Jan 14, 2013

Forgiving Ourselves?

by Beverly Kay

Over the summer months I have been wrestling with a concept that is very prevalent in current secular thinking, trying to see if it matches up with Biblical Truths regarding the power of forgiveness. The concept that I am grappling with is that of forgiving ourselves. As people in our world strive to deal with guilt or self-loathing, very often they are encouraged to not be so hard on themselves, after all being human means making mistakes. Nobody is perfect, so they are told to simply forgive themselves and move on. Somehow, this teaching just doesn’t sit right with me. It seems to smack of self justification. If I have the power to forgive and justify myself, then I don’t need a Saviour to pay my debt and to reconcile me with my Maker. As I have searched scripture there seems to be only two types of forgiveness mentioned.

The first is the forgiveness that comes from God Himself, made available to us through the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord. We receive this forgiveness when we agree with God about two things. First we must agree with God that our action or attitude is truly sinful, it has broken the law of God and it bares the weight of penalty. This is just as real in our lives as breaking a traffic law and having to pay the fine. If we lie, or steal, or covet, or walk in pride, etc. then we are guilty of sin. The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23) Secondly, we must agree with God that the penalty for our sin has been paid for, that the death of Christ on the cross is sufficient payment for our sin. It is in agreeing with God that we are forgiven, cleansed, made new because of the gift of grace offered to us in Christ Jesus. In receiving this gift of Grace we find freedom from guilt and condemnation that had been ours because of sin. That is the good news of the Gospel that Paul shares in Romans 8:1&2, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” We cannot short cut to forgiveness of self. We have no authority apart from Christ Jesus to be set free from the law of sin and death put in place by God in the garden.

The second form of forgiveness comes only after we have received the first. This is the authority in Christ Jesus to forgive others who have sinned against us. As children of God, through our faith in Christ Jesus (John 1:12), we are to become like our Heavenly Father (Ephesians 5:1&2). As we live out this life of love, we are called to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” As God’s children we are to extend to others the same grace and mercy that we have received from our Father. We cannot absolve someone else of their sin, but we have the joy of refusing to hold their sins against them, extending to them love rather than seeking revenge or hating them in our hearts.

It is so easy to allow the subtle twisting of God’s truth by the world to enter into our thinking and our council of others. Let us strive to remain in alignment with the truth of scripture, and remember there is only One who has the power to forgive, and that is God Himself. It is only by His power at work in us that we have the authority to forgive others, and to revel in the joy that comes as we receive freedom from our sin through faith in the work of Christ Jesus on the cross!

1 comment:

  1. John Vlanic said:
    Thank you, Bev, for raising a valid caution against mushy thinking re: forgiving ourselves. I too have wrestled with avoiding psychobabble and yet offering real healing in this area. Here are the two resources I have found most helpful in trying to get my arms around this.

    1) N. T. Wright has a great little section on this in his Evil and the Justice of God (I.V.P., 2006), pp. 161-163.

    Here is the beginning of the last paragraph of that great section: ”Of course, because it's forgiveness we're talking about, not tol­erance or indifference, this will once more mean exclusion as well as embrace. It will mean saying No to whatever it was in order to say Yes to God and his forgiveness. This will almost certainly take prayer and worship and perhaps the assistance of a wise counse­lor, but it's the way we are called to go, the way to spiritual health. Those who insist on clinging to a sense of guilt all too easily be­come, alas, those who then pass on that sense of guilt to others as the burden becomes too great to bear.”

    2) There is a great discussion of this in Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don't Know How (Ballantine Books, 1966), 95-104.

    Smedes begins: “Forgiving ourselves is a tough nut to crack. Which is probably a good thing. Forgiving ourselves should be hard. Possible, yes, easy, no. If forgiving ourselves comes easy, chances are, we are only excusing ourselves, ducking blame, and not really forgiving ourselves at all.”

    Here is the outline of these pages in Smedes: Does it make sense to forgive ourselves? Who gives us the right to forgive ourselves?
    What do we forgive ourselves for?
    We forgive ourselves for what we did, not for what we are.
    We forgive ourselves for specific things we did.
    We forgive ourselves for wrongful things that we deserve blame for doing.
    We forgive ourselves for what we blame ourselves for.
    We forgive ourselves for what we feel forgiven for.

    How can we go about forgiving ourselves?
    We tell it to ourselves.
    We repeat it.
    We keep it to ourselves.
    We act like it even if we don't talk about it.
    We do something extravagant.