forgive me

My classes have been interacting with Chris Brauns’ careful and thorough guide, Unpacking Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a rabbit hole topic, for sometimes the more you think about it the more confusing it gets. Must the person repent before you can forgive them? What if their repentance is not sincere? If you suspect they aren’t sincere, then aren’t you being victimized again when you reconcile with them? As Neal Plantinga wrote in his review of L. Gregory Jones’ book, Embodying Forgiveness, the topic of forgiveness kicks up more rabbits than we can catch.

One of the questions that came up in class was whether it is right and good to forgive yourself. I’ll share what I told the class, and since I’m quite sure I don’t have the final word on this topic, I would welcome any insights from you (and Chris, if he wants to weigh in).

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 (notice how I picked a sin that, as a Baptist, I have almost no chance of committing). 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?

These are my thoughts. If you think they are off base, please forgive me (because I won’t be).

9 Comments

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  1. Mike, I put a post up on my blog (see http://www.chrisbrauns.com/2011/10/27/how-can-i-forgive-myself-2/ ) that includes my response to this question.

    Of course, we all understand regrets and we are all tempted to beat ourselves up over past sins. But it does seem indicative of a man-centered culture that one of the foremost forgiveness questions has become, “How can I forgive myself?” Such a question presumes that forgiveness is fundamentally something private and therapeutic, whether it is how I feel about someone else or how I feel about myself.

  2. Your answer is also a fitting response to those who “apologize” with something like “I know I disappointed a lot of people, and most of all, I disappointed myself.”

  3. This argument ignores human self-transcendence. As humans, we are capable of viewing ourselves from a perspective “outside” (so to speak) of ourselves. Many people, in theory, accept God’s forgiveness, but nonetheless demean themselves (in their own mind) for these same past failings. Speaking of “forgiving themselves” is their way of talking about this experience.

    Your argument is mistaken.

  4. Jonathan Shelley October 27, 2011 — 7:55 pm

    Mike,

    I disagree with your argument, since it seems to be built on the premise that there is only one victim. If the drunk driver assumed he was equally victimized as the person he killed, than your argument would have some validity. But I think the nature of sin is such that the sinner is also victimized to some extent by his actions.

    My second issue with your argument is the closing paragraph, whose forgiveness does the sinner need – his own or God’s. My issue with that is that God’s forgiveness is primary for any sin. God is ultimately the victim of all of our sins. Therefore, whether one has his own forgiveness, the forgiveness of the sinnee, and any others impacted by his sin, it means nothing without the ultimate forgiveness that comes through the blood of Christ, so your question applies equally to whose forgiveness does the person need, the victim or God?

    My final thought is that holding on to guilt after God has forgiven you and you have accepted the consequences of your actions is a sin whereby we refuse to accept what God has done for us. We still face the consequences of our actions, but the guilt has been taken on by Christ and washed away on the Cross.

    Disclaimer – I did not take Sys 3 with Dr. Wittmer, so he should not be held responsible for any of my thoughts on sin and forgiveness.

  5. Craig:

    Who is the innocent victim and who is the offender in your view? I can’t tell which is the transcendent self and which is the self qua self. My initial thought is that I’m not comfortable splitting up the self as you are. I would rather treat the person as a unity. I wonder if someone might use your argument as a way to therapeutically treat their guilt. If they simply get in touch with their transcendent self, which is innocent, then they can feel better about themselves. I am not saying that is what you mean, but I can see it being used that way.

    Jonathan:

    My recommendation for you is getting crankier….

  6. Interesting, Mike. Appreciate the thoughtfulness from your post. I have always thought that God’s forgiveness is both necessary and sufficient to calm the storms of my heart. Thus any supposed forgiveness I may offer myself pales in comparison to all that God offers me in forgiveness. Put differently, why would I need the crumbs from a poor man’s plate when I could feast from the King’s banquet?

    FWIW: I really appreciated Chris’s book and have offered some reflections here, and a synthesis between Brauns’s work and N. T. Wright’s here, as well as two posts on Volf’s work Free of Charge here and here.

  7. Jonathan Shelley October 28, 2011 — 8:00 am

    Mike,

    I’m sorry if I misunderstood you. Could you forgive me so I can forgive myself?

  8. Mike – I really appreciate and agree with your perspective on this. I was apprehensive at first, but I agree the perspective on focusing on receiving God’s forgiveness is correct. I think it is dangerous to be relying on forgiveness that comes from myself to myself.

    I have put off reading this article until I had sufficient time to read it thoroughly and reflect on it. I am glad I approached it in that way.

  9. Hi, found your article hear thanks to Justin Taylor. Good thoughts. I was reminded of a story I heard recently (do not recall the source) in which a pastor approached a girl who had just confessed a sin to God. After the pastor asked her how she was doing, she responded that she still couldn’t forgive herself and get over the guilt of what she did. He responded; “so your saying that you are better to judge your sin than the supreme ruler of the universe and that his forgiveness of you isn’t enough?” At that point she realized the magnitude of God’s forgiveness and thus felt the guilt released.

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