On more than one occasion recently I have heard from sincere believers that they are struggling with forgiving themselves over some issue of sin in their lives. In seeking to express the angst they are feeling the wording comes out virtually the same in each instance, “I know God has forgiven me but I just can’t seem to forgive myself.” Is this a valid concern? Is it a real apprehension? Do we need to forgive ourselves? Let me try to think biblically about this with you as my sounding board.
First, the biblical examples of forgiveness are always from the one who has been sinned against. On that basis one might be able to build a mild case for some type of self-forgiveness as in, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18 where immorality is shown to be a sin against one’s own body. Honestly though, it is a bit too mind-boggling, if not downright silly, to picture one’s body forgiving one’s self for the sin of immorality.
Factually, nowhere in Scripture are believers exhorted to forgive themselves. So we would do well to question the notion of self-forgiveness as a real need. But it is a sincere felt need and to dismiss the concern as coming from Christians who are caught up in the self-love, self-help unbiblical religious psycho-babble of our day (as some sadly do) is to ignore the real need behind the feelings expressed. We must be sensitive to bring the light of Scripture to bear upon the real need behind the felt need.
For help I turn to two comments by David in Psalm 51. The first is, “my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). Folks caught up in ego-centric spirituality would suggest that David had a case of the “can’t forgive myself-itis.” But is that the case? And was it bad for David to have his sin ever before him? I would suggest that v. 17 of that same Psalm encourages us to keep a long remembrance of our sin for it would foster a continual broken spirit and contrite heart, which God will not despise (cf. Isaiah 66:2).
The other comment of David is found in v. 12 where he pleads with the Lord to “restore to me the joy of Thy salvation.” Perhaps this is the crux of what sincere, struggling folks are experiencing. Rather than a need to forgive self, they are in need of a restoration of the joy of God’s salvation in their lives.
And how does one find that new joy? I am unable and unwilling to suggest any easy one-two-three step process. But I do believe the answer begins with a deep and abiding comprehension of grace. I am a sinner. The sin I committed is very real and against the very holiness of God. I should confess that sin to him according to 1 John 1:9. And I should begin to remind myself of the wonderful truth that God has imparted to me the very righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. I should rehearse the glorious promise of Romans 8:1 that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
For the weakness of our flesh that still wants to cry, “But isn’t there something I have to do?” remember that Christ has taken that sin, with all our others, and borne them “in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24)
So what is the cure for feeling not quite totally forgiven? True confession and true abandonment to the marvelous doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus.