[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. If you would like to listen to that message, click here and find the sermon entitled "Who Has the Authority to Forgive?"]
Have you ever heard someone say this?..."God has forgiven you. Others have forgiven you. What you need is to forgive yourself!" Go back, read it again...what do you think about that statement? It is a fairly common thought, isn't it? The question I think we should ponder is...is this appropriate? Are we to forgive ourselves? If so, how is this done? If not, what do we need instead?
The need that is expressed in a phrase like 'forgive yourself' is an understandable one. We feel a sense of guilt over an action we have taken or a word spoken. We desire to be released from this guilt. We have sought forgiveness from God and from the person we hurt, but we still have looming feelings of guilt. We don't feel like the process is complete. What are we to do? How can those feelings be released?
This hits home, doesn't it? We have all made mistakes that seem to come back and haunt us from time to time. At times, the bones of the 'skeletons in our closets' rattle furiously in our minds. I remember being a freshman in college and struggling with a past sin. I sat across the table from a dear friend, explaining that I couldn't get rid of my feelings of guilt. I couldn't forgive myself for what I had done over a year earlier.
He looked at me and simply said, "Toby, do you believe the Bible is true?" This seemed to be an odd question given the way I way pouring out my heart to him. I must have paused too long in responding because he asked it again, "Toby...do...you...believe...the Bible...is...true?" I said, "Of course." He then asked if I had confessed my sin, repented, and sought God's forgiveness, to which I replied that I had probably confessed and asked for forgiveness 100 times (that was an exaggerated number). Then he smiled..."Well, do you believe the Bible is true?"
I was halfway through asking what that question had to do with my problem when it hit me. The Scripture teaches me that confession and repentance lead to forgiveness. If God has forgiven me, then I am forgiven. My problem was not my refusal to forgive myself. My problem was that I didn't believe that God's forgiveness of my sin was sufficient to release me from my guilt. My problem was that I wasn't acting as if I believed the Bible was true. My problem, in short, was unbelief.
This experience made me question whether the idea of forgiving myself was valid at all, and searching the Scripture to find this idea came up empty. Some say that commands to forgive one another imply the ability to forgive oneself, but I'm not so sure. Jesus talks about forgiving others seventy times seven (Mt. 18; Lk. 17). The church is commanded to forgive a fallen brother who returns (2 Cor. 2). We are told that, in light of the forgiveness which restored our relationship with God, we are to keep our relationships restored by extending that same forgiveness (Col. 3; Eph. 4). These are all clearly about relationships between two separate people in a community...not about general forgiveness to be applied to relationships as well as to oneself.
The issue with respect to ourselves seems to be whether we believe that God's authoritative declaration of our position as a forgiven man or woman is true...if that's really enough. Do we reckon or consider ourselves forgiven when God says we are? If I don't believe God's forgiveness is enough, then I will wrestle with the guilt and the shame of the sins I commit. I will feel that something more is needed. If, however, I truly believe that God's work in forgiving my sin is enough...that though my sins were like scarlet, yet they are white as snow...then this will change how I relate to that guilt or shame. The fight against feelings may continue, but I have real weaponry now...I can claim the truth of Scripture and the authority of God to forgive my sin.
Now, step back and think of that statement again: "God has forgiven you. Others have forgiven you. What you need is to forgive yourself!" Think of what is actually being said in this statement. God has crushed his Son, bearing the sin...the guilt...the shame...the wrath...on your behalf, so that you would be released from the penalty of that sin. By the work of His Holy Spirit, He has laid your sin upon Christ and Christ's righteousness upon you (2 Cor. 5:21). You have humbly come to Him seeking mercy and grace, and you have received it. You have gone to the one you offended, and because of the impact of God's transforming forgiveness in their lives, they have graciously forgiven you. Your relationship with God has been restored. Your relationship with the person you hurt has been restored.
There is something else you need, but I don't think it is self-forgiveness. What else do you need? Believe the forgiveness...enjoy the forgiveness...count yourself forgiven. And...when the enemy of your soul, the accuser of the brethren, seeks to remind you of all you have done, don't go looking for something else that has to be done...rest in your position before God and your position before others...FORGIVEN!