trustworthy. Be at ease.