02 November 2010

How to forgive yourself: a Biblely appraisal

by Dan Phillips

Here's a site called WikiHow, which publishes a wild array of "how-to" articles. Some of the topics include:
How to appreciate death metal, mosh in a mosh pit, care for a library book, start a jazz collection, survive a freestyle rap battle, convert bicycle tires into studded snow tires, save money on gas, get out of a cellular service contract, open rigid plastic clamshells safely
Now comes "How to Forgive Yourself."

So, before reading it all though, here's the article I would write, were that the title I was assigned. Ahem.
There are two steps to forgiving yourself.
  1. Make yourself God, so that your moral offenses are committed primarily against yourself rather than against God
  2. Since you can't do #1, bail out on the whole project and come up with a more Biblely analysis of the situation.
The end.
I can hear what "Statler and Waldorf" (as Marley and Marley) from the Muppet Christmas Carol might say:
- That was the [article]?
- It was dumb!
- It was obvious!
- It was pointless!
- It was... short.
- I loved it!
- I loved it!
However, the actual WikiHow article shows no concern with being Biblical, so it's a lot longer. It traverses the usual therapeutic route, viewing guilt as a negative feeling, a psychological rather than a moral/spiritual issue, and assuming that the sooner we're rid of it, the better. Period. Then a little video from some mind-science guru serves to poison-cherry the pie. The worldview assumed is relativistic and Godless (— did I just say the same thing, twice?), with me and my feelings at the center (— thrice?).

Puzzlingly, one of the contributors to this article bears the screenname 1sweetchristian, whose self-introduction says "Hi my name is Sarah. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am learning how to trust Him with all my heart and be obedient to His will." That is a wonderful goal, and may God bless her; however, I don't see any impact from that perspective on the article.

Sin is a word for which we should keep as strictly-defined a definition as possible, straying only under duress. The apostolic definition is lawlessness (1 John 3:4; cf. Romans 5:13). The definition from Piper's Baptist catechism also works: "Sin is transgression of the revealed will of God which teaches that we are to act in perfect holiness from a heart of faith to the glory of God."

The Bible is really serious about this. How serious?  Well, think of someone who really, really sinned badly against people — sexually used one, had another killed, betrayed the trust of scores and hundreds. Of course, you know I am thinking of King David. And you know right where I'm going, to his head-scratching confession in Psalm 51:4 — "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." On the face of it, this is simply an absurd statement. "You only"? What of Bathsheba? What of his own wife/wives? What of Uriah?

Yet David knew the truth that most deeply offends atheist, humanists, everyone who's bought the big lie: sin is only sin because God defines it as sin. Sin is sin because God says it is sin. Spouse betraying spouse, children failing to honor parents, neighbor slandering or robbing neighbor — all these are sins because God says they are sins.

Apart from God, there would be no sin. All sin is, in the final analysis, against God; for without God there would be no sin. And so, as I have heard D. A. Carson say well more than once, in all sin, God is the primary offended party.

Back to the notion of forgiving yourself. It simply is faddish, man-exalting nonsense to speak of forgiving yourself. In your sin, you aren't the wronged party. If you (or I) really think that it is meaningful to speak of forgiving ourselves for our sins, then I don't think we've got that whole repentance thing straight. It isn't our own forgiveness which we need. It is, of course, God's forgiveness, a forgiveness that cost the Son of God His lifeblood (Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:13-14, 22; 10:4).

It is only meaningful to speak of forgiveness of ourselves, then (A) by God, (B) of sin (C) against God, extended to us only (D) because of the shed blood of Christ, through whom alone we can find forgiveness. Secondarily, it is meaningful to speak of horizontal forgiveness of people upon repentance (that is not the focus of this post; but I can recommend a great book on the subject). But we know that God does command us to repent of our wrongs against others, to pursue restitution for those wrongs. We do those things because God calls us to do them. He defines my sin against my brother, He calls me to repent and pursue restitution and reconciliation (and commands me to forgive those who repent of sins against me). It's still all about God, and it's a subject of direct Biblical teaching.

Forgiving myself, however? Never. Biblically meaningless at best.

