I personally suspect the teaching to forgive yourself has the same roots as the self-care movement–after all, how can you possibly [sic] experience true, lasting forgiveness unless you have forgiven yourself? That sounds oddly like its sister phrase: how can you possibly let your cup overflow unto others unless you’ve filled yourself up first? The reality is that neither self-care nor self-forgiveness are biblical values, virtues, or anything worthy of emulation–they are vices. They supplant not only mankind’s stance before their Creator, but subtly manipulate the biblical texts in order to lure in the undiscerning. I say this because on the surface, these phrases are near enough to the truth that they are all the more pernicious, namely, because they focus on the self rather than on Christ.
Both the “Golden Rule” and the Second Greatest Commandment operate on the assumption that you already love yourself enough; what is required of you then is sacrifice, particularly, sacrifice engendered toward someone who is not you. In much the same way, the concept of forgiveness assumes that you have wronged someone in some way, or they have wronged you in some way. It assumes that a standard has been violated–yet more than this, the relationship itself has been violated. Likewise, it assumes that if you are the one who committed the violation, you are not the individual needing to do the forgiving. It should go without saying, but you need to seek forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, and restitution–none of which includes some measure of the self. You have no need to reconcile with yourself, repent to yourself, or restore something to your self–why then would it possibly become rational to forgive yourself?
The only place Scripture speaks in terms that might raise questions here is in 1 Cor. 6:18, which states, “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.” At first glance, this might appear to be teaching that one can legitimately sin against one’s own self, thus necessitating the transactional nature of forgiveness (i.e. self-forgiveness). However, upon closer examination of the passage, Paul is not even speaking to the individual, but the corporate nature of the church (i.e. the body). Thus, the offense is not seen as a private sin whatsoever; Paul adds a corporate dimension to the nature of sexual sin, as the offender naturally affects those whom he is joined together with in that body. This takes the heinousness of the sin to a whole new level, but it also knocks against the rugged individualism rampant in the Western church’s general hermeneutic. Suffice it to say, this text doesn’t bolster the notion that one sins against one’s self, thus necessitating self-forgiveness.
What is more problematic is that by practicing self-forgiveness, you are in essence usurping the role of God, as only God has the right and authority to forgive sin. This is seen, perhaps most clearly in the life of Christ, where numerous times the Pharisees take issue to Him pronouncing the sins of others were forgiven (Lk. 7:48-49; Matt. 9:1-8). This is of particular importance in this discussion because these words really do mean something and convey a specific truth. We have to stop pretending like the words we choose don’t have definitions that matter, and can mean something radically different than what they do mean. The point here is that it is nowhere taught, modeled, or implied that we need to forgive ourselves. What is taught is that we embrace by faith the work of Christ in accomplishing our forgiveness on our behalf. More clearly, we are to embrace the truth that Christ forgives, and forgives in full.
The good news in all of this is just that–that God loves to forgive sinners and show His mercy. God loves to give grace to the humble. God loves to show His exceeding kindness, richness, and liberality toward His children. The good news is that you don’t have to forgive yourself. You don’t need to do anything but think rightly on what Christ has done in your stead. The reality is that you cannot forgive yourself and the simple reason for this is that you are not the one you’ve offended with your sin. There is no primary offense against the self; you are not the one who has set the criteria by which you are judged; you are not the standard of holiness against which you are judged. You are the one who has been an adulterer, liar, thief, drunkard, gossip, etc. and enjoyed it. You are the one who presumed upon the grace of God enough to sin against Him, violate His perfect standard, and fall under His consuming gaze. Yet if you are in Christ, the scope and the breadth of God’s forgiveness is wholly comprehensive. There is not one iota of space left in this work; just as surely as your sin left you crimson, the shedding of His blood on the cross has left you white as snow.
What is particularly alarming to me is how easily people will buy into the lie that you need to forgive yourself and not take the time to actually think through the issue more critically. In rationalizing the concept of forgiveness before God and fellow man and turning it inward, all you’ve done is simply find another way to make the Christian faith all about yourself. What’s more than this, you’ve turned the substance of grace into a commodity, as if to say the quality and quantity of that grace lavished upon you is not enough. No, you must also forgive yourself. Does this not smack of prideful arrogance?
