A car careens into a tree because the alcohol-impaired driver fails to negotiate the curve. His wife is killed when her side of the vehicle makes impact. Their infant daughter, strapped in the backseat, survives but suffers injuries she will carry for the rest of her life.
That incident haunts the man, a follower of Christ who took a wrong turn. He has confessed his sin to God and believes he has found forgiveness. He has even received forgiveness from his in-laws, but he cannot forgive himself, knowing that his actions have brought such pain to others.
He has sought professional counseling. As much as it hurts to relive the moment, he finds it helps to express his grief. But no sooner does he leave the office than he finds his heart filling with guilt once again, like a leaky basement in a downpour. In trying to deal with it, he hears repeatedly how much more difficult it is for people to forgive themselves than it is to forgive others. He can attest to that.
But what are we to make of the concept of forgiving ourselves? There is something appealing, even necessary, about it as we reach for the peace that eludes us. When we commit an offense against another person, when our fault plays prominently in some sort of tragedy, we blame ourselves. The weight of guilt can be oppressive, even unbearable. Self-forgiveness seems the logical route to finding freedom from the oppression of self-blame.
But is that God’s way?
The Scope of Forgiveness
Certainly, God is in the business of forgiveness. As an expression of His love, He provides relief from the scourge of sin and guilt. That provision is anticipated in the sacrificial system of the old covenant and realized in the sacrifice of the cross. Our sinned-against God mercifully and graciously gave His only Son to be the sin-bearer, the unique means for forgiveness of sin and freedom from guilt.
The message of forgiveness echoes throughout the Scriptures, both in terms of personal relationship with God and also in terms of Christian community. Jesus brings the issue to bear in the model prayer He taught His disciples: “(F)orgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) illustrates the lavish grace of God in forgiving offenses against Him and compels our forgiveness of others who sin against us in like fashion.
The Bible never speaks of forgiving ourselves. Not a word. Not a whisper. Not a hint.
Paul admonishes those in Christ to forgive others. Standing at the heart of the charter of Christian unity, he says: “forgiving each other … just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness seems to be part of the DNA of Christian love, where we are to be ready to drop a grievance against another in the exercise of the grace we have received.
The story of the Bible is a tale of forgiveness promised in the Garden of Eden, procured at the cross of Calvary, and proclaimed in the Gospel. It speaks both of knowing the joy of our sins forgiven through trust in Christ and also of our forgiving others who wrong us. But the Bible never speaks of forgiving ourselves. Not a word. Not a whisper. Not a hint. A document replete with teaching on forgiveness is silent on the subject of forgiving ourselves.
What do we make of that? Is a sense of guilt and shame something new to the human experience, unknown to the saints of old? Has modern psychology unearthed something unaccounted for by God? It certainly seems appropriate to forgive ourselves as a means of stepping outside the shadow of guilt that obscures the light and warmth of God’s love. What does God say?
Delivered from Sin’s Scourge
You peer from behind the closed curtain to see the sheriff’s cruiser pull into your driveway. Emerging from the car, the officer ambles up your front walk, clutching a paper in his hand. You open the door to his knock, knowing this day would come. The lost job, the avalanche of bills, the mounting debt, and the legal proceedings all presaged it. You are losing your home. Your life is about to be turned upside down.
Now imagine a friend stepping up to write a check that covers not only that debt, but any debt you will ever owe. That scenario gives a faint idea of the wonder of forgiveness as it is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is the good news not that the debt of sin owed has been canceled or even pardoned, but that it has been paid — in full. When it comes to the debt of sin before a holy God who must punish iniquity, we cannot pay it down through some sort of payment plan. We cannot negotiate a lesser obligation. We cannot escape through bankruptcy. Our debt must be paid because God’s divine justice must be satisfied.
That’s what the cross of Christ is all about. Jesus was born under law, to redeem those under law. He came to pay the debt of our sin. He gave His life as a ransom for many. On the cross, He uttered words of legal transaction: “It is finished.” The sense is that the debt is paid. The books are cleared for those He came to redeem, not by any trick of accounting but by payment in full for all sins past, present, and future — a payment only He as God incarnate could make.
Jesus dealt not only with sin’s guilt but also with sin’s power and wide-ranging devastation. The early chapters of Genesis show sin alienating God from those made in His image, those who were created to glorify and enjoy Him. Sin also intrudes in man’s relationship with his fellow man, reaching even to the nuclear family as one brother murders another.
But there is another way sin manifests itself, not in terms of broken relationship but via a besieged heart. When Adam and Eve sinned against God, they experienced not only alienation from God but also a profound sense of shame. When Cain murdered Abel, his heart was enflamed with anger. The effects of sin reach not only between but also within, disturbing the peace and wreaking havoc.
Jesus dealt with this second aspect of sin as well. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus brought freedom from sin’s guilt and power. His work was redeeming, restorative, renewing — both between and within.
Christ’s reconciling work, God with man and man with man, is expressed through forgiveness.
