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I just can’t forgive myself

Sometimes when I’m talking with people about Christianity and forgiveness they shake their heads sadly and say, “I just can’t forgive myself”.

Popular psychology and self-help groups advocate this sort of thing. It sounds good, even helpful, but it’s far harder than it sounds. The more you grasp the seriousness of the mess you’ve made, the harder it is to find forgiveness in yourself. In fact, I would suggest that it is hard because the whole idea is wrong-headed for several reasons:

First: It has an inflated view of us. I can’t forgive me. Really, am I that important!? True, we are angry at ourselves for being so stupid, or misguided, or rash, or whatever to cause these circumstances to arise. The wreckage of a ruined life may lie before our eyes and we are filled with recriminations that we have done something so messed up.

But the Bible brings us down a peg or two. It teaches that we are sinners—so our sin shouldn’t surprise us. And it teaches that the real problem is that we have offended God far more than we have offended ourselves. We aren’t so important, we don’t need to forgive ourselves, but we need God to forgive us. Our sin and guilt should take us to the one who can forgive us. And once God has declared us forgiven, we can rest in the assurance that his opinion is more important than ours.

Second: It fails to understand forgiveness. It occurs between two people: the offending one and the offended one. Forgiveness happens when the offended party chooses to bear the cost or the pain themselves rather than ‘punishing’ the offender. So when we attempt to forgive ourselves it’s like switching a hot plate from one hand to the other and wondering why it still burns. That’s why forgiving yourself is such a wrong-headed idea—it doesn’t provide for the cost of forgiveness.

Let me suggest something much richer and far more helpful. Nancy DeMoss writes, “Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something God has purchased for you.”

If we will humble ourselves and admit that our guilt is directed at God and not ourselves, then we can turn to God and seek his forgiveness. He offers to pay the cost of forgiveness—to take the pain on himself—and to give us a fresh start. That’s what is happening at the cross: Jesus offers to take your sin and guilt and to take the punishment it deserves, so that the verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ can be declared by God over your life.

That “Not Guilty” or “It’s ok” is what we long to hear when we try to forgive ourselves, but we know we can’t declare it. But when God declares us ‘Not Guilty’ that’s a different matter.

And even better—those he forgives, he starts to help them to transform the mess into something beautiful. Self-forgiveness is a poor and shabby substitute for the real thing.