On Forgiveness and Forgiving Oneself

The Question

Not infrequently a counselee or a student will inquire about what to do when I cannot forgive myself. Here is my summary answer to the question. 

Survey the Old Testament

If you have read the Old Testament through at some point, you have certainly observed that Israel, at one time or another, committed every sin known to man. Nowhere do you ever read that they were instructed to forgive themselves. Here is what we do know they were instructed to do.

1) Remember that God chose you—this is the reason that throughout the Bible Abraham is so important to the Jewish nation. Remember the Pharisees’ claim, “We are of our father Abraham”. God chose Israel in the calling of Abraham. They became his covenant people.

2) Remember that God loves you is a consistent message of the Old Testament from the choosing of Abraham (demonstrated love) through Malachi:  Deuteronomy 7:7, 4:37, 10:5, 33:3, 12; II Sam 12:25; I Kings 19:9; Hosea 11:1 Mal 1:2-3.

3) Remember to repent—is the consistent instruction. Turn from your sin and turn in obedience to God. They are called to corporate worship as God prescribed for Israel, and to family/personal worship (too many passages to cite here).

4) Remember that God’s response to their repentance is forgiveness. Here are three references to illustrate this from Isaiah1:18-20; 43:25; 44:21-22/ These give us wonderful pictures to depict His forgiveness.

  • Comment 1: Yes, God is omniscient (knows everything), but he covers our sin (including Israel’s) with his blood, and He chooses to NOT remember it any longer. There are times when there are consequences with which we must live. A contemporary example is a person who contracts AIDS from illicit sex God will forgive, but he/she will live with AIDS. That is the consequence, not God remembering or punishing their sin.
  • Comment 2: We learn from Hebrews 12:4-12 that God is our loving Father who disciplines us for our good and His glory. Discipline is not punishment. Discipline is a “spanking” to get our attention with the intent that we will choose to repent and become obedient. A “spanking” says to the child, I love you enough to take this difficult and painful action so that you will understand that I love you and you will choose to accept my guidance which is for the welfare of both of us.

Survey of the New Testament (New Covenant)

5) Remember, God loves us (John 3:16) is the broad stroke of that declaration.

6) Remember God chose us Ephesians 1:1-9, 2:10 even as He did Israel.

7) Remember we are called to repent by which we embrace His call to salvation (Acts 2:38) in all its magnificent dimensions.

6) Remember that it is unquestionable that we sin after our salvation experience (I John 1:6,8) as well as needing repentance and a “fresh washing” regularly.

7) God’s promises that our confession, which incorporates repentance, is responded to by God by granting forgiveness (I John 1:9).

  • Comment 1: There are many affirmations of this wonderful truth throughout the NT. My intent in this brief blog is to pointedly summarize this reality.
  • Comment 2: There is, absolutely, not even a hint of command that we must forgive ourselves. There is a clear directive to “walk in the light” (I John 1:8). In fact, the capacity of forgiveness resides in the offend not the offender. It is the offended one that grants forgiveness. 

Spotting Our Confusion

We often confuse guilt with shame or shameful sorrow. We fret (Ps 37:8) because we are ashamed of what we did or what we neglected to do that we should have done. This we are responsible do cure. And this we can do. Removing guilt by forgiveness is done by the offended party who pays the price of hurt and offense and out of love grants us absolution We, the offended, find absolution by fully accepting His forgiveness.

Where we need to, we seek forgiveness from offended fellow human beings. That is, we own our sin, express our sorrow for our sin, and ask forgiveness from the offended. There are those sins of the past for which this is not possible. In those cases, we accept His forgiveness and when appropriate openly own our sin and testify to God’s forgiveness as a means of ministering to other strugglers. We don’t broadcast it or make it a mark of distinction, but we do not hide it and live in shame. The shame of our sin goes when we fully accept His forgiveness.

Sin, Shame, and Living Free

To continue to live in shame is a sin since Jesus has paid for it and washed us with His blood. That means that when the sin comes to mind and we wish it was not part of our record, we remind ourselves that God loves me, God has forgiven me, and He has set me free.

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