"Ah," a deeper scholar might say, "but what of 1 Corinthians 6:18?"
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
Yes, what of it? Would anyone argue that immorality is not a sin against God? That it is not a sin against the person used? Would anyone say that he should ask his own body to forgive him? Is it not fairly plain that the meaning is that the sin harms, wrongs, defiles the body — not that the body becomes the offended party, of which forgiveness must be sought and from which it must be received? How would such an apology proceed? Never mind, I don't want to go there.

Worse, the usual application is made to sins that really are clearly sins against God, and/or sins against others. The man who has committed adultery says, "God has forgiven me, but I just can't forgive myself." The woman who has failed her husband or her children in some way says "God has forgiven me, but I just can't forgive myself." And on it goes.

So where does this whole idea come from? I think a lot of it comes from psychologized, man-centered nonsense.

But I also think some of it doesn't, at least not as directly. I think some of it comes from Christians who have sinned, who know they've sinned, and who nonetheless continue in guilt and misery. What shall we tell them, then?

My, such a long post already.

Better finish up Thursday, Lord willing.

Dan Phillips's signature


David Rudd said...

Dan, thanks for going to Psalm 51. That is a verse which is often neglected when dealing with confession and forgiveness. It also serves us well if we let it kick a little bit of the rampant individualism out of us.

Thomas Louw said...

Totally agree that we are not called to forgive ourselves. Your use of David as an example is suburb.
I do think though the problem comes in as a mixture between human pride and lack of faith.
Our human pride is wounded because we are forgiven without anything done by us. There is nothing tangible which we can touch to let us know your forgiven.
Martin Loyd Jones I think has the answer. ‘Preach to yourself”
So when the sins of your past come to haunt you, preach to yourself, remind yourself of what Christ has done for you.

Robert said...

Great post, Dan. My wife and I were actually just sharing the good news of the Gospel with a humanist last night. He said that he knew that God exists, but his god is like an earthly father who is there just looking out for him. He had a "moment" when it all "clicked" for him and now he said he is able to work through his sins. He doesn't believe in the biblical Jesus, though, and he doesn't know the Bible.

I think that is where both the lost and the immature Christian both have problems. They don't know the Bible well enough (or even reject it). And none of us live the Bible well enough. Ignorance is no excuse...what could be more important than spending time in the Word and getting to know God better?

What are we to do with those who teach that this is what Christianity is? I have a hard time believing that people can truly be Christians without a better sense of their sinfulness and God's holiness. How else can they even feel the need to be saved then?

Chris Tolbert said...

Ahhh, refreshing truth! Thanks DJP!

allen said...

So if I don't forgive myself, do I cast myself into purgatory?
(Looking for the Biblical support for all the above.....hmmm)

JackW said...

I was going to forgive myself, but I was unwilling to pay the sacrifice.

100 Mile Pants said...

And unable, JackW! :)

Terry Rayburn said...

Dan wrote, "So where does this whole idea come from? I think a lot of it comes from psychologized, man-centered nonsense."


What *part* of man-centered nonsense?

Self-righteousness -- the ridiculous idea that we can be "good" enough to atone for our sins, or at least earn God's love and favor.

This is, at its root, less the fault of Psychology than the fault of bad Theology.

Psychology has merely picked up the ball and tried to do an end run around good Theology, because it can do no other.

The answer?

A huge paradigm shift from viewing my sins from *my* vantage point, and instead viewing them from *God's* -- that is, so horrible and anti-the-Holy-One as to deserve the lake of fire and hang Jesus on the awful cross; yet so totally forgiven that they are "remembered no more".

If HE has forgiven us, who are WE to remain burdened?

Unknown said...

Dan, what's the plan? Is this simply a random pick of the week or what?

There's just about a gazillion pages out there with the same type of nonsense packaged in one way or another. What's the point of calling this one out?

DJP said...

As opposed to...?

Jake said...

I used to deal with this and I think you're right to assign the problem to a misunderstanding of guilt.

For me, life became a game of avoiding guilt so I went on Atkins-like binge/purge guilt diet; all the while, never understanding that guilt wasn't the problem. Guilt in proper doses is good and necessary but I was worshiping my guilt by making it my identity. From God's point-of-view, all things work together for the good of the sinner...even guilt resulting from sin.


Unknown said...

...as opposed to none.

WikiHow, along with countless other organizations and eager individuals maintaining public websites, do not appear to me to be the guardians of spiritual truth.

How much discernment does one really need to know not to trust WikiHow on matters of forgiveness? I mean, really?

JackW said...

