We’ve talked about how to forgive others even when it is hard. But what if you’re having a hard time forgiving yourself?
“I can’t forgive myself” is a phrase frequently heard in recovery ministry or other situations where someone has to confront the reality of their own sin. It is often preceded by “My spouse has forgiven me, but…” or “I know God has forgiven me, but…I just can’t forgive myself.” It can be a massive weight, suffocating you with guilt and shame. You may spend your days obsessing about how to overcome the past, desperately searching for a way to somehow “forgive yourself.”
The irony of saying that you “can’t forgive yourself” is that it is technically a true statement—you really can’t forgive yourself—and therefore indicates a false understanding of what forgiveness is.
You Really Can’t Forgive Yourself
If you think about it, no one in society has the authority to forgive themselves for something that they have done wrong. Teenagers can’t “un-ground” themselves. Prisoners can’t declare themselves forgiven and walk out of prison. People in a debt crisis can’t forgive themselves the remainder of what they owe. In all instances, we need a higher authority to pardon us or to declare that the debt from the sin is “paid in full.” Come to think of it, if we could forgive ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus.
Some of this confusion is semantics. When Christians say, “I can’t forgive myself,” it usually means they are mistakenly holding on to guilt and shame for sins already paid for by Christ. They see themselves as owing a debt they can’t repay, instead of resting in the knowledge that Jesus has already paid the debt in full by being nailed to the cross. He offers forgiveness as a gift, not as something you have to earn. Those who receive the gift are declared to be forgiven (Colossians 2:13-14), clean (1 John 1:7-9), and righteous (Romans 4:5).
The Root Causes of Guilt and Shame
Although we really can’t forgive ourselves—we can only be forgiven by God and by the people we have hurt—we can do something about the guilt or shame that lies behind the statement.
People who say they “can’t forgive themselves” typically struggle with guilt or shame due to one of a few root causes:
1. Pride. Pride whispers, “I cannot believe I would stoop so low. I am above that sin.” Pride struggles to accept God’s charity; it wants to earn forgiveness. Prideful people don’t want to see themselves as sinners in need of grace; it doesn’t fit with their self-reliant self-image.
If you feel like you have done something so terrible that it can’t be forgiven, that is also, in a way, a form of pride. You have not done something that is greater than what Christ accomplished on the cross. He suffered the death penalty, the harshest punishment possible, to pay for your sins. There is no crime too big to be covered by that payment.
God paid an unfathomable price to forgive your sin and set you free. It is not His desire that you would keep yourself trapped and unable to move on because you can’t forgive yourself.
2. Idolatry. Saying that you are unable to forgive yourself could be exposing an idol in your life. It shows that there is something you value more than God, or a claim you believe more strongly than the forgiveness proclaimed in God’s Word. Timothy Keller makes this point in his book Counterfeit Gods:
“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.”
The question then becomes, what idol does this lack of forgiving yourself expose? Is it that you are more concerned with what people think about you, valuing man’s opinion over God’s opinion? Is it because of the impact on your finances, your career, or your own comfort? Whatever it might be, it has become an idol in your life. And “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) is the very first of God’s Ten Commandments.
3. Low self-worth or misplaced identity. Thoughts such as “I do not deserve forgiveness” or “I am not worthy of forgiveness” should cause us to feel gratitude toward the One who forgives us anyway. If you instead feel shame, it could mean that you are seeking value and identity apart from Jesus, or that your own opinion about yourself holds more importance than God’s opinion about you.
God has shown just how valuable your life is to Him by sending Jesus to die in your place. There is no greater price that the Father could pay than the life of His Son. It is Christ’s ransom—not your own sense of self-worth or merit—that defines your true value and identity.
4. Not yet being saved from sin. Christ’s sacrifice is the only payment that satisfies the total cost of sin. Being unable to “forgive yourself” can sometimes be an indication that you have not truly believed and received that forgiveness. God may be graciously convicting you of your guilt so that you may turn to Christ and be saved from the eternal consequences of sin (2 Corinthians 7:10; Romans 6:23).
The truth is that we are all great sinners by nature, unable to overcome sin. We are capable of great evil. It is because of God’s great love for us that He offers forgiveness as a gift. God reclaims those who accept Christ’s undeserved, unearned gift and calls them forgiven, righteous children. He makes us new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
If you have accepted Christ, but continue to struggle with guilt and shame, pray first. Thank God for His complete forgiveness of all your sin. Thank Him for seeing you as valuable enough to ransom your soul through the Son. Thank Him for naming you as clean, forgiven, righteous, and a son or daughter of God (John 1:12). If you have any hidden sin that has not been dealt with, confess and repent of it. Confess if you have been prideful or allowed something other than Christ’s sacrifice to define your worth. Ask God to renew your heart and mind so that you see yourself through the lens of His Word. Memorize Scripture that speaks into who you are in Christ and how fully you have been forgiven (Psalm 103:12); your feelings will often follow your mind as you remind yourself of these truths.
“Forgiving yourself” will never free you from guilt and shame. You receive freedom from guilt and shame when you accept Christ as Savior, receiving God’s forgiveness and trusting that His claims about you are true.