Question: I am the director of a Christian pro-life crisis pregnancy center and I am increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable about, testimonies and literature that come across my desk that insist upon the importance of “forgiving yourself.” This is especially so in the area of counseling a client in the aftermath of abortion. It doesn’t seem scriptural to me. My hope is that you would respond by telling me what you would say to someone who says, “I just can’t forgive myself.”
Response: When a counselee has confessed her sin to God, knows she’s forgiven, yet says that she “just can’t forgive herself,” it may be that she’s just expressing remorse over a sinful act which she committed. All of us do things that offend God, hurt others and hurt ourselves, and we can come to deeply regret our sins for many good reasons. So we may carry the memories for a time, and there is nothing wrong with that (Rom:6:21) as long as guilt is no longer involved, or we don’t become preoccupied with something that took place in the past.
However, those who regard “forgiving themselves” to be more than an expression of remorse, and who believe it to be a necessary condition in order to erase guilt, have been duped by humanistic psychology and are ignorant of the truth. They need to be informed of the following:
1) We sin against God and others, and are sinned against by others. The Word directs us to ask God and others for forgiveness and to forgive others. While I may figuratively “sin against myself” in the sense that I’ve harmed myself, it is impossible to literally sin against myself since it is “myself” doing the sinning. Therefore, I have no basis for “forgiving myself.”
2) Only God can forgive sin (Mk 2:7); only He can remove true guilt.
3) Thinking that I must or can forgive myself is a form of self-deification, especially when one says, “I know that God forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” Am I a higher authority than God?
4) The delusion of self-forgiveness can also be a convoluted form of rebellion. It says, “Although God forgave me, I won’t forgive myself.” It says that although God will hold my sin against me no more, I’m going to hold it against me.
5) It can also be a form of self-righteousness or pride in the sense that I have overridden God’s forgiveness with my decision that my sin is too grievous for me to forgive.
6) Except in cases where restitution is feasible, there is little we can do about sins of the past beyond confessing them and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing (1 Jn:1:9; Ps:51:2,7). That’s why Paul writes, “Forgetting those things which are behind…” (Phil:3:13-14). Believers in Christ are to cast off any imagined bondage to the past so that they may serve the Lord with all joy and in the grace He provides.
The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair remembered her sins; but her tears were those of joy for the forgiveness she received; and her act was an act of love for the One who had forgiven her. We’re told that she loved much because she was forgiven much. Guilt ends with forgiveness; love increases with the recognition of and thankfulness for forgiveness.
One of the most wonderful things about being a Christian is that we are not bound to the sins of the past (1 Jn:1:9) and we can start each day (or hour or moment) with a clean heart before the Lord. Those under the delusion that they can’t forgive themselves are rejecting what Christ has done for them and what He will do for them.