I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage. He had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison. But the iron bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to the victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he believes God forgives him too.
His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.
He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he is still shocked and shamed by his own aggression against a loved one. How could he have done that?
If we’ve ever done something awful, it’s easy to swim in a sea of self-disgust. When other people nauseate us, we can avoid them, but we cannot so easily escape our own self-loathing. Our undying disappointments ceaselessly hammer their hateful messages:
How could you have done that? You are repulsive. What is wrong with you?
Whatever awful act we committed, from abandonment to adultery to violence to neglect. We cannot live with the shame.
But There Are Other Kinds of People
But some people don’t feel guilty enough. They betray others—maybe you or me—and they say, “God has forgiven me, what’s your problem?” They seem cruel, unmoved by the suffering they unleash and untroubled by the misery they perpetrate.
Honestly, my heart wishes these villains were less quick to forgive themselves, that they could feel what they have inflicted; that they could put themselves in the shoes of their victims and—just for a moment or two—experience that pain.
I’m embarrassed by my fancies. But at the very least, I wish these brutes could experience genuine sorrow at the sufferings they regularly produce.
But I’m sort of schizoid, the worst of both worlds. I once profoundly hurt my wife (well, more than once, but one sin at a time). I said something caustic, painful, and nasty. My first response was self-defense: “I was tired, and she said something to trigger it.”
So I buried my compassion for her beneath layers of self-care for me. Simply put, I was a brute. But that paper-thin excuse melted away. I saw the pain I caused, and my self-consolation failed. I was wracked with guilt and remorse.
She forgave me but I couldn’t forgive myself. I felt that if I forgave myself too easily, then I would be just like one of those heartless beasts I so dislike.
Who Is In Charge?
Easy-self-forgivers don’t empathize with the injuries they inflicted because the shame of self-admission is too great. They refuse the humility to concede, “I’m the kind of person that caused such agony.” Something directs their hearts away from empathy for others.
Unwilling-self-forgivers don’t excuse themselves with that flippancy. They lash themselves with the whip of self-incrimination, “You are vile, rotten, and unforgiveable.” Something controls their hearts too, but it’s still a form of only looking inward.
We are slaves. Either to a force that keeps us brutish or to a force that keeps us ashamed. In Out of the Salt Shaker, Becky Pippert wrote,
Whatever controls you is your lord. If you live for power you are controlled by power. If you live for acceptance you are controlled by the people you are trying to please. No one controls himself. You are controlled by the lord of your life.
Both the easy-self-forgivers and the unwilling-self-forgivers are controlled, controlled by an outside dominatrix screaming for positive self-identity, prohibiting us from accepting either guilt or forgiveness. We may think we are in charge of our lives, but we aren’t.
John Newton was a slave trader. He knew both the dominatrix of non-self-forgiveness and the mistress of easy-self-forgiveness. Someone once asked Newton for help with his own inability to forgive himself. Newton answered,
You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness? Well, indeed you cannot be too aware of the evils inside of yourself, but you may be improperly controlled by them. (Letters, Vol. 11)
Newton addresses the easy-self-forgivers, when he says we “cannot be too aware of the evils inside.” Unwillingness to admit them is cowardly self-compassion. He continues,
You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but also too low an opinion of the Redeemer, which is wrong.
In other words, it’s okay to have a humble self-opinion but it is a sin to have a low opinion of Christ, as though God is good enough for tiny sins but his goodness is too small to heal huge evils. Newton continues,
When I look at your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, and pride that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of.
There is a kindness in Newton’s harshness. He knew first-hand the self-righteous identity that can’t admit any evil within; and he knew first-hand the self-lashing that comes from clinging to the evil within.
He gives an impassioned invitation—not another beating, an invitation!—to find a new identity, the identity of “We are the beloved,” the identity of being redeemed (at incalculable cost) from the slavery of self-identity. Newton knew true freedom of the immeasurable goodness of God.
