Not long ago I shared a quote on my Facebook page from a fairly well-known American pastor about being able to forgive one’s self. The quote was:
“‘I can't forgive myself' is another way of saying 'Even though Jesus forgives me, there's a god above Jesus whose opinion matters more—me.’”
On a cursory level, this seems perfectly true. However, then my friend, the Jailer, made some interesting observations about self-forgiveness on his blog that made me think deeper on the topic. (The Philippian Jailer, "Does God Want Me to Forgive Myself," http://networkedblogs.com/NiedC)
Now, let me begin by saying that as a minister, I counsel quite often. In this counsel, as well as from personal experience, I know the necessity of letting go of the guilt from past mistakes. Often the burden of who we are and what we are capable of seems to completely negate any possibility of forgiveness. For this we look to the cross and try desperately to understand the concepts of justification and propitiation as they have been given to us by our Savior, Jesus Christ.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)
Here is the issue, then, as I see it: The phrase, “Forgive yourself,” has become blurred by a worldview that puts self as center.
For example, when I counsel someone who is struggling with acknowledging Christ’s complete forgiveness of her transgressions, the problem is that for as long as she lives on this earth she will look in the mirror and see herself. She knows what she’s done. She knows the depths to which she has sunk. It is absolutely impossible for us to view ourselves as God views us once we’ve been justified by the blood of Jesus. We still sin. We still have sinned. We know this.
Consequently, my objective is always pointing her to God’s Word where the truth of what it means to be justified comes clear. From that we can hopefully move to accepting that we have a God who is that gracious and that merciful, and that the only way to live a joyful and purposeful Christian life is to know that we are justified, even though we can’t imagine why. We shouldn’t imagine why. There’s no reason other than God’s grace.
The problem is when someone begins to think that there is more to it than that. The problem is if people look into the mirror and come to the point where they actually forgive themselves of their sins—deeds committed against the Lord of all creation.
Dictionary.com defines forgive as:
“To grant pardon or remission; to give up all claim on account of.”
According to the very definition of the word, I can’t forgive myself. It’s fully and completely out of the realm of my power. Only God can pardon me. Only He can justify me when I’ve done nothing to deserve that clean slate.
As believers then, we have to be supremely careful of throwing phrases around like, “Forgive yourself,” because although I know what I mean and another Christian might understand the context of those words, there’s a world out there that has no concept of answering to the Judge and Ruler of everything. When the world says to “Forgive yourself,” it literally means “Forgive yourself.” “Pardon yourself.” “What you did is okay. You’re good. Forget it and move on.”
I know that not only can’t I pardon myself, but there is relevance in remembering my sin as I seek to live under no condemnation because of it. It is good for me to remember how precious is my Savior and how gracious is my God to forgive me, a sinner. There is a unique balance in remembering and not living under condemnation because of it, of course, but correct perspective in regards to me and my Lord is vital.
So, after some contemplation, study, prayer, and lack of sleep, I still agree with the pastor whose quote I posted, but in principle and context only. It’s the words that perhaps need to be altered. The issue for all of us who are sinners saved by grace is accepting the reality of the greatest of all gifts—justification—even if it defies all human reasoning.
Shouldn’t it defy all human reasoning?