A Pastoral Response
Rick Booye, Sr. Pastor, Trail Christian Fellowship
Greetings Pastor Rick,
A few weeks ago you made a statement that got me thinking. Maybe I misunderstood it. You said that we cannot forgive ourselves; we don’t have the power to do that. I get that I can’t forgive my sins like Jesus does, or that I am not able to forgive others sins, that this is Gods job not mine. But I do think I can forgive people for hurts they have caused me, and I can forgive myself for hurts I have caused myself. This type of forgiveness is not the same as what God does obviously. Am I wrong, did I miss-understand what you said?
That’s a great question,
First, about “forgiving ourselves.” We may be just talking semantics here, or I could have miss-stated what I meant. I completely agree with you that we are able (and required in fact) to forgive others for the hurts they have caused us (I assume this means real sins against us, not just hurt feelings, though that too requires grace from us). This is completely biblical. But the idea that I need to forgive myself for the hurts (sins?) I have caused myself is a bit opaque to me. I guess that if all I’m talking about is the “hurts” I have done to me, then the Me that is offended can say “I forgive me.” Maybe that’s a way of getting through our internal stuff. It might be a helpful process. But if the “hurts” are real sins, real crimes in God’s court, then Someone greater than me needs to do the forgiving or it won’t work. The Bible is utterly silent on people “forgiving themselves,” which strikes me as odd in light of the heavy emphasis many Christians place on the concept. I think we mean by that phrase that we should take seriously the fact that the Lord has forgiven us, appropriate it personally and live in the reality of it. If that is our intent then I have no objection to the phrase at all. But I wonder if that is what we mean.
What I was trying to address in my statement is the fact that many Christians don’t reach a sense of true peace about their forgiven sins, and they suppose that it is because they have not “forgiven themselves.” My suggestion is that that is the wrong way to put it. I would say that they haven’t really trusted the Lord to forgive them in a tangible way. My reason is that the Self is not the agent of forgiveness because the Self doesn’t have the authority to forgive in the first place. Which is in fact precisely why these folks can’t seem to find the peace of God in the situation—they’re seeking the peace from within themselves (a very western and American idea, and utterly absent from the biblical worldview). They seem to attribute more authority (and far more attention) to their own feelings about themselves than they do to what the Lord thinks about them. I suspect this is because in our culture for about the last 100 or so years we have gradually come to believe that what we think about ourselves (or anything else for that matter) is the ultimate arbiter of reality on the subject. But this is not true. What God thinks about us is infinitely more important and making that adjustment in our thinking is crucial to living in the grace of Christ. The Self is not Lord, Christ is Lord. What I’m wanting Christians to realize is that if Christ Jesus forgives them, then they should take is word for it rather than try to do it themselves. When they feel “unforgiven” (as happens often in cases of real sin) what they need to do is continually remind themselves of the gospel, that they are not at the mercy of their conscience but at the mercy of Christ (1 Jn.2:1-2; 3:19-20). And the cross of Christ has really, truly, eternally, completely wiped away their blame for the evil they committed. I think this is part of “taking every thought captive to obedience to Christ” (2 Cor.10:3-5).
It seems to me that Paul alludes to something like this in 1 Cor.4:3-5. There he says, “…But it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself [un-confessed sin], but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
The key phrases in this passage for our thoughts here are, “I am not by that acquitted,” and “In fact, I don’t even judge myself.” Paul was criticized by people for being a bad steward of the ministry. His response to this is at least two-fold. First, he says that he is not aware of any unconfessed sin in his life, but that his clear conscience is not what acquits him of guilt. In other words, it is not his sense of being clean that makes him really clean. This is an astounding statement when you think about it. He consults his conscience obviously, but he does not let it stand as the agent of forgiveness or guilt. The second thing he says is that not only did he not care that much what his critics thought—he didn’t care that much for what he himself thought of his work. Instead he only cared what the Lord thinks and he recommends letting all judgment rest there. It seems to me that, based on this statement regarding his faithfulness in ministry, Paul would have thought it strange that on the much more important issue of forgiveness of sins, he should rely on his own ability to forgive himself in order to come to peace.
I think what happens for many of us is that we unconsciously make a distinction between our theoretical and general “forgiveness of sins” and our daily, oh so specific, sense of shame and guilt. We subscribe theologically to the lofty doctrine of “forgiveness,” but we don’t let it actually penetrate our feelings about the way we have failed today in the myriad small sins we all are aware of. For those daily pangs and heartaches we take the over-the-counter advice of our world and try to “forgive ourselves.” But I’m encouraging Christians to apply the blood of Christ to those small issues as well as to the big ones. Jesus washed the dust off his disciples’ feet even after they had “bathed” in his eternal grace (Jn.13:10).
Hope this clarifies a bit.
Grace and peace,