This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”
Let’s start by asking, “Can we be in debt to ourselves?” If our primary metaphor for forgiveness is canceling a debt, it would make sense to ask can someone be both the debtor and the lender in the same transaction.
We will now leave this question and return to it in a moment. At one level, it doesn’t matter if we can be both the debtor and the lender in the same transaction. Regardless, we can live plagued by guilt and shame even after we’ve done business with God and every other relevant person. This experience can be emotionally and relationally debilitating. Whatever that experience is, we need to know how to deal with it.
That is the relevance of the first question. We won’t solve a problem we mis-categorize. Many people approach this problem as if it is a theological riddle to solve. Categorization is not about passing a theology quiz; it is about accessing the correct remedy God has to offer.
Metaphorically speaking, God has everything we need from Home Depot and from Bed Bath and Beyond. But we need to know the project (i.e., life challenge) we’re working on well enough to know which store of God’s we should go to. God will be generous in either location.
So, what kind of problem are we facing when we say, “I just can’t forgive myself”? There is not one answer, because this phrase does not capture only one experience. We will consider five possible emotional obstacles captured in the idea of self-forgiveness.
Sometimes we mistake emotions of deep sorrow for the conversation of repentance. Repentance is not a feeling of sorrow. It is a conversation. If we address our sorrow to “whom it may concern” (meaning no one), we should not expect any emotional resolution.Repentance is not a feeling of sorrow. It is a conversation. If we address our sorrow to “whom it may concern” (meaning no one), we should not expect any emotional resolution. Click To Tweet
Ambiguous repentance expects to get emotional relief from feeling bad enough for long enough. That is like expecting to get to the top of a hill by being still enough for long enough. Have you had a conversation of repentance with God and those you offended about your sin?
Penance is more active than ambiguous repentance. Actually, it is much more active. This obstacle gets caught in the trap of measurement. We know what we did was “real bad.” So, we try to do “a lot” to make it better. But we’re never sure when “a lot” is “enough” so we feel compelled to do more or feel worse about what we did to prove we’re not minimizing our sin.
The remedy here is to realize: Jesus did enough because I never could. My response is accepting what Christ did as a gift and humility. A derivative problem emerges here. We tend to think of humility as a greasy, self-deprecating disposition. Humility is thinking of ourselves less (ironically, self-forgiveness focuses our attention on ourselves) and compassion towards the faults or weaknesses of others.
Mistaking Consequences for Punishment
There are also times when the dominoes from our sin continue to fall. We feel like we “can’t catch a break.” Ongoing consequences leave us in a chronic state of regret about our sin. Regret feels so much like guilt and the dialogue of regret perpetually repeats in our mind, so we begin to think the remedy is to forgive ourselves.
In this case, grief is the more appropriate response. We need to grieve that the future that would have been if we had not committed the sin is gone. That is sad and worthy of grief, even if we were bad. Grief concludes with a sense of resolution and embrace of the life ahead in spite of the loss. For regret, grief can do what self-forgiveness never will.Grief concludes with a sense of resolution and embrace of the life ahead in spite of the loss. For regret, grief can do what self-forgiveness never will. Click To Tweet
We must admit, there are times when we hold our own opinion above all others. This is what happens when we say, “I know God has forgiven me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” We are holding our opinion above the ultimate opinion. We are not allowing God to have the last word on the matter.
The remedy for this form of pride is the same as all other forms of pride – submitting to the Lordship of Christ. It means we take God’s pronouncement of forgiveness of our sin as the final word on the matter. If you will, God is the Supreme Court for our sin. Once the high court rules on the matter, the ruling of lower courts are rendered moot.
Continuing to Sin
Finally, we can say we are having trouble forgiving ourselves as a coded way of admitting we’re still committing the sin. We are plagued by guilt because we are still guilty. In this case, our conscience is acting just like it should. Saying we need to forgive ourselves is to misjudge our conscience as being in error when it’s our actions that are wrong.
The solution here is disclosure and repentance, not self-forgiveness. Our conscience is alerting us to two sins. The sin for which we feel guilty and the sin of hiding that sin. It is the second sin that is the greater problem. While honesty may be frightening, it is also liberating.
Now, you may say, “I’ve wrestled with these things. I believe I have honored the solutions to plaguing guilt and regret provided for each. But I still am not experiencing emotional freedom.” That may be true. Emotions can become as habituated as actions. Guilt (or any other emotion) can become as instinctual as chewing our finger nails.
So, I invite you to ask one more question, “How would I live if I were forgiven? What would I be doing differently?” Make a list of the answers. Perhaps its “engage my hobbies more” or “look people in the eye” or “ask more authentic questions with friends.” Put as many things on the list as you can. Intentionally do those things. Then allow your emotions to follow your actions.
As Christians, we often want change to move from heart to mind to hand; that is, from values to beliefs to actions. That is one path of change. But it is not the only path of change. Change can also move from hand to mind to heart; that is, from actions to healthier emotions to a healthier identity. If you looked at the five areas listed in this reflection and did not get relief, then this second path is likely your journey.
Questions for Reflection
- To which of the five experiences often mistaken for self-forgiveness are you most prone?
- What is an area of your life when change moved from hand to mind to heart instead of heart to mind to hand?
 If you want to learn more about the healthy, positive expression of humility consider reading the chapter on humility in The Science of Virtue by Mark McMinn.