Saturday, January 25, 2014

Can You Forgive Yourself?

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Would you? Could you? Should you? Can you forgive yourself ? These are the questions that everyone should be asking when someone says that you have to forgive yourself. Few people, however, ask these important questions. Forgiving yourself sounds like a good idea, so people take it for granted that it actually is a good thing.

It is not uncommon to hear people say that you have to forgive yourself. Christians will even sometimes say this. This kind of sounds like a Christian thing to do, but where in the Bible does it say that we should or could forgive ourselves? The answer is that the Holy Scriptures nowhere tell us that this is something that we ought to do. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

What does the Bible say about Forgiveness?

Jesus and Zacchaeus - Luke 19
There is much that the Holy Scriptures say about forgiveness, but none of it is about the benefits of forgiving oneself. In summary: God forgives me so I ought to forgive others (see 1 John 4:7-12). This is the proper order. In researching this article I found a web site which claimed to show Biblical rationale for forgiving oneself. Instead, what they did was quote several Bible passages which talked about God’s forgiveness of our sins through Christ, and exhortations to us to forgive others, and for each example the article just said, “This also can be applied to forgiving ourselves.” No Biblical reason or example was given for forgiving yourself, it was just asserted as if God’s forgiving you and your forgiving others is the same as you forgiving yourself. But let’s look at some of the Biblical teachings on forgiveness.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus healing the paralyzed man, before Jesus heals the man He says to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” The people in the house who knew the Scriptures asked, “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21) Although these people mistakenly thought that Jesus did not have the authority to forgive sins, they were right to believe that only God can forgive sins.

When King David wrote Psalm 51 after he repented of his many sins in the Bathsheba affair he wrote, “O God … Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:1, 4) Though David had sinned greatly against Uriah and Bathsheba and others, he confesses that he has only sinned against God. How can that be right? It is right because it is God who makes the laws, and He determines what is right and what is wrong. The Ten Commandments are God’s commands to us. God commands us to do what is right and forbids us from doing wrong. God declares that the punishment for sin is death, and only God can rightly punish or forgive those who break His laws.

God has also saved you from the punishment for your sin through Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who fulfilled God’s commands in your place, and then went to the cross to also take the punishment that you deserved for your sins. Since Jesus paid the price for your forgiveness, He is the one who has forgiven all your sins. Then, since Christ has won full forgiveness for all your sins, why would you ever need to forgive yourself?

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus instructs His disciples how to pray for forgiveness. Jesus says, “When you pray, say, ‘Father … forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’” Note who is to forgive whom in this prayer. We ask God first to forgive our sins, and then to enable us to forgive others who sin against us. Christ does command us all to forgive the sins that others commit against us, but there is no suggestion that we are to forgive ourselves. Our personal sins are committed to God for His mercy and forgiveness, where we can be sure they are forgiven in Christ.

Are You Qualified to Forgive Yourself?

The Father forgives the Prodigal Son
The trouble with forgiving yourself is that, contrary to what we all believe about ourselves, each one of us is the least qualified to judge our own sin. Here it helps to remember how the devil tempts us to sin. The devil makes sin seem attractive to us by making us believe that sin is more profitable, pleasurable, and beneficial to us than righteousness. These are all lies, but because of this, we find ways to justify our wickedness and evil so that we often are unaware that we are sinning at all. So if we were in charge of our own forgiveness we might overlook some sin we particularly enjoy, and would then be condemned of that sin by God, our final judge.

A good Biblical example of this is the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:22-35). The servant owed his lord more debt than he could ever repay, but the lord is merciful and forgives him the whole debt. Then the servant turned around and had a fellow servant thrown into prison for owing him a much smaller debt. When the lord hears about this he has the unmerciful servant imprisoned until he repays every last cent that he owed him. The problem with the unmerciful servant was not that he didn’t forgive himself, but that he did not appreciate the great forgiveness given to him by his lord.

Self-forgiveness is the wrong solution to the problem

Jesus died on the cross to win your forgiveness
Now, someone might say that I might need to forgive myself if I hold on to guilt for some sin after I have already been forgiven by God (and my neighbor – where applicable). This could certainly be a problem, but forgiving myself is the wrong solution to continuing feelings of guilt. There is no doubt that I ought to feel guilty for the sins I commit against God and against others. Some guilty feelings may linger after I have been absolved, but the problem isn’t with God or others who forgive me. The problem is with me.

Even true forgiveness may not necessarily get rid of feelings of guilt. If your conscience is working properly you will feel guilty for doing wrong even after you have been forgiven and the issue has been resolved. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and will help you to resist committing such sin the next time you are tempted.

