My phone buzzed, and I glanced down at a text message that read, “Would like to get your take on this”.
Opening it, I found myself looking at a screenshot of a social media post. I read it through twice, thought for a second, and then texted back “It all depends on how you define the terms”.
Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? Always ready to be the resident word nerd here.
Here’s what the post said:
Now the friend who sent this comes from a fairly heavy-handed, legalistic background. And probably because of that, she struggles a lot with self-condemnation and “beating herself up” about things, even after she has sought God’s forgiveness. So I can totally understand why evaluating the truth of this statement would be very important to her, and to other people who struggle with the same issues.
So let’s break it down phrase by phrase.
Opening statement: “God never tells you to ‘forgive yourself’. Never.”
Vetting this phrase depends on what the author means by God “telling you” something. If she is referring to the written word of God (the Bible), then this statement is absolutely correct. There is no bible verse that talks about “forgiving yourself” (at least none that I’m aware of!). This is a simple, factual statement that is easy to mark as true.
But on the other hand, if she is talking about the more subjective side of the Christian life, where people talk about God revealing things to them personally, showing them sin in their life or giving them comfort or guidance in hard situations, etc, then what she is claiming is much broader. She would be arguing that the Holy Spirit would NEVER tell any person that they need to forgive themselves (as opposed to, say, convicting them that they need to forgive their friend Bob).
In that case she would be claiming that the idea of forgiving yourself is an unbiblical concept, and thus, that the Holy Spirit would never give a person that message. (Remember, the term unbiblical means it goes directly against the teaching of the Bible, not just that it isn’t mentioned one way or another.)
Now it is absolutely true that the Holy Spirit’s leading/conviction will NEVER contradict the written word