No profile Alistair, we forgive you for missing the point.

Brad Williams said...


I think your two comments today may be the oddest I've read on Pyromaniacs in a long time, and that's saying something. I was not under the impression that the point of the post was the debunking of WikiHow, it was simply a launching point/illustration of the main point.

And, even if I am wrong and you are right about the point being the debunking of WikiHow, your comment is still odd. It turns out that this is a blog, that WikiHow is wrong, and Dan can debunk whoever he wants to, right?

Please don't take this comment too hard. I'm only trying to toady up to Dan.

DJP said...

...and i's working, big-time.

Mike Riccardi said...

This is good. People, including professing Christians, talk like this a lot.

For the one who says things like, "I know God will forgive me, but I can't forgive myself," I've always appreciated David's declaration a few verses later in Psalm 51: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean." It's not, "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I'll feel really bad about it till I decide I'm clean." It's rather being humble enough to accept God's gracious declaration on your life. It's pride that rejects grace -- even the self-pity kind of pride -- because grace insults the ego.

This reminds me of Captain O-merica's statement that sin is simply "being out of alignment with my values," and that being "true to myself and my faith...is its own reward, [and] when I'm not true to it, it's its own punishment."

Like you said, classic pop-psychology from the wisdom of the world.

~Mark said...

In a more positive vein, when people are under the notion that they need to forgive themselves, that's a good opportunity to teach them "No, you need to acknowledge God's forgiveness of you (if that's the case obviously) and realize THAT'S the forgiveness you need, the forgiveness that brings healing and life."

There are a lot of really hurting people who haven't been taught this truth, and need a gentle lesson. I can remember when it was first made clear to me, and that pastor had a big smile of joy on his face that made me smile as I realized the truth.

Unknown said...

Brad, thanks- I think your criticism is valid. I apologize for not being clearer in my posts, as well as for failing to acknowledge Dan's valid points. I find nothing wrong with his reasoning, in fact, I agree with him wholeheartedly.

He was using a simple example to make a valid and (more) important point, and the example he chose to make it with is of secondary importance. No issues.

Nevertheless, I believe that the method of setting up (clearly) worldly notions for debunking is problematic in many ways. For one, it appears often to be a gimmick used to generate traffic on 'christian' sites (We agree that the world has it wrong, aren't we something?). Its frequent use - casually check some 'christian' blogs - very often also points to a lack of understanding of the Scriptural teaching on the ability of unregenerate men to grasp spiritual things.

But that's all secondary to this post, so no need to reply as I am happy to bow out.

Gov98 said...

Please don't take this comment too hard. I'm only trying to toady up to Dan.


I appreciated that a great deal Dan.

I think struggling with guilt is so common. I talked with my pastor about it on occasion and he made what I think is a great point.

Faith is trusting in God's promise. If I have confessed sin and repented of it, then when God promised "If you confess your sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin," then I either have faith that God in fact forgave me. OR I commit the sin of disbelief.

So Faith ... Trust in God's promise! Including for forgiveness.

Robert said...


One thing about the Wikihow reference that really is relevant to a Christian blog is that a professing Christian contributed to the content. Outside of just the worldly content, we have here a young lady claiming the name of Christ and seemingly espousing the same thoughts.

Stefan Ewing said...

If we "forgive ourselves" without seeking God's forgiveness, we're being unrepentant and self-absorbed.

If we repent to God and trust in His forgiveness, yet continue to refuse to "forgive ourselves," then we're showing lack of faith.

If we wallow in guilt and yet refuse to repent, we're just being stiff-necked.

If we always feel guilty about everything, then we need Jesus Christ big time.

...And if we never feel guilty about anything, then...we need Jesus Christ big time.

So basically...we're all sinners who need the Cross of Christ!

Stefan Ewing said...

Actually, if you look at the original article as originally written by "1sweetchristian" and then compare it to the current version as modified by other contributors, you'll see that her original post isn't really very far off the mark, theologically, and is centered on God's forgiveness.

But the article in its current form does help to illustrate the way in which biblical concepts morph in a society which fundamentally rejects the biblical worldview.

DJP said...

Hm; the Wiki-force is strong with you.

Rachael Starke said...

I echo the others who hear this sentiment by professing Christians (ahem, often, in my experience, of the double-X chromosome variety) a lot.

