Should We Learn to “Forgive Ourselves”?
From Gospel Translations
Eric writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I have heard many times how we are to forgive ourselves, but I cannot find a biblical text to back this statement up. Where are people getting this application from?”
Well, I share Eric’s perplexity about the language of self-forgiveness. I have never preached that anybody should forgive themselves. At least, I don’t remember ever saying it. And I have never used it as a way of dealing with my own self-hatred or condemnation or whatever that it is supposed to deal with. I don’t think it is in the Bible, and the reason I don’t think it is in the Bible is that I think it would be intrinsically confusing about the nature of forgiveness if it were.
Maybe the reason the Bible doesn’t think in these categories of self-forgiveness is that, to have forgiveness, you need a person who has been wronged and a person who did the wrong. So I insult you. You are insulted. Now apologies and forgiveness can happen. I can say to you, a different person, “I am sorry.” And you can say to me, a different person, “I forgive you.” But when we talk about forgiving ourselves, who is the one doing the wrong and being wronged?
Ordinarily when someone talks about forgiving himself, he means forgiving himself for something he did to somebody else. So Jack insults me and then apologizes and I forgive Jack. Then why would Jack forgive Jack when Jack didn’t insult Jack? That is how forgiveness works and that is what I mean when I say it would be intrinsically confusing. It breaks down the clear categories of what forgiveness really is about. It starts to muddy the waters of what forgiveness really is: a wronged person forgiving a person who wronged him, not a wronging person forgiving a wronging person. That doesn’t make sense.
But those who use this confusing way of talking are really dealing with something real. They are trying to get at something, right? And what is that? When I search the Bible to try to find a paradigm to deal with what I think these folks are really trying to deal with, the closest I can find is 2 Corinthians 7:8–10. So Paul has found the Corinthians at fault. They have sinned. And he has written a tough letter to call them out on it and to summon their repentance. And they do repent and he is clearly forgiving them. He is not holding it against them. And here is what he writes:
“Even if I made you grieve with my letter [so he stung them with his rebuke: I made you grieve with my letter], I do not regret it. . . . I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting.” So in other words, they saw their wrong. They apologized to the appropriate person. They received forgiveness. And then he goes on: “For you felt a godly grief so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief [or remorse or sorrow for something you have done] godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
Now ponder what Paul means by godly grief and worldly grief — the one leading to repentance and life, and the other leading to death. I think this reality is very close to what people are dealing with when they speak of the need to forgive themselves. They mean they need to move through worldly grief over sin to godly grief over sin and beyond into life and freedom. And the difference is a grief that leads out of death-giving self-condemnation to life-giving acceptance of God’s, and in this case Paul’s, statement of no condemnation.
So the biblical way out of death with this so-called self-forgiveness is to humble ourselves and admit we have no right to take the role of judge and pronounce the death sentence on ourselves. That is pride to think that we can hear God’s verdict of not guilty or our friend’s verdict of not guilty; that is, I forgive you, and refuse it. We refuse it and set ourselves up as the new judge and pronounce a death sentence over ourselves. The biblical problem with that is not a failure of self-forgiveness. That is not a biblical category. It is an arrogant failure to trust in the free verdict of God: no condemnation.
So my closing word is: Let’s humble ourselves and step down off the judge’s seat and let God be God in his pronouncement of no condemnation.