Christ’s forgiveness is sure, but if you don’t believe it then you are going to worry that you could still face punishment over that sin. (Now, you may still have to face temporal punishment by the civil authorities for a sin that God has already forgiven, but that is different than not trusting in God’s forgiveness.) I think this shows where the idea of forgiving oneself comes from. It comes from unbelievers.

Forgiveness and “feelings”

Jesus rose from the dead
A non-Christian (or an unbelieving “christian”) does not have the assurance of forgiveness in Christ, nor does he have the comfort of knowing that God does not hold his guilt against him. In order for such a person to relieve his feelings of guilt over his sins he may find himself trying to forgive himself or otherwise trying to win God’s favor. This is dangerous for his soul because although he may “feel forgiven” he is still condemned before God for the sins he is trying to deal with himself. The only possible good in this is that the unbeliever can get on with his life and do some temporal good without despairing of life, and he may be able to find true forgiveness in Christ later.

In studying this topic I found much discussion about the role of one’s feelings in self-forgiveness. One source I found said that forgiving oneself is all about feeling forgiven. Do you need to feel forgiven? There may be feelings associated with forgiveness, but they aren’t an integral part of the act of forgiveness. For example, one who is forgiven may feel relieved that he isn’t going to die for his sins. Also one may still feel guilty for the wrong done against God or the neighbor. If forgiveness results in feelings of guilt and relief, then how would you even know that you feel forgiven?

The Dangers of Forgiving Yourself

The quest for feeling forgiven is very dangerous. The danger is that I could do something that could make me feel forgiven, when I am not. A great (though extremely sad) example of this is found in Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays with Morrie. Morris Schwartz was a man who felt a great need to deal with his guilt as his death seemed to draw near, but he did not trust in God to forgive him. This lack of trust in God is shown by the fact that “God” is only mentioned three times in the book, and never as a solution to his guilt or impending death. (What kind of a dying man is not concerned about God?) Schwartz’ solution was to hold a mock funeral before his death so he could hear people say all kinds of good things about his life so he wouldn’t feel so guilty for his sins as he approached death. (Note: This is not how Albom interpreted the events, but this is my interpretation of what was going on with the bizarre behavior of his former teacher & friend – but if you read the book you will see that this is what happened.) Although Morris Schwartz died a happy man thinking that he surely must surely have pleased his god enough to be rewarded, he was very likely disappointed after his death because he rejected the true forgiveness that is only found in Jesus Christ’s atonement for his sins on the cross. This is just one tragic example why we cannot trust our feelings where forgiveness is concerned.

Forgiving yourself doesn’t seem to be a dangerous exercise, but that only makes it similar to most of the sins that we all commit every day. The devil would never tell you that the thing that you are enjoying so much will kill you. The danger of forgiving yourself is that when you make yourself feel forgiven without ever needing to repent and then receive that forgiveness from Christ, then you will eventually feel that you don’t need Christ at all and will lose your faith and your salvation. This doesn’t happen all at once, but slowly and without you even noticing what is happening. By the time you might notice that you no longer trust in Christ for forgiveness it will be too late and you will be lost and condemned in your sin, and/or you just won’t care any more.

True Assurance

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead
Would you? Could you? Should you? Can you forgive yourself? Forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be saved. You might as well ask, “Can I save myself?” The answer in the Scriptures is clearly: No. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:25-27) In this passage the problem isn’t wealth, but the rich who put their trust in their wealth to save them. You cannot save yourself. Only God can forgive you and save you because of what Jesus has done to pay for your sins.

Every false religion in the world teaches that it is up to you to save yourself and earn forgiveness. Every false teaching among the Christian denominations introduces the false idea that you have to do something to achieve forgiveness and salvation. If forgiveness is not the free gift of God through Jesus Christ, then it is false, and will not save you.

True forgiveness comes only from God through Christ Jesus. Your sin is such a big problem that only God could save you from the guilt of your sin. Fortunately, Jesus loved you so that He gave His life on the cross to pay the terrible price to free you from your sin. If you want to be forgiven (and you do – whether you acknowledge it or not) then you must trust in Jesus to forgive you and save you from your sins. To rescue you from your sins it took God Himself to become incarnate as one of His created people and live the perfectly obedient life that none of us sinners could accomplish. Then He had to suffer the punishment on the cross to pay the price for your sins. It is amazing that God loved us all so that He did all that was necessary to save us from our sins. Yet, there He was – hanging dead on the cross. That is how you can be sure you are forgiven.

If you want assurance that your sins are forgiven you don’t have to forgive yourself. In fact, you can’t find true assurance by forgiving yourself – there will always be doubt if your forgiveness depends on anything you do. The only sure and certain way to know you are forgiven is to trust that God, Himself, has done everything needed to rescue you from your sins. Look to the cross. There you will see that God has forgiven all your sins and has rescued you from death and all the consequences of sin.

Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – He forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Psalm 103:1-3)

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