“I knew better. How could I have acted so foolishly? I can’t believe that I would stoop so low. I’m better than that. I don’t deserve to go on. I’m not worth forgiving. I’m worthless.”
Have you ever said one of these things to yourself? I have. Maybe you say some of these things to yourself every day, suffocating from guilt and shame because of a sin or mistake. Or maybe you spend your days obsessing about how to overcome the past, desperately searching for a way to somehow “forgive yourself.”
“Forgiving yourself” is common terminology used to describe self-release of personal guilt and shame. You don’t have to go far to hear someone say, “I know that God forgives me, and the person I’ve hurt forgave me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” Many books have been written on the subject. Even medical websites carry articles about the importance of self-forgiveness. The problem is that self-forgiveness is not a concept rooted in biblical truth.
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.
But some of this confusion is semantics. When a Christian says, “I cannot forgive myself,” it usually means he is mistakenly holding on to guilt and shame for sins already paid for by Christ. He is struggling to truly accept Christ’s ransom for his soul as the lens through which he views himself.
God didn’t excuse or dismiss your sin. Jesus paid the debt of sin for you—a death penalty. Christ paid the debt of your sin in full with His own blood, being nailed to a cross, so that He could offer you forgiveness as a gift. If you are willing to receive this gift, God declares you a son or daughter, forgiven, clean, righteous.
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Why It Is Hard to “Forgive Yourself”
A continual struggle with guilt and shame is often rooted in one of these reasons:
- 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 back God’s grace (an undeserved gift). A prideful person wants to think well of (or lift up) his or her sinful human nature.
- Idolatry. God’s word is not authoritative in your life. You may trust another claim more than God’s declaration of forgiveness (for example: Satan’s lies, the accusations of someone you offended, a parent's voice from the past, or even your own thoughts and feelings).
- Low self-worth or misplaced identity. When thoughts such as “I do not deserve forgiveness” or “I am not worthy of forgiveness” lead you to feel guilt or shame instead of gratitude to Christ, you are seeking value and identity apart from Jesus. God claimed your life as valuable to Him through Jesus’s blood. There is no greater cost that the Father could pay than the life of the Son to purchase your soul. Christ’s ransom (not your own self-worth or merit) defines your true value and identity. You are priceless.
- You may not yet be saved from sin. If you have not yet received and trusted Christ’s sacrifice as the only payment that satisfies the total cost of your sin, God may be convicting you of your guilt so that you will turn to Christ and be saved from hell. God loves you and desires that no one perish. Romans 10:9 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
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.
If you have accepted Christ, but continue to struggle with guilt and shame, pray first. Thank God for His complete forgiveness of all of 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. Confess any pride. Confess if you have allowed something other 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. Then, memorize Scripture that proclaims who you are in Christ; your feelings will often follow your mind as you remind yourself of these truths. 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Psalm 103:12 are two great verses to write on your heart.
“Forgiving yourself” will never free you from guilt and shame. You receive freedom from guilt and shame when you accept Christ as Savior, trust that God’s claims upon your soul and identity are true, and allow His claims to define your life.