His redeeming work, in delivering from the power of sin, is experienced not only in having peace with God but also in knowing the peace of God. In other words, the route to peace from the scourge of sin’s guilt and shame is not in forgiving ourselves, but in apprehending what Christ has done.
The Oppressor of our Soul
Imagine a tormentor — one who rubs your nose in something foolish you did. Or like a bully, he takes what is yours and dangles it just out of reach. He makes it his job to make your life miserable.
Christians have a tormentor like that. He is described as the enemy of our souls (Ephesians 6:10-12). He loves to remind us of our uncleanness and unworthiness. He works to keep us from the peace that is ours in Christ. In that way, he is a thief. He is a liar and the father of lies. And he is the saboteur of the fruit of peace and joy that come with forgiveness.
His redeeming work, in delivering from the power of sin, is experienced not only in having peace with God but also in knowing the peace of God.
Where Jesus says “forgiven; the debt is paid in full,” our spiritual adversary begs to differ. His name, Satan, means “accuser,” and he is adept at what he does. An honest look in the lighted mirror of God’s law reveals the dirt of sin that clings to us. God directs our attention to that sin (1 John 1:8, 10) to drive us to Christ (1 John 2:2). Satan draws our attention to our transgressions to drive us to despair.
That despair is often seen in a pronounced sense of shame. Our conscience accuses us, raining down the fires of guilt and blame. A sense of worthlessness pervades our spirit. Remedy is sought in an effort to forgive ourselves, but we find we’re impotent to do so.
What is it that prompts the desperate desire to forgive oneself? It is a profound sense of shame; a heart that is burdened by grief. The weight of both drags the heart down into despondency. Hopelessness prevails. Life ebbs.
Our spiritual adversary takes great delight in drawing our attention to that guilt, and as he does, it grows, becoming even more imposing and impossible to overcome. Think of your own experience. The more you tried to forgive yourself, the more glaring was your inability to do so and the more mocking your guilt.
What is latent in our hearts that Satan so easily enflames? The culprit is pride — self-exalting, self-depending pride. Ironically, pride fuels a sense of worthlessness and accents powerlessness, because its focus is on self. At the same time, pride looks to self to try to fix things. Pride looks to self to be our own savior. In our brokenness, we become the ultimate do-it-yourself project. We abandon God’s all-sufficient provision in Christ. Our enemy smiles. Peace eludes our grasp.
Our adversary, the devil, is opportunistic in capitalizing on guilt that haunts us. As was his strategy in the Garden of Eden, he whispers, “Did God really say?” and then suggests a more enticing way. His intention is to draw us away from Christ. He protests Christ’s sufficiency, playing up to the pride that infects our hearts, urging us to atone for our own guilt, to do penance, to find our own peace. The answer, however, is not in finding a way to forgive ourselves, but in finding the way, the truth, and the life. In Him are bound up all those things for which our heart longs — peace, joy, forgiveness, freedom, refreshment, and strength. He suffered the penalty of our guilt. He bore the reproach of our shame.
When blame squeezes our hearts so that we can scarcely breathe, we don’t want to turn to ourselves to find forgiveness. We want to hear the voice of Him who beckons us: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Freedom from Self-Blame
So what can we do when the wrongs we have done torment us and rob us of peace and joy? We can boil it down to four resolutions.
Confess our sin of exalting self and diminishing Christ. Pride is a sure sign that we have fallen prey to the enemy’s temptation to be as God — suggesting He does not have our interest at heart and that His ways are inadequate for our need. Christ must increase. We must decrease. The drunk driver who was besieged by blame must take refuge in God’s sole provision for sin’s guilt and power, Christ Jesus the Lord.
Stand firm in the Lord against our adversary. Satan is a scammer. He masquerades as an angel of light. His counsel sounds good, but it is impotent at best, malignant at worst. We are to find our sufficiency in Christ — His grace, power, and wisdom. The guilty driver must stand firm in Christ’s grace, truth, and power to overcome. He must humble himself before God that He may lift him up.
Rest in the peace of Christ. Jesus extends these words to those who know Him: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful” (John 14:27). The husband and father must pursue the path of peace laid out in passages such as Philippians 4:4-9, a path that offers peace that surpasses all understanding and that leads to the God of peace Himself. He must bring his mind to dwell on truth that builds up.
Press on in faith. Grief and shame can sideline us, leaving us barely able to function. But God bids that we run the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1-3), with eyes of faith that perceive unseen realities (Hebrews 11:1). We are to fix our gaze on Christ, our help and hope, our strength and shield. The alcohol-impaired driver cannot languish in the slough of despondency but must return to the race, tossing aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, looking not to self but to Christ.
Only in Christ, through whom we can do all things, do we find the power to press on, the grace to overcome, and the resolve to take hold of the peace and joy that are ours in Him. Whatever bondage or oppression we may experience in this fallen world, our Lord urges us to “take courage.” Why? Because He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Let this be our prayer for ourselves and for our fellow believers haunted by folly: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Stanley D. Gale is a PCA pastor and the author of “Why Must We Forgive?” (Reformation Heritage Books’ Cultivating Biblical Godliness Series, 2015).