It’s why Newton, perhaps best of all believers, could write Amazing Grace.
Multiple wows! thoughout this one, and I want to go ahead and place my pre-order for multiple copies of the book that could flow out of this article. Suggested working title: “Newton’s Law ~ Newton’s Grace: The Gravitational Pull Toward True Freedom”.
Love that title. Maybe … YOU should write it!
I really love your line, “The gravitational pull toward freedom.”
It’s amazing how we imprison ourselves in thinking we aren’t worthy. Because we aren’t, and yet he loves us enough to make us worthy. Like the old adage: “How much is that house worth? Whatever someone will pay for it.”
Michael Knower, MD
“We have seen this in our practice.” Thank you for digging up the John Newton quotes.
Newton really was amazing, in more ways that one.
His letters are a treasure chest of gold.
There is a further matter that needs attention in the “can’t forgive myself” paradigm. Such a Christian is, in effect, saying that their judgement of themselves is superior to Gods judgement of them. This is another form of idolatry. My counselling experience says that such Christians have never thought of the situation in this way, and are usually horrified at what they are doing. Swift repentance usually follows.
These things also frequently get mixed up with the notion of humility, which in our day is frequently used as a synonym for “worthless”. Such a wrong interpretation encourages some to maintain self-loathing almost as evidence of their worthlessness.
I love your thinking: that we claim our judgement to be superior to His judgment.
And, yes, we try to prove our worthiness by clinging to self-loathing; as though THAT will earn us credit for eternal life. When all God asks is for us to receive.
Yes, thank you Sam, for digging up those great words from a man who knew what he was talking about.
As for people who say, “God has forgiven me, what’s your problem?”, I recognize a self-righteousness there, as well. I think too many of us buy into the the mantra of “as Christians we MUST forgive.” when our Lord requires confession and repentance from us in order to forgive us our sins. He also tells Peter in Luke 17:3-4 that that is the condition for Peter to forgive. We can choose to not hold a person’s sins against us as a grudge, but they still need to acknowledge the offense to be truly forgiven.
Thanks for sharing.
I agree that full reconciliation requires our forgiveness and their repentance (or vice versa). But for each party, THEIR job is simply THEIR job, not to require it of the other person.
If you’ve been wronged, God instructs us in forgiveness, even if they don’t repent; and if we’ve done the wronging, God instructs in repentance, even if they don’t forgive.
And, frankly, either to repent or to forgive is incredibly difficult, unless the life of God is in us to see His forgiveness of us.
Wow! Sam! I am amazed by the depth to which you dig into your own soul for the thoughts and emotions that reside there. WOW ?!
Forgiveness is a sensitive topic for Christians. A former director of mine, when I asked him to review my book said, “There’s not enough repentance in it for me.” I asked him to read it again, as I thought surely he was missing the main point of my book – which is our identity in Christ. He said he read it again and still felt that I had “missed the sailing if the boat of repentance.”.
I once wrote a Facebook post simply forwarding a synopsis of Bill Johnson’s sermon on self-forgiveness. The responses I got were so vitriolic that I had to take down my post.
So, as Newton said, we need to cast our guilt, shame and even self forgiveness in the light of who we are in Christ and how The Lord sees us. Any other response to the left or right of Christ in us, misses the point. It is God’s forgiveness, not our own, or anyone else’s that should cast its light on the rest of our lives
WOWZERS! I’m amazed that you got vitriolic comments on a post about forgiveness. (I suppose it gives you a chance to forgive them 🙂 though it doesn’t sound like they want to repent.)
The Christian life really does revolve around repentance and forgiveness. And those two spiritual disciplines revolve around one thing: Who do we worship? The Lord? Or ourselves?
I don’t believe that we have the authority to forgive ourselves. Only God can forgive sins. I think this is a hard question. Many of us carry guilt and feelings of guilt throughout our lives. I have been thinking about this since you first posted it.