You haven’t offended yourself. You haven’t rebelled against yourself. You haven’t sinned against yourself. You’ve sinned against an infinitely holy God–and what’s more than this is that you enjoyed it! Until the day when His incredible grace overwhelmed you to such an extent that you saw your sinfulness against the backdrop of His incalculable holiness, you had no reservations about diving headfirst into sin. Many professing Christians still think so little of the sin that put Christ to the cross; the concept of self-forgiveness is no exception to that. By claiming you need to forgive yourself, you may start with Christ–but you surely do not end there.
One who thinks rightly by placing the proper focus on God as the One whom we need forgiveness through not only starts with God, they end with Him. In other words: their preoccupation is not with the self, but with the Lord. Even as they look to their offenses toward other people they recognize and cry, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge” (Ps. 51:4). The recognition of their guilt before others pales in comparison before the thrice holy God of the universe who binds the very standard of righteousness intrinsically to His being. They do not stand before a mirror and self-flagellate until they realize the fullness of grace found in self-forgiveness. Instead, they likewise ask of the Lord, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness” (Ps. 51:14).
If we pause briefly to study this Psalm, what is even more profound is how remarkably God-centered it remains, even in the midst of David’s despair. We find in v. 15-17 that David again asks for the Lord’s intervention, “O’ Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise. For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O’ God, You will not despise.” What David evidences here is the reluctance to praise; he cannot be brought to joy and thanksgiving because the depths of his sin has caught up with him, and his heart weighs heavy in his alienation from God. In other words, he knows a fundamental rift in fellowship with God has transpired–one that cannot be made right with the blood of rams and the smoke of the altar. Under the inspiration of the Spirit, David recognizes such an offering would not bring forth a well-pleasing aroma, but kindle the Lord’s anger. Instead, what David must bring is his broken and contrite heart before his God.
David’s disposition is not one of introspection that pulls him out of despair, but of casting himself at the mercy of God, trusting that his Lord is One who genuinely loves to restore His children to fellowship. In other words, David doesn’t look within in order to forgive himself; David looks to God knowing that when he looks to Him, he will live and the greatness of God’s compassion will blot out his transgressions. Just as Moses erected the bronze serpent in the wilderness and the men were cleansed from the poison of the fiery serpents, so too would David be wholly cleansed of his sin and brought once more to rejoice by looking upon the standard (Num. 21:6-9). Thus, praise is the ultimate production of salvation and forgiveness, and praise can only be reached when we truly embrace these truths by faith.
I will end with this: the need to focus on self-forgiveness is inherently self-centered. There is no way around it from the standpoint of the Scriptures. You don’t have an issue of self-confidence, self-love, or self-forgiveness. You have an inflated sense of ego when it comes to how boldly you sin against God and want to escape a proper sense of shame. You have an issue with loving yourself too much. You have an issue of presumptuousness. You presume an inflated sense of the self, so much so, that at the end of the day, you still need to answer to you. You may pay lip service to the idea that you need to be forgiven of God or your fellow man, yet you’ve still found a way to make yourself the primary victim of your crimes against God. If we are honest, we have all found ourselves in this predicament at one point or another in our walk. Yet as David and those in their own desperate plight in the wilderness, we must fix our eyes upon the Standard.
The way the Scriptures present things, you and I need to answer for our sins before the presence of the thrice holy Lord–and that fact should cause us to cast ourselves at the mercy of the King rather than casually adopt the self-help attitude of those who have fallen, but cannot get up. If you are in Christ, your sin is forgiven, past, present, and even future. Christ paid the penalty for your sins once and for all, and comprehensively at that. He remembers your sins no more and will not take them into account for the Day of Judgment. If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. You need not forgive yourself; what you have need of is to take God at His word and embrace the work of Christ by faith. You need to look upon the Standard and recall God’s promises to you through Christ. This is the antidote to wallowing in despair and condemnation–and only this shall bring you from the slough of despond to the pastures of jubilation.