What “I Can’t Forgive Myself” Might Mean

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The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. 

It is better to forget about yourself altogether. 

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I just can’t forgive myself, my friend confided.

She had repented of her sin. She had confessed it to God and to the person she hurt. Both forgave her. My friend did the job right. But months later, she just can’t forgive herself. 

Maybe that’s as it should be. Because maybe the problem isn’t a forgiveness problem.

Maybe it’s a pride problem.

I hear your heart pounding and your pulse racing, and I see those pink splotches on your tender neck. So please let me reassure you of this rock bottom truth: there is not God like our God. There is no other pardoning God who has grace so rich and free. Not a one.

Our God is not stingy with forgiveness. He delights to show mercy (Micah 7:18). I said, delights. God loves to show mercy, to forgive the worst—the ugly, cringeworthy and inexcusable things.

Inexcusable, and Totally Forgivable

When I commit a really embarrassing sin, I want to be excused. I don’t always want to humble myself and admit my need for forgiveness. (Excusing versus forgiving? Check out this post.)

We make excuses for our sins, when what we ought to do is to really and truly believe in the forgiveness of sins. Maybe we make excuses because we think that God will not take us back to Himself, “unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that would not be forgiveness at all.”

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness; and that we can always have from God if we ask for it. 

C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness”

This is the grace in which we now stand. It is the grace to confess the horror and dirt of our sin—even if 98% of it is excusable and explainable.

It’s the humble grace we need to confess that 2% and be totally forgiven and completely cleansed (1 John 1:9). 

What If I Can’t Forgive Myself Because I’m Pre-Occupied With My Sin?

It is a humility. But the connection between feeling unforgiven and being proud is not obvious. Still, it’s just beneath the surface. Because, rightly understood, pride is not just thinking too highly of ourselves, it’s also thinking too lowly or too often of ourselves. 

Humility, Lewis explained, is essentially a form of self-forgetfulness which is opposed the self-preoccupation of pride. If we accept these definitions, it means our fixation on sin we’ve already confessed may in fact be pride’s counterfeit version of humility. 

It means that the focus on feeling forgiven is not an itch we must scratch. 

The humble, forgiven saint doesn’t get hung up scratching that itch. She can let it sit. When our boys were younger and would scratch bug bites until they bled, I would dab on Benadryl and distract them with toy to keep their little hands busy. They stopped scratching because the focus was off the bite. 

We do what Saint Peter called us to do, and if anyone had some embarrassing sins that could have been hard to live down, Peter did. He knew about not scratching the “not feeling forgiven” itch. But I don’t think he scratched. Because he wrote this (1 Peter 5:5b-6),

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you

Humble yourself. Hang out under his mighty hand. Believe he has forgiven even if you don’t feel it.

Camp Under God’s Mighty Hand

But mark my word, pride wants us to camp in the Self-Pity Land, beside Camp Woe-Is-Me. Humility camps elsewhere, writes Jason Meyer. Humility pitches its tent under the mighty hand of God. Pride insists on carrying its sin and failure, but humility is fast to cast its cares on God.

Since God in mercy is faithful and just to forgive our sins, we’d best accept it. We’d best cast our post-confession cares back to Mighty God and camp out there. 

I don’t want to sound cavalier here. It’s no cake walk, to accept forgiveness and move right along. If I confess the selfish, stupid things I’ve said or done, and don’t feel instantly refreshed (Acts 3:19), I sometimes wallow in my guilt for a while, simply astounded that I could think, say, or do such an ugly things. Sickened that that conduct so un-becoming a Christian came from moi. I was, as Lewis aptly put it, sorry to find that I was the sort of [wo]man who did those things. 

So why such a big push for self-forgiveness these days? Why did I hear not one but three Christian friends confide to me last week that they were struggling to forgive themselves?

