“You have to learn to forgive yourself!”
This is the advice most often given to those who are troubled by guilt, shame or self-hate. Those who give this advice mean well; they want their loved one to be free from these feelings and to live a more free and joyful life. However, as well meaning as it is, it is terrible and potentially deadly advice.
I hope you’ll allow me to explain.
The following are three reasons why you should never forgive yourself or counsel someone else to do the same.
1. It makes you the victim
In any event requiring forgiveness there are two parties: the offended and the offender. The only one of those two parties who has the right to either give or deny forgiveness is the victim. When we tell someone “forgive yourself” we make the offended person a victim all over again by robbing them of their rights and giving those rights to the very person who hurt them. We would not (I hope) encourage a rapist to go about his life free from guilt and shame because he has decided to forgive himself. Instead, we would require him to face his victim and seek the forgiveness he desires from the one who has the power to actually give it. The same should be true of every offense, from the most despicable to the most understandable.
Such counsel doesn’t only harm the offended, it also harms the offender. It keeps them from pursuing and perhaps receiving forgiveness from the person they hurt and, consequently, keeps them from experiencing the humility of pursuing it and the life-transforming joy of receiving forgiveness.
For the good of both the offended and the offender we should not tell people, “Forgive yourself.” We should tell them the truth. The truth is that you are forgiven when the person you sinned against grants you that forgiveness, not when you grant it to yourself.
2. It makes you the judge
Another problem with telling people they just need to forgive themselves is that by doing so we exalt them to the position of judge. A position they do not, in reality, hold. The Bible tells us, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12, ESV). God and God alone stands above both the victimizer and the victim; he holds the final word on what is and is not ultimately forgiven because he is the ultimate victim of each and every sin (Psalm 51:4). As the one Lawgiver and Judge, when God says a sin is forgiven, it is forgiven, whether you forgive yourself or not; when he says a sin remains unforgiven it remains unforgiven, whether you forgive yourself or nor not. Asking a human being to forgive themselves is like asking a dog to dress themselves: it does not possess the capacity to do what you are asking.
Thus, telling someone to “forgive themselves” is not helpful, but harmful. It encourages them to commit idolatry by putting themselves in the place of God, which only adds to the guilt they carry. It also denies them the opportunity of actually receiving the assurance of the forgiveness they so desperately need by pointing them away from the only one who can actually give it.
3. It’s a misdiagnosis
The third and final reason you should never forgive yourself or counsel someone else to do the same is because it’s a treatment based on a misdiagnosis. If someone is plagued by guilt, shame or self-hatred their problem is not that they have refused to forgive themselves. Their problem is that they have refused to receive the free forgiveness God offers them. In Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7, ESV). It does not say we “can have” or that we will “one day have” but, rather, that we presently have the forgiveness we need.
When we counsel someone to forgive themselves we are asking them to cure themselves with a placebo, which is the equivalent of condemning them to perpetual sickness. The true cure to our shame, guilt and self-hatred is not found in forgiving ourselves but in trusting in God’s declaration that we have already been forgiven in Jesus Christ and that he remembers our sin no more (Jeremiah 31:4).
When we say, “learn to forgive yourself” we not only hurt the victim and the victimizer, we also deny God the glory he earned by doing everything necessary to bring forgiveness to unforgivable people guilty of unforgivable offenses. We lead people to believe that their healing is found in their own willingness to forgive instead of in the willingness of God to forgive them at the immeasurable cost of his own Son.
I don’t want you to live in shame, guilt or self-hate. That’s why I beg you to stop trying to forgive yourself. Instead, look to the True Judge and True Victim, and receive the forgiveness he has already purchased for you. Life and freedom are found in choosing to believe him who speaks the truth, instead of believing your inner-voice of condemnation and its lies.
Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.