Can Christians “forgive themselves”?

Can Christians “forgive themselves”? February 12, 2014

Last fall, just as I was putting my finishing touches on my book about regret, a friend sent me a link to this blog post. The author, Chad Bird, suggests that we are deluding ourselves when we talk about forgiving ourselves:

“For a time I believed such advice.  No more.  I know now that to ‘forgive yourself’ is not only impossible; it is foolish, dangerous, and futile.  It is the vain attempt of a soul plagued by guilt to seek relief in the very last place he should be looking: in himself.  Telling a friend, ‘forgive yourself,’ is the equivalent of telling a dying person, ‘heal yourself.’  Absolution, like medicine, comes from outside of you, from the hand of a healer.

“My problem was not that I knew that God had forgiven me, but that I hadn’t forgiven myself.  No, my problem was that I had never truly believed that God had forgiven me.  That was the issue.”

I admire Bird’s writing, and as I read his words, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. And I disagreed with him.

He’s right in asking who we are to challenge what God has already pronounced over us in the finished work of Jesus. He’s God, and if he says we’re forgiven, we’re forgiven. We can read the words of Scripture, and recognize that these words call for our obedient response. In churches with liturgical traditions like the one Bird attends, a pastor will act as a messenger, pronouncing God’s forgiveness over the people as they confess their sinful state before God during a worship service as they move toward the sacrament of communion. In low church traditions, people hear about God’s forgiveness of their sins in the form of sermons. In both traditions, we as individuals are called on to respond to this proclamation of God’s forgiveness on a personal level.

Bird notes that he viewed forgiveness of himself as adding a form of ‘works’ to what God had already done for him: “I had deluded myself into supposing that God supplied 80% of the forgiveness, and now it was my responsibility to come up with the other 20%.” That 20% was the part in which he viewed it as his responsibility to elbow-grease God’s forgiveness into his soul.

The thing is, we can bask in our minds in the one-hundred-percentness of God’s forgiveness as an abstract bit of theology, but until we do the work of picking up our cross and following Jesus into the process of forgiving others and ourselves, it will remain an abstraction.

“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” – Matthew 6:15

“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:37-39

We can be skittish about the idea of self in this equation. But the same dam of unforgiveness toward those who’ve wronged us that blocks the flow of God’s mercy toward us can staunch its flow just as readily when we can’t forgive ourselves. We are involved in the forgiveness process, as Jesus taught us to pray: “…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) Even when those debtors are us.

On the other side of the equation, I think Bird would affirm (as I do) we need to receive Christ’s forgiveness first and foremost in order to be empowered to extend forgiveness to others – and ourselves.

There it is – another one of those confounding “both/and’s” of the spiritual life.

What do you think? Is talk of forgiving ourselves nothing more than spiritualized narcissism, unnecessary in light of the Messiah’s finished work on the cross? Or do you believe that there are things for which we must forgive ourselves in the same way we must forgive the act of someone who has sinned against us? 


A quick note: I’m getting some interesting responses to my survey of pastors and church leaders about their relationship with church members over 40. Please feel free to send this link ( on to a pastor or two you know. I’ll be blogging about what I’m hearing beginning next week.   



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