1 John 1:9 is always my favorite go-to verse. God is not only faithful to forgive our sins, He's just in doing so. Questioning the completeness of His forgiveness, or His justice, by adding our work to it is yet another way we work to make Him less than He is, and ourselves more than we are.

Stefan Ewing said...

Faithful and just.


Never saw that.

Amazing how a single word can carry SO much significance!

allen said...

We could call the whole mess psycho-ology or better yet me-ology. (As opposed to a biblical theology, anthropology, soteriology...)

Either way, a crazy man is at the center of it! And his answers are wrong every time.

Aaron said...

Good post, Dan. Many times we forget that God is the primary offended party. We then forget that the purpose of Jesus' death was forgiveness of our sins. Instead we recognize that Jesus saved us, but we think we need to pay some sort of pennace for our sins (as if we could). Thus, failure to "forgive ourselves" is really failure to recognize God as the judge of sin and that the penalty for sin has already been paid.

Stefan Ewing said...

Sir Aaron:

So true. It's all about the blood of Jesus Christ.

It's so easy to tell non-believers that there's nothing they can do to earn their salvation—that they must rather repent for their sins and believe that Jesus Christ has already paid the price for them upon the Cross.

But it's much harder for us as believers to accept that there's also nothing we can do to pay back God for His grace; or to "earn back" God's favour after we have sinned. The remedy is the same: God's atonement for our sins by the blood of Jesus Christ, shed upon Calvary's Cross!

In that old rugged cross,
stained with blood so divine,
a wondrous beauty I see,
for 'twas on that old cross
Jesus suffered and died,
to pardon and sanctify me.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

I recently posted this as a facebook status update:

"Big raspberries to the"Christian" radio's message, "don't go around feeling guilty; just forgive yourself." Friend, if you are feeling guilty for something, confess it to God, forsake your sin, and ask for His forgiveness. Then live in obedience to His word. It will do wonders for your guilt."

It is a major theme in the Christian pop culture. I was trying to find the little vignette that the radio station played that talked at length about guilt. I was rather horrified by the ultimate "forgive yourself" message.

(Off topic, but I find that the Country music station in general is less offensive--the messages are at least clear. We categorize them sometimes as "the song of the fool" or the "song of the adulterous woman," or some variation of those loveable characters from Proverbs. Easier topics to discuss with my kids than the nuanced but damaging messages coming from the other station. Sad but true.)

Rachael Starke said...

We categorize them sometimes as "the song of the fool" or the "song of the adulterous woman," or some variation of those loveable characters from Proverbs. Easier topics to discuss with my kids than the nuanced but damaging messages coming from the other station. Sad but true.

So true, and that strategy is some serious Pyro-Mom genius. I'm so stealing, er, Proverbs 12:15ing it. :)

Anonymous said...

This is the most common issue for which the Christian prisoners I encounter wish to be counseled - how to forgive themselves, as exemplified in this post: http://thelightheartedcalvinist.com/2009/10/27/the-old-i-cant-forgive-myself-bugaboo-arises-again-at-the-prison/

It's a cryin' shame such secular psychological tools have entered the Christian community.

David Pulliam said...

Thank you for your post. I have one question regarding how one determines what is a sin.

You say that "sin is only sin because God defines it as sin. Sin is sin because God says it is sin."

Why do you define sin as what God SAYS is sin? Do you mean that he's given it to us by his Word and/or through nature? Or do you mean that because he literally says it is so, then it is so?

Clarification is important on this point because if you take on the latter position then you have to deal with questions of "if God were to say genocide was good, then is it good?" Obviously we would say no. Because of this, I find it problematic to base the definition of sin solely on what God "says," defined in the latter sense.

Again, thank you for your post.

DJP said...

David, I ask completely unsnarkily: are you new to this blog? (We have had many Davids; it's a great name.) If so, welcome!

The reason I ask is that it doesn't take long to discern than my use of that phrase is strictly univocal: I always and only mean what God says in His Word, the Bible.

David Pulliam said...

DJP, Yes, I am new to your blog. I sometimes read it, since its in my rss feed, but with everything going on in life, I'm afraid blog reading is low on my priority list.

Thank you for the clarification.

DJP said...

...blog reading is low on my priority list.


We'll have to do something about that.



Aaron said...


Glad to meet you! Take a look at Dan's blog on Fridays. It will move up your priority list pretty quickly! ;)