The Cost of Self-Forgiveness By Lynda Allison Doty
They fill the malls, hang out at the counselor’s office, and overflow our pews. People who just cannot seem to “get well.” These are hurting people. Their pain is often obvious in all that they do. The same problems surface time and time again. They fill our churches and congregations and, just as they begin to make progress in their spiritual walk, they fall back again. Working with these people can be a frustrating and helpless experience. You have done all you know how to do, and it still has not “worked.” They seem to live under a generalized feeling of condemnation. Their past will not remain past.
Many of these hapless souls are eventually referred out the friendly, neighborhood psychological counselor. I mean, after all, we really want the best for these people; so even though we might experience a twinge of guilty regret, we’ve done all we can. We breathe a sigh of relief and await the good report of healing. But, alas, it does not arrive.
We wonder where we go wrong, when all the time, we are swimming against the tide of biblical truths—biblical truths that teach us that if we seek to save our life we will lose it, but if we lose our life for His sake, we save it. To the psychologically minded, this is “mumbo-jumbo.” Indeed.
The underpinning of psychology and the self-help industry is an emphasis is on self—such as self-esteem, self-worth, and self-love, which were discussed in this column in the last issue. The preoccupation of the psychologist with self is not biblical teaching. For example, on the issue of self-esteem, we learned in the last issue that the Bible’s
teaching is to esteem others better than ourselves, and yet all our psychological goals revolve around improving the way we look at ourselves. This training of the human being to search outside of himself for happiness and fulfillment has ushered in pain and regret. One specific area where much damage has been done by the psychological industry is their injunction to “forgive oneself.”
In numerous cases like this we find people saying something to this effect: “I just can’t forgive myself.” And so they (once again) fall into condemnation, and (once again) lapse into a major depression, and the cycle starts over again. As we work with these unfortunate and hurting people, we try to lead them into the forgiving of self. “God has forgiven you,” we say, “and so you must forgive yourself.” If they can ever get past the point of self-recrimination, we think, they’ll finally have it behind them. And so we assign a misdiagnosis, if you will, that can be more hurtful than helpful.
Robert Jones says in The Journal of Pastoral Practice: “But has [the client] identified her real problem? Or has she become stuck in one particularly unpleasant symptom of an as-yet-unidentified root problem? Is self-forgiveness the solution? Or is there a deeper solution to a deeper problem?” He goes on to point out that the Bible speaks not one word about forgiving oneself. It speaks of vertical forgiveness (God forgiving us), and horizontal forgiveness (when we forgive another). But we are nowhere instructed in internal forgiveness.
This particular article is a difficult one for me to write, because I once believed all of this myself, and it is wrong. I shudder to think back to the days when I imparted this erroneous teaching to hurting souls, because I realize now that I might have done more damage than good. And so I have had to repent and go on from there.
I have come to realize that trying to lead someone down the road towards the forgiving of self is like placing a sentence upon a person without the possibility of parole. It is as productive as comparing apples and lemons. And it can set a soul upon a path of pursuing a goal that does not exist.
Women, in particular, have been trying for years to forgive themselves, particularly of past sexual abuse, and continually fail. They are failing because they are attempting the impossible. Forgiving oneself is not a biblical principle. They are trying to do something God has never expected them to do. As a result, they experience repeated failure.
What is really happening is these people fail to accept and apply God's forgiveness to their own lives. Eventually, because of this false instruction, and trying to accomplish the impossible, they just give up. They become discouraged, feeling they have tried everything and have failed. They no longer seek healing, but resign themselves to a fictional version of “bearing their cross.”
It is true that Jesus instructed us to take up our cross and follow But He spoke this in the same breath with, “deny yourself.” (Matthew 16:24) A focus upon one’s self, therefore, cannot constitute the bearing of one’s cross. The gist of the problem rests in the modern concept of victimization. As a society, we have bought into the victim mentality hook, line, and sinker. No one is guilty of anything any more, because everyone is a victim of someone, or something else, and so therefore cannot help what they do. The wife batterer is not guilty—not really—because he learned the behavior from his father. The teenager who shoots and kills three of his classmates did not mean to do it—not really—it’s just that he has been so mistreated. Even the rapist-murderer finds sympathy,
because he “never had the opportunity to develop socially and emotionally (no mention of spiritually).”
Along comes that friendly, neighborhood psychologist who tells us the victim must save himself—an impossible goal. The Bible tells us that man is guilty, and that man cannot possible save himself!
I personally sought for many, many years to forgive myself for the way I raised my children. As an alcoholic single mother, one can only imagine some of the hurt I must have inflicted upon my little ones. Many were the nights I wept into my pillow, remembering the harm I must have caused. Long after coming into the truth of God’s wonderful plan of salvation, I still wept for them. How well I recall one particular night in the prayer room when I was praying, I thought, all alone. I was crying out to God with heartbreaking sobs, when a brother came alongside to try to help. He told me these words that night: “Sister, you’ve got to forgive yourself. If you don’t, you’ll never make it.”
He meant well. That’s the problem—we all mean well. We truly care about the hurting, and long to reach out with healing balm. But repeating psychobabble is not the way to help. If you doubt this, think of what that brother’s words meant to a hopeless, broken heart.
I am not proffering a request to be sorry for my plight. The Lord is faithful to those who love Him, and has led me to the truth that I was a sinner saved by His grace. Nothing more. Nothing less. He forgave my past. He forgave the things I did to my children. But for me to stand up and say, “I can’t forgive myself!” only brought disappointment to a caring, loving God.
As I began to pour over the Bible biographies of very wicked men who were recipients of the grace of God, I began to understand and receive His forgiveness for my own wicked life. As this happened, I came to realize the problem had never been an inability to forgive myself—it was an inability to accept the fact that God had forgiven me. I have later learned this is the most common reason for the failure to “forgive oneself.”
J.R. Ensey in his “Christian Counseling from Scripture” course, sheds further light on the matter. Again going to The Journal of Pastoral Practice, we learn, there are a host of possible points at which a believer may experience a breakdown in properly receiving God’s forgiveness. He cites as some examples of this: perhaps the person has failed to see his sin as a direct offense against God. David, in his memorable psalm of repentance, cried out, “Against thee and thee only have I sinned....(51:4). This is a very common condition in today’s world where sin is no longer called sin. After all, why should one confess a “disease” and repent of it?