It is true that many people are very hard on themselves. They may have acted foolishly in some situation and caused harm to themselves or to other people. They may even have come before God and asked His forgiveness for what they said or did but they are still don’t have peace within. They may still have a sense of regret about the damage they caused to themselves or to others.
Friends offer advice using these words, “You must forgive yourself” or similar words. It is a logical thing to do. The person has no peace and they need to move on. So you as a friend tell them to forgive themselves and to get on with life.
Sometimes this may be enough to snap people out of their fixation with their problem. But it may be only temporary and a later lapse on the person’s part takes them back to where they were before and being perhaps now even harder on themselves. It may in fact compound the problem. They knew they had been hard on themselves, saw the need to be more gracious to themselves but the process was not successful. That is now another time when they failed to forgive themselves.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH THE SAYING?
We look at two scenarios.
i). The person is not a believer and has never confessed their sins to God.
The saying in this case only provides band-aid treatment that ultimately has no healing power in it. When we sin against another person we have also sinned against God, as Jesus had the prodigal son say in the parable, Lk 15:18, I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.
The effects of sin are like concentric circles with a ripple effect touching the lives of many people in varying degrees. The man who sexually abuses a little girl brings deep hurt to the girl but also affects her parents and other family members. The effects of his sin might later be seen in the girl’s marriage and family life unless healing takes place beforehand.
It is of limited value to say to someone “You must forgive yourself” if the person has never confessed their sin to God and known His forgiveness and the peace that ensues from that.
ii). The person is a believer who has asked God to forgive his or her sins but is not at peace.
We may think, “Surely they aren’t being hard on themselves when God is so forgiving?” But the reality is that they are. They may have tried confessing the same sins over and over to God and yet continue berating themselves for their foolishness in sinning in the first place.
Why then is “You must forgive yourself!” often inadequate as a means of trying to help people?
a) It is very subjective. It focuses on what the person feels. As we know, feelings can fluctuate all over the place. Willing ourselves to forgive ourselves doesn’t necessarily bring any peace.
b) It raises questions that are not easy to answer. For example
• How will you know when to forgive yourself? Did you sin by not doing it sooner?
• When will you know if you have forgiven yourself properly? Were you really sincere in asking yourself to forgive yourself? Were you really sincere when you forgave yourself?
• Have you forgiven yourself of everything or are you still holding on to some unforgiveness towards yourself in some areas?
• What happens if having forgiven yourself you still don’t feel at peace?
• What happens if you do or say the same things again that bring hurt in another’s life?
c) It obscures the basis on which forgiveness is made possible. We don’t just sin against ourselves when we sin. We sin against God by breaking His laws and by not calling upon His grace and strength to enable us not to sin.
• The basis of all forgiveness is the shed blood of Jesus on the cross which has made forgiveness available for every sin. Forgiveness from God comes in no other way.
• So it is not enough to say “I forgive myself?” because forgiveness is not on the basis of what I say to myself no matter how kind and gracious I might be to myself.
• Rather forgiveness becomes mine on the basis of what Christ has done for me and my willingness to appropriate it in Him.
A better way of helping people “feel” forgiven
If the term “You must forgive yourself?” is linked with subjectivity how can we introduce objectivity into the situation?
By turning back to reality! The following facts are true:-
• Sin matters to God and He had to do something about it because humans couldn’t do it for themselves. Paul wrote about our human inability to save ourselves in Rom 5:6-8, For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
• God sent His Son Jesus into the world to die for the sins of humankind. Jn 3:16-18, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
• Forgiveness for our sin is available to the children of God in Christ. Eph 1:7, In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace
• Those who turn to Him to ask for His forgiveness are forgiven. 1Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
• The truth is that God remembers our sin no more as we confess it before him. He will not bring it back against us ever again, Isa 43:25 “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
These are objective truths that never change. The world may change, our opinions may change, our feelings will certainly change, but God and the truths of His word remain constant, Mal 3:6 “For I the LORD do not change…”
Reality is seeing things as God sees them and as He describes them in His word. Reality is not what we feel about the things God says in His word.
Faith is believing what God has said in His word and acting on those truths regardless of feelings.
Encouraging people to face up to reality and to act on it
We can help people learn to recognise that there are truths in this world that never change. They are objective truths that can and should be acted on. On the basis of those truths we can encourage people to do the following instead of “forgiving themselves”.
1) Ask God’s forgiveness in Christ for anything that they feel guilty about. The blood of Jesus covers every sin and as we ask God for forgiveness we can have the assurance that God hears our requests and forgives us.
2) Having asked God to forgive us of our sins we can then thank Him for forgiving us in Jesus. He said He would. That is the objective truth whether you feel forgiven or not.
3) Keep on affirming that forgiveness which we already HAVE in Jesus. The more we affirm something the more it becomes concrete in our experience. Eph 1:7 says that being “in Christ” as believers we have redemption through His blood and forgiveness of our sins in Him. It is ours in Him and in Him alone.
4) Recognise that the highest JUDGE in the universe has pronounced us “Not guilty!” in Christ. He remembers your sin no more. There is no other court of appeal. The ultimate perfect judge has spoken and you are forgiven of the things you confessed to Him. Feelings must not be allowed to appeal when the verdict from the supreme judge has been given.
5) What right have you to hold things against yourself when He doesn’t? If He erases your sins, remembers them no more, casts them into the depths of the sea, and hides them behind His back, what right have you to dwell on them?
6) Learn to focus on the fact of your forgiveness from God and keep affirming it to yourself in praise and thanksgiving to Him. Don’t let your thoughts focus on subjectivity (how you feel) but turn them to the objective truth of God’s grace towards you in forgiveness. Paul wrote about his thought life in 2 Cor 10:5, as he described how he had victory in his thought life, 2Co 10:5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
You can learn to understand why our thinking is often amiss as you read this article No. 132. It seeks to show the difference between the convicting thoughts implanted in our minds by the Holy Spirit to liberate us and the accusing thoughts Satan tries to implant to bring us down. It means bringing every thought to obey Christ and not let Satan dominate and control our thinking in order to bring us into (or hold us in) bondage.
You can ask Christ to break the pattern of negative thinking in your mind to allow you to focus on reality, on the objective truths in His word that can set you free.
Instead of saying to others, “You must forgive yourself!” you can say “Praise God that He has forgiven you completely in Christ and that He is holding nothing against you.”
In other words keep pointing them to reality, what God says (the objective truths) rather than letting them give way to subjective feelings. The truth is what God says about you, not what you feel about yourself.
SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER
1). How would you describe “forgiveness” and what do you think makes it possible for us to feel forgiven?
2). Is it your experience that you have often tried to “forgive yourself” but found no real release? If so, how could the truths in this article help you?
3). If a friend is telling you that you need to “forgive yourself”, what could you say to them that affirms them as a friend but may help correct their understanding about the true nature of forgiveness?
4). If a friend were to say to you, “People tell me that I need to forgive myself. What do you think?” How would you try to help them by using some of the thoughts in this article?
Blog No.214. Jim Holbeck. Posted Monday 1st May 2017