In telling about a family ski incident that happened in 1982, when he took his children to a more challenging slope than they could manage, James Dobson says, “Both kids have forgiven me for my foolish decision, but I still haven’t forgiven myself” (Focus on the Family “Dear Friends” letter, July 1996).
What kind of a statement is that? Is it biblical? Psychological? Self-condemning? Self-righteous? Does the Bible tell us to forgive ourselves or to withhold forgiveness from ourselves if we really feel bad about what we did? What does the Bible say about forgiving self?
The Bible has a great deal to say about God forgiving us and us forgiving one another, but it says nothing about forgiving ourselves, because forgiving oneself is not the answer to sin. If an unbeliever forgives himself, for instance, he is still in his sin. If a believer forgives himself, he is taking the place of God. If he says, “I know God has forgiven me, but I just can’t forgive myself,” he is placing his own judgment above God’s merciful provision.
Forgiving self comes from the same humanistic, psychological roots as self-love, self-worth, and self-esteem. These are for people whose god is self—not for those whose God is the Lord. The Bible clearly commands us to love the Lord our God, our neighbor as ourselves, our brothers and sisters in the faith, and even our enemies (Deut. 13:3; Matt. 5:44 & 22:37-40; Mark 12:30,31; Luke 6:27 & 10:27; John 15:12). It also tells us to forgive one another, as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
It is sad to see a Christian think it is his option to forgive or not forgive himself and then not to forgive himself for a 14-year-old incident. But, when one is committed to psychological self-teachings, such as self-love and self-esteem, self-forgiveness seems like a natural extension, but it is not biblical.
Forgiveness is meant to be an act of love between persons rather than within one’s own self. Self-forgiveness is just one more symptom of humanistic self-love, and self-condemnation is just one more symptom of self as god.
Forgiving or not forgiving self is based on pride. Confessing our sin to God and to one another and then receiving forgiveness from God and one another should result in humility and gratitude. Not receiving and believing God’s forgiveness, either by not confessing sin or by holding onto a self-righteousness that says, “I can’t forgive myself,” is prideful and ungrateful. It places one’s own evaluation over God’s, and when we’ve been forgiven by others, it says that their forgiveness is not adequate.
Christians have been saved and forgiven on the basis of the sacrificial death of Jesus, who died in our place. Thus, when God forgives His children, it is finished, signed, sealed, and forgotten. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
(From PAL V4N5)