One Reason We Are Confused

While Scripture assumes that we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34Eph. 5:29), it nowhere calls us to forgive ourselves. Throughout its pages, forgiveness is transacted vertically between the sinner and his God, and horizontally between the sinner and the one he has sinned against. Nowhere is it transacted inside the self-same sinner.  

So why do we feel a need to forgive ourselves? Why don’t we feel forgiven? 

Maybe we don’t feel forgiven because, like little kids, we confuse being forgiven with having no consequences.

But forgiveness does not mean absence of consequences. I can forgive the son whose angry fit broke a window and still make him pay for the repair. You forgive a friend who broke confidence and not trust her with our secrets. I can receive God’s forgiveness for a gluttonous binge and still feel sick to our stomachs. Forgiveness often co-exists with consequences. 

Our feelings confuse us. We think that if we’re still feeling bad we need more forgiveness. Could it be we need more grace, more faith, to keep the humble tent pitched where it belongs?

Maybe instead of trying harder to forgive ourselves, we should pray, 

Lord, we believe we are forgiven. Still, help our unbelief. Help us look on you more and think about our success and our sin less. May these sins of earth grow strangely dim in the light of your mercy and grace. Please help us accept your forgiveness and your loving discipline. 

Forgiven Like David

Make us more like King David, the man after your own heart

David is a marvelous model of how to humbly accept forgiveness and consequences. After Nathan’s confrontational, convicting you-are-the man sheep speech, David and Bathsheba’s borne-of-wedlock baby dies. David’s servants are confused when, rather than weep and wallow, he rises from his mourning and, worships. He explained, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said,‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 2 Samuel 12:22

At the end of his life, against all wisdom, David orders a census. His conscience is quickly pricked and he repents. God makes him choose his consequence. David’s answer:  Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14). This, for the record, is meek.

When David sinned, he repented. When he repented, he was forgiven. Yet he was disciplined. David might have felt unforgiven, but lying in the bed he made for himself, but he wasn’t trying to forgive himself. He did not grovel under it or spurn it. He didn’t despair nor express entitlement. 

David? He did the right thing. David humbly hoped in God’s goodness. He camped right under God’s mighty hand, and accepted God’s mercy and his consequences.

Me? Discipline after being forgiven, but not feeling it, can leave me groveling; prone to the “all or nothing” syndrome. Either, I’m so horrible. How could God possibly forgive me for the mess I’ve made? Or, equally faithless, I don’t deserve such grace. Exactly. Christ died for this.

You? Do you humble yourself like David and move on, camping under God’s merciful, mighty hand? 

Trusting God’s Forgiveness Honors Him

David trusted God’s verdict. There’s a humility in childlike trust. This is a humility God honors and loves. He delights when we hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147:11).

So when The Holy Spirit says, if you confess your sins he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse, we must believe it. I think we’d be wise to vacate the Judge’s seat to declare ourselves forgiven by ourselves and instead humble ourselves.

I for one, have got to stop trying to forgive myself and receive God’s forgiveness.

It means we must learn to stop scratching the “not feeling forgiven itch.” We must distract ourselves with his love and believe our Lord Jesus meant it when he said (John 8:11), 

“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”  

I didn’t help my friend forgive herself.

Instead, I told her, and now you: Let’s go pitch our tent in that humble place, under God’s mighty, merciful hand. Let’s cast our cares—even our post-confession, not-feeling forgiven cares—on Him. 

Because He really does care for us. 

Here we have a firm foundation, Here the refuge of the lost.
Christ the Rock of our salvation, Christ the Name of which we boast.
Lamb of God for sinners wounded! Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded, Who on Him their hope have built.

Stricken, Smitten, & Afflicted, by Thomas Kelley

[The first version of this post was published on 7/21/2015. It has become a signature post, one that I refer back to often and refer to others as well.

Look for a digging deeper post next week with five more reasons we may struggle to receive God’s forgiveness. If you have a question or comment about this post, please drop a gentle line.]

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