Something didn’t seem quite right to me in the proposing of the question. I have struggled with this question almost every day since you first posted, because this post keeps appearing on my timeline.
I have had many things over the years that have weighed upon my conscience, things that I have done and wish I hadn’t, as well as things that I haven’t done and wish I had.
I understand where you are coming from in this article, but I don’t think that self-forgiveness is the question. I think that the question is “How can we come to believe in and receive the forgiveness of God so that those burdens of our hearts are lifted?”
A true follower of Jesus Christ can come to God in His name, confessing sin. Forgiveness is promised according to the word of God. We have God’s word on it that we are forgiven. I don’t see any call in scripture for us to forgive ourselves. I do know, however, from my own experience and from hearing the experience of others, that we often hold on to feelings of guilt, even though the actual guilt itself is taken away. So, I understand the need to have that burden lifted, because it is often crippling. More importantly though, that burden is one of unbelief. We don’t believe that there is true forgiveness from God: we seem to believe that our sin has somehow been too great for the blood of Christ.
The question that you have raised is not academic for me. This is real life in real time. What do I do with my guilty feelings? I am coming to the conclusion that, first of all, I need to bring these feelings to God and truly ask him to forgive me for the wrongs that I have done, for the sins that I have committed. Perhaps one reason that God sends these feelings of guilt is to help us understand that we haven’t ever brought these things before Him and confessed them as sin.
Then, when these feelings come back again, which they do frequently, I need to come to God again for help, asking Him then I might have the peace that His promised forgiveness affords.
I’m really not disagreeing with you except in the terminology. I would say that it’s not a matter of self-forgiveness, but a matter of accepting the forgiveness of God, and trusting him.
As far as the other side of the coin, I think you are right to say that we do let ourselves off the hook, so to speak, which is certainly a grievous offense against others because we are unwilling to accept the fact that we have wronged them. Again, though, I don’t think it’s a matter of forgiving ourselves too soon, but simply a lack of compassion because of our own pride. Perhaps we really don’t want to acknowledge that we have sinned against our brother or sister. Again, it’s a matter of coming to God in true repentance, asking His forgiveness.
I just had the thought that this way of glossing over the sinfulness of what we have done might be because we don’t want to have another burden of guilt to carry around. We make light of our sin because we know that if we don’t, this will be another weight upon our conscience of some wrong we have done for which we cannot “forgive ourselves,” to use your terminology.
Perhaps, in some way, both sides of your coin are wrong ways of dealing with the same thing. Either, I have done wrong and my conscience won’t let me forget it or accept the forgiveness that God has promised me, or I make light of my sin so that I don’t have to ever face the fact that I have done wrong in the first place and so be stuck with the feelings of guilt that come with that knowledge.
As you can see, you have got me thinking about this. Perhaps that’s mostly what you want to do with these articles. I do appreciate you posting them. All of them make me think more deeply about whatever the topic is. I appreciate that. Some of these things I have never thought about very much, and some of them I am afraid to think about. You sort of force me to consider things that I should consider, though you do it in a gentle way. Thank you, Sam.
I completely agree with your comment. In fact, I LOVE your observations about this topic. You are right! It’s not a matter of “forgiving ourselves” but accepting His forgiveness. We can’t pay ransom for our own sins, we can only accept that death of Jesus as payment for them.
We either believe He is good enough and big enough to pay for our horrible sins (and every sin is horrible), or we proudly say, “My sins are too big even for God,” which is a form of idolatry.
Thank you so much for your gracious and beautiful correction.
One of your best Sam. And brother, did I ever need this. The first reading penetrated my heart, The second one penetrated my soul. God bless you.
Lisa L Branton
Did I already say this? I loved this. Thank you for provoking and stirring in that disturbing and inviting way that you seem to have a knack for.
To all my friends, Lisa is a Christian counselor who has helped many, and she has met with many who cannot forgive themselves. So her words mean a lot to me.
Thank you Lisa,