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Mike Wittmer on whether you should “forgive yourself”:

Initially I can appreciate why forgiving yourself might seem like a good idea. For instance, if I was driving drunk and accidentally killed another person, I think I would find the guilt unbearable. . . . I can see why it might seem necessary for me to forgive myself before I could move on with my life.

But this is why I can’t go there. Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I, like the person I killed, am a victim of my sin.

So rather than say that I must forgive myself, I think I should say that I must receive God’s forgiveness. His forgiveness matters more than mine anyway, and receiving his forgiveness reminds me that my proper and only place in this matter is the offender.

If you think my position is too harsh, imagine that someone has deeply wounded you. When they come to ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, what would you think if they said, “I need you to forgive me, and then I need to forgive myself.” Wouldn’t you be insulted? Wouldn’t you reply that after what they did, they don’t get to play the victim? That they are in no way the innocent party here?

And if you are struggling under the burden of unbearable guilt, ask yourself what you really need—your forgiveness or God’s? Isn’t it enough for you to know that God, and the person you offended, have forgiven you?

A very helpful resource on the pastoral dimension of this issue is Robert D. Jones’s Forgiveness: “I Just Can’t Forgive Myself!” Before responding to someone who says he can’t forgive himself, it’d be wise first to discern what the person means by this phrase. Jones suggest five possible underlying assumptions, which are not mutually exclusive:

1. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness.

2. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may not see or be willing to acknowledge the depth of his depravity. The expression “I can’t forgive myself” often means “I still can’t believe I did that!” . . . Inability to forgive oneself often expresses an underlying problem of self-righteousness and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.

3. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be venting his regrets for failing to achieve a certain cherished desire. In essence, such a person says this: “I had an opportunity to get something I really wanted, but I threw it all away! I can’t forgive myself.”

4. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be trying to establish his own standards of righteousness. In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I haven’t lived up to my own perfect standards” or “I haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations.” His longing for self-forgiveness arises from his failure to measure up to his own standards of performance, his own image of how good he is or ought to be.

5. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may have ascended to the throne of judgment and declared himself to be his own judge. In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I’m in the role of Judge and will dispense forgiveness as I decide.” Such a person has convened the court, rendered a guilty verdict upon himself and now believes that he must grant the needed pardon! But the Bible declares that God alone is both judge and forgiver as well as penalty-bearer for those in Christ!

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10 thoughts on “I Can’t Forgive Myself”

  1. Pat Stream says:

    Wonderful wisdom! Thank you for posting this. My wife and I work with women and men who are dealing with the regret of deciding to go through with an abortion. This “forgive myself” concept runs deep in a lot of the healing resources.

  2. Susan says:

    Good points. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that concept. I’m also bothered by the phrase, “Will you forgive me?” Where is that concept in scripture? We are to confess our sins, and we are to forgive, but asking for forgiveness is like doing a quick change-up —immediately throwing the ball into the offended person’s court with the expectation that they will release you on the spot (sort of an I’ve-done-my-part-now-it’s-your-turn throwback). Instead, we should confess to the specific way that we have wronged someone (which is more than saying “sorry I hurt you” or “sorry IF_____”), then tell them that we are sorry. I went to a pastor seeking reconciliation after he blasted me in anger when I’d done nothing to provoke it. His immediate response was to say, “Will you forgive me?” He stood expectantly waiting for me to say ‘yes’ so that it would be over with, but he never confessed to anything, nor did he show any sign of remorse. The begging of forgiveness from the other person is not found in scripture. We are to cop to our own wrongdoing, stop. We are not instructed to leave the offended person with a burden or expectation that they must fulfill. That is between them and the Lord. Hopefully they will forgive as they have time to process the confession. Most likely they will if the confession is sincere the person has specifically owned their wrongdoing.

    1. Susan, those are really good points. I’ve never given it as much thought, but I totally agree. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Melody says:

    I *have* had a person demand my forgiveness with the assertion that I had to because they’d forgiven themselves.

    1. That’s terrible! How did you respond?

      This is a great post. We have so much self love and self forgiveness in our culture and I think it’s a little out of hand.

  4. All good points…and certainly sometimes true…however…

    …I believe there may be a more common reason regarding why people say, “I just can’t forgive myself,” or, “I’ll never forgive myself…” And that reason is simply narcissism. In my role as a Victim Advocate with my local PD, I’ve seen this occur numerous times. They want the attention focused on themselves and make comments such as these to enlist sympathy from others — a form of manipulation.

    Just my two-cents,


  5. Ken says:

    This is the best post that I have read today, even the comments
    are great. Thank you all.

  6. Barbara says:

    Two points –
    1. The biblical prespective on conflict is to always seek reconciliation. Confession and forgiveness are necessary to really restore a relationship. But that is a two way street, asking for forgiveness acknowledges I am in debt to that person and they have the power to cancel it or hold on to it.I am not responsible for what they choose but real repentance will mean I am greived if we cannot reconcile. Peacemaker Ministries has excellent resources.

    2.Where does ones own feelings of guilt come in here. As a parent, I “feel” strong guilt and regret over ways I failed at as a parent. My adult child’s choice to pursue a homosexual lifestyle fills me with great sadness and guilt that I failed to do all I should have. I know the theology and the truth that his discisions are his own, Christ’s blood is more than sufficient to cover my sins as a parent and God is the one at work but I still FEEL really guilty and remorseful. What is the connection between head & heart here?

  7. Jo says:

    I wonder if a key word might be ‘playing’, ‘playing’ the victim. There’s no ‘playing’ or ‘making believe’ when we begin to learn what it is to ‘grace’ ourselves in the same way Jesus ‘graces’ us. We can have the knowledge of this concept well in hand, however, it is our relationship with Jesus that does the birthing of this into each of our ‘realities’.

    Just a thought!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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