I have heard this sentiment a few times. Perhaps you are talking with someone struggling with sin, or past sin, and they simply cannot shake the feeling of guilt and condemnation. We see the believer in a gracious Christ suffering under the weight of their own mess, and in that moment you say something like, “hey, you really need to give yourself a break”, or, “you’re being too hard on yourself. You gotta let it go!”, or this one: “sometimes you just need to forgive yourself”.
While I understand the motivation behind this counsel, it is misguided, and if we’re not careful, it can be dangerously misleading. Can we forgive ourselves? Can we really just let it go?
Biblically, this just doesn’t work. That’s why the answer is no, we can’t just forgive ourselves. And really, even if we did decide to forgive ourselves, that simply would not be enough.
And there are a few reasons for it:
1) Your sins are first and foremost against God
The first reason we can’t forgive ourselves is because our sin is not first and foremost against ourselves. I mean, when we sin, we usually do not offend ourselves, right? I may get upset at myself for having done wrong, but I don’t get upset because my sin was directed against me. Think about it: if I become embittered against someone, it’s completely absurd to say back to myself, “Lucas! How could you sin against yourself like that!”.
No…That makes no sense.
It is first and foremost God who said through Paul in Ephesians 4:31, “let all bitterness..be put away“. The main reason I am not to be embittered against anyone is because God told me not to be.
And so, when I sin, I sin against God, not myself.
So if I’m not sinning against myself, but against God, why would I ever think I have any authority to forgive myself?
In Psalm 51, David writes a poem of confession for adultery to God. Surprisingly, David does not write an apology letter to the victims; instead, we find David writing a sorrowful letter to God himself, saying, “against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps 51:4). Now, of course David had to make amends to those whom he offended; but, he knew that his sin was most of all offensive to God. And why? Because God was one who told him not to commit adultery, nor to covet another man’s wife (Deut 5:21). David realized that he broke God’s law first, and because of this, his sin was only and ultimately against God.
We cannot forgive ourselves, because we have not sinned against ourselves! When we sin, we sin against God alone.
2) Only God judges impartially
The second reason we shouldn’t forgive ourselves is because our understanding of sin and wrongdoing is really very partial. What I mean is that our view of ourselves is quite skewed. We may think that we are living a pretty stand-up life, but from God’s perspective, he may see something completely different. He may see a mess where we see a well-organized life. The reason is that we don’t see ourselves rightly.
How do we really know when we need some forgiveness? How do we really know when we are truly doing OK…or not OK?
We simply don’t see ourselves clearly. As Christ once said, we all have giant logs in our eyes, but become obsessed with the speck in our brother’s eye (Mt 7:3-5).
Paul says this same thing in 1 Corinthians 4:4, “for I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me”. Paul thought that he was doing just fine in his Christian life, but he never wanted to presume that his own judgment of himself was accurate. All he was concerned with was that Christ’s judgment. The reason is because Christ is the only just judge who truly has a correct perspective.
I mean, really, how can we really feel OK making any type of judgment about ourselves when our view of ourselves is so warped? Instead, Paul directs us to a God who truly judges impartially, and who sees things clearly (Romans 2:11). For this reason, we should never simply go easier on ourselves, but rather seek God’s judgment above all else.
3) Your opinion of yourself isn’t ultimately what matters
This leads us to the last point, which is this: even if you felt fine forgiving yourself, your opinion has no lasting importance. Christ made this sober point in Matthew 7:21-23, saying:
“21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
This passage is scary. Christ tells us quite clearly that there are some who think they are believers, but are truly not. There are some who will assure themselves that they are OK, but are not. Likewise, even if we decide to go easy on ourselves, or to forgive ourselves, this does not make our relationship with God any better. It really only serves to ease our conscience…that’s it.
The reason is because our forgiveness of ourselves does not ensure that God will forgive us. Even if we have finally let go of our past does not mean that God has. And ultimately, God’s opinion is the only opinion that matters.
This is why, instead of seeking earnestly to learn how to forgive ourselves, we must seek to earnestly receive God’s forgiveness.
It is for this reason that Paul labors to communicate to us that “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” (Romans 3:23-24).
We have all sinned before God, yes. But sinner, all can find a pronouncement of justification before this God through faith in Christ Jesus.
And so, rather than being so concerned with learning how to forgive yourself, why not find free and gracious forgiveness in Christ Jesus?
This, I’m convinced, will heal all wounds, and lead us to full assurance.