"I know God forgives me, I can't forgive myself."
There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy (James 4:12).
The message of the gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners. He paid for our sins so that all who call on Jesus as Savior and repent experience forgiveness from God eternally. This message involves a few key implications.
God has established what is right and what is wrong. He has found us guilty, but the price was paid at the cross. A “godly grief” desires change (2 Corinthians 7:10), asks forgiveness through the Son, and does not attempt to earn forgiveness on the basis of personal merit.
Christians know this message, yet many still wrestle with self-forgiveness, and while this can look like humility, pride is the culprit.
"I Know God Forgives Me, I Can't Forgive Myself"
David Powlison wrote in the Journal of Biblical Counselling that even Christian counselors will sometimes teach the value of “self-forgiveness.” One can declare his or her value in the eyes of Jesus Christ and “feel good about myself, and view my failing tolerantly” in order to achieve self-forgiveness (“Anger Part 2: Three Lies about Anger and the Transforming Truth,” V.14, No.2, Winter 1996).
There are three facets of anger:
1. Anger implies a standard.
2. Anger “always entails a judge.”
3. Anger requires a savior.
When we fail to forgive ourselves, the implication is this:
1. I set my own standard of achievement/failure; right/wrong.
2. I am my own judge.
3. I am my own savior.
When we say “I forgive myself” for being an addict, having an affair, not being there for my kids, etc., we are also saying, “I was capable of being better, but I blew it according to my own standards of what’s best. I judge myself deficient, but I can also save myself by being better.”
As Powlison states, some standards are reasonable: Abusing other people is awful; drug abuse is bad; adultery is wrong.
The problem is not always with the definition of right and wrong but with the idea that one has failed to live up to a personal standard rather than God’s standards. “Against you only have I sinned,” wrote David (Psalm 51:4).
Israel’s king had caused suffering in the lives of others, but he was firstly a sinner against God. In the eyes of a “self-hater,” God’s forgiveness is not enough because “my eyes are all-important, more significant than God’s” (Psalm 51:4). We fail to forgive ourselves because we forget that we are not God.
Self-Forgiveness Doesn’t Work
Not only is “self-forgiveness” an oxymoron biblically-speaking, but it will only prolong the sin, which leads to pain, confusion, anger, and hopelessness.
When one tries to earn forgiveness, failure is inevitable, and unforgiveness towards ourselves begins all over again. Powlison wrote that “self-hatred always has the last say.I go endlessly back to dealing out my own punishment, playing the judge and the sacrificial lamb rolled into one.” One might work hard to achieve “perfection,” but this is impossible.
A person might do many good things, maybe even lead individuals to Christ, while never truly meeting with him personally. When the gospel message is only good news for everyone but us, an exhausting cycle repeats until the truth inserts a spoke in the wheel.
Self-anger is prideful independence from Jesus. Humble reliance on Christ leads to forgiveness and peace.
Denial and Deferral
Secular society is familiar and comfortable with transactional relationships. Owing something to another person leaves us feeling vulnerable, as though at any time the other individual might make a claim on that outstanding debt. Maintaining the upper hand, or at least an even score sheet, feels safer.
Sometimes self-forgivers (when they are able to self-forgive) prefer to think of God as a kindly Savior, denying his Lordship. They drift away from a true concept of sin as rebellion against him.
These individuals shirk responsibility for their sin; they avoid dealing with the sins other people commit against them; they stop feeling bad about their sin, avoid being refined by God, and deny themselves the opportunity of experiencing God’s daily grace and mercy (Lamentations 3:22-23).
At times, people will say that they can’t forgive themselves because it was unfair for Jesus to die for our sins. They think they are doing Jesus a favor, or paying him back, by hating themselves.
The reverse is true: There are no returns or exchanges on this gift and trying to pay Jesus back is an act of rejection and rebellion; thanklessness and arrogance.
Refusing salvation through Christ’s blood does not change the fact that his blood was spilled for us, that we needed Christ to die for us, and that nothing else would save us. We just delay humbling ourselves before God.
To reject Christ’s sufficiency is to suggest that we are good enough but, if we were, the cross would have been unnecessary. Or, if necessary, then only some people would have needed it while others could have earned salvation.
But Scripture is clear: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Christians are willing to experience the pain of acknowledging the cost of their sin in order to receive the glorious gift of grace. They ask forgiveness when they slip up, invite transformation, and rest in the power of the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.
This correction-submission-rest cycle strengthens one’s character to the glory of God. He expects us to continue needing his grace and loves us in spite of our battles with sin.
By the process of sanctification, Christ’s disciples are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This “same image” is the image of Christ.
Difference Between Self-Anger and Self-Awareness
A person can be aware of personal patterns of sin such as anger, gossip, or impatience without giving in to self-hatred. “When we lack self-awareness, we misunderstand ourselves” and God.
“Pride blinds us with inaccurate ideas about who we are in relationship with God,” wrote Robert Cheong and can “hinder our awareness of the hearts and lives of others, which impacts how we love and lead those around us.”
Self-awareness helps us to “understand how we struggle to love God and others” and to “seek Christ to change the way we love.” There is also prideful self-awareness. Oswald Chambers warned, “Beware of anything that can split your oneness with Him, causing you to see yourself as separate from Him.”
Chambers is referring to the kind of awareness in which Christ is only part and not the whole. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:9-10).
Inability to forgive oneself stems from this type of self-awareness apart from Christ is lonely, unnecessary suffering, which does not glorify God.
Mercy and Peace
The process of overcoming self-condemnation can be slow and requires patience. Those who suffer from not forgiving themselves could ask, “Have I accepted Jesus as Savior? Do I understand that he died to pay for my sin, and he is the hero of God’s story?”
The gospel is “so much better” than a narrative with us at the center because the debt for our sins is paid in full, for free. “An accurate biblical self-knowledge destroys the supposed need for self-esteem” (Powlison, “Anger Part 2”).
Christ loves us enough to have died for us. He enacted the ultimate form of love according to his own definition: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
God calls us friends because we are one with Christ, even though we continue to sin and to fall short of Christ’s glory.
He has forgiven all those who call on his name. Not forgiving ourselves will not make us worthier of redemption than someone who is able to find rest in the finished work of Christ.
Refusing to forgive oneself is not an act of humility but an exhausting, prideful rejection of God’s justice and his love.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Lisa Vlasenko
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.