I’ve heard it. And you’ve heard it. “Yeah I know God forgives me. I just can’t seem to forgive myself.” One time I even heard a pastor counsel a friend of mine to forgive himself as he was burdened with the guilt of some recent sin in his life. Is there any merit to this? No, there’s not. Not only that, I believe that harboring this kind of mindset is very dangerous in that it completely undermines the gospel.
I don’t want to be insensitive to the feelings that make one believe that they need to forgive themselves. I’ve been there a million times. You confessed your sin to God, asked him to forgive you for those sins, and yet you still feel horrible. You can’t shake the guilt you feel over that sin. It grips you and won’t let go. What are we supposed to do with this? Forgiving yourself not only won’t help you alleviate that guilt. It will actually push you further away from comfort, because saying “I know God’s forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself” is a form of pride. Here are five reasons this statement is misguided:*
1. It makes you a bigger judge than God.
You say “I know God forgives me…” If you acknowledge this much, then you’re acknowledging that the highest judge in the universe has looked at you and declared you innocent. Paul writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Rom.8:33) In other words, if the highest judge justifies, who is going to contradict him? You? Fact: the highest court always overrules the lower ones. If what God says about you isn’t the final word, then he’s not the highest court in your heart. You are.
2. It shows that you’re trusting in something other than God for justification.
Sometimes what feels like guilt over sin is in actuality guilt over failing to achieve a goal you’ve set for yourself. Timothy Keller, in his excellent book Counterfeit Gods, writes:
When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God’s. Idols function like gods in our lives, and so if we make career or parental approval our god and we fail it, then the idol curses us in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We can’t shake the sense of failure.
So you’re a seminary student, heavily involved in your church, a model of personal piety, and everyone looks to you for guidance. Then one night you go a little too far with the godly woman you’ve been seeing. You’re devastated. You’ve confessed it to the Lord, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. It could be that the guilt you feel isn’t from sinning against the Lord. It could be that you haven’t lived up to who you have built yourself up to be in your mind: a super-godly person who would never do what you did. In the words of David Powlison: “So often when people feel remorse for what they’ve done wrong, it is a remorse against their idealized self-image, a remorse in their own eyes, and a remorse against what other people think about them…” None of which is remorse against God.
3. It means that your sin is a bigger deal to you than it is to God.
All sin is ultimately against God. (Ps. 51:4) He above all is the one offended by your sin. Your sin cost him his Son, and as a result of his sacrifice on the cross God now forgives you. If you’re still trying to forgive yourself after he gave everything to forgive you, then that just means that your sin didn’t offend God as much as it offends you. Mike Wilkerson notes that “[i]t is the height of self-centeredness to think your sin somehow offends you (or anyone else, even) more than it offends God.”
4. It could be a refusal to honestly confess your sin.
It’s worth considering that you may still feel unforgiven because you haven’t actually turned to God to confess and repent of your sin. Plagued by the guilt of what you did or said, you figure that God is too mad to listen to you. It’s “safer” instead to console yourself by distracting yourself from the guilt. So instead of going into God’s presence you turn on the TV. Instead of reading his Word, you read gossip articles online. God = conviction = discomfort = finding something that won’t make you feel horrible.
“Without confession I will remain unforgiven,” Miroslav Volf writes, “not because God doesn’t forgive, but because a refusal to confess is a rejection of forgiveness. Refusing to confess, I refuse to make forgiveness my own through confession of wrongdoing and joyful gratitude over it not being counted against me.” (my emphasis)
5. It could be a form of works-based salvation.
We as Christians have a strange tendency to want to punish ourselves more than God wants to punish us. We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), but there’s just a really good feeling we get when we condemn ourselves anyway. It feels…noble. Humble. Righteous even. The more we punish ourselves for our sins, the more righteous we must be since righteous people hate sin, right?
But God doesn’t want us to do penance for our sins. It’s one thing to mourn our sinful condition while keeping our eyes on Jesus and the fact that we’re getting credit for his life and not ours. It’s something else entirely to feel like God will accept you more as you punish yourself more for sin.
“Jesus frees me from trying to impress God or others because he has impressed God on my behalf.”
*I’ve adapted this list from Mike Wilkerson’s book Redemption: Freed by Jesus From the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, pages 78-80.