“You need to forgive yourself.” You’ve received such advice. Maybe you’ve even offered it. Someone, maybe you, made a mess out of some piece of life and was/were struggling with guilt. So a well-meaning individual offered, “You need to forgive yourself. Let go. Move on.” Is that good advice? Is it Biblical advice? Does the Bible teach us to forgive ourselves?
It’s true that the Bible talks about forgiveness – a lot. We are exhorted to forgive one another (see Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13, for example) and promised God’s forgiveness (see Psalm 32:5 and 1 John 1:8-9, for example).
It’s important to notice what forgiveness assumes, though: it assumes that a wronged person is releasing the person who wronged him from a deserved penalty. So, when God forgives us He does so by removing the penalty for our transgression (Jesus endured that penalty on the cross in our stead). When we forgive someone who wrongs us, we release him from the penalty we might otherwise bring on him, confessing that Christ has borne that penalty for him.
Ken Sande, in his helpful book on reconciliation entitled The Peace Maker, describes forgiveness as a set of promises or actions offered to another person. Carefully consider these promises:
- I will not dwell on this incident.
- I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.
- I will not talk to others (i.e. gossip) about this incident.
- I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.
These are what you mean when you say to another, “I forgive you.” Notice how none of them has to do with how you feel about a person. Rather, each promise is a decision to act a certain way toward another and a pledge to treat him in a certain way.
This is how Scripture understands forgiveness. It is a promise from one person to another (because of Christ’s cross), or in the case of Christ’s death on the cross, an act done for the benefit of another (us). Either way, there’s more than one person involved. So, by definition “forgiving yourself” makes no sense as far as the Bible is concerned. Forgiveness involves at least two people.
But the problem is deeper than definitions. Notice on whom Scripture fixes the focus in forgiveness: Christ! God forgives us through the cross of Christ. We forgive others because of the cross of Christ. “Forgiving yourself” omits Christ. In fact, it refocuses the individual squarely on himself, on something he must do or accomplish to feel forgiven or to feel free from his sin. This is the real problem with the “forgive yourself” mantra. And this is why we need to be discerning Christians. Satan will coopt Biblical language and use it against us. He will use familiar and comfortable Biblical language, and twist it so as to distract us from Jesus. We can’t let this happen.
But maybe what people mean by “forgive yourself” is simply “Stop clinging to guilt,” or “Stop punishing yourself.” The intent here may be good. After all, wallowing in guilt is foolish and punishing yourself is destructive, because such behaviors not only obscure Christ by sinking a person’s attention into himself, but deny faith in Christ by denying the accomplished work of Christ on the cross.
St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7 come to mind: “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). A person clinging to guilt that Christ has forgiven is clinging to worldly grief, a grief that separates us from Jesus. Godly grief or guilt over sin, however, leads us to repentance, that is faith in Christ and His gift of forgiveness.
So if we’re trying to help someone be free from guilt, exhorting him to “forgive himself” won’t do it. The focus is on the wrong person. Someone battling guilt shouldn’t be told “forgive yourself.” He needs to hear Christ’s definitive word: “I forgive you,” the very word He speaks through His called servant, the pastor. He needs to be turned outside Himself to the source of forgiveness: Christ.
Telling a friend to “forgive yourself” is like telling a dying person to “heal yourself.”
Someone once put it this way: telling a friend to “forgive yourself” is like telling a dying person to “heal yourself.” Like medicine for a dying person, forgiveness is something that comes from outside, from beyond the heart and will of the individual. Forgiveness, like medicine, comes from the hand of the healer.
Consider Paul’s words in Romans 5: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). And his words in Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). We have peace with God because of Christ! All condemnation has been removed because of Christ! These are the words a guilty conscience needs hear.
Consider the perceptive words of verse two of the Baptismal hymn “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It”:
Sin, disturb my soul no longer:
I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger:
Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood,
Sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?
Nowhere does the hymn exhort us to forgive ourselves. Instead, it reminds us that we are baptized into Christ! In the forgiving flood of Baptism, God has released us from a guilty conscience. We don’t need to punish ourselves – Jesus was punished for us! – and our sins have been washed away. Before God we are clean! There is NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus. Period.
And that’s what makes God’s forgiveness so astonishing. The full and total penalty for our sins has been borne by Christ. We are forgiven. That’s the message we need to be sharing. “Forgive yourself” is the wrong message. It’s nonsensical and it distracts us from Christ. So stop “forgiving yourself.” Look to Jesus. Stop telling others to forgive themselves. Point them to Jesus. He doesn’t make us forgive ourselves. He forgives us – fully, freely, and repeatedly forgives us. Live in that forgiveness. – Pastor Conner
 This does not preclude talking to a counselor or pastor to work through hurt or grief or the action of forgiveness.
 This does not eliminate the need for healthy boundaries; it merely keeps us from using an incident as a wedge to uncharitably keep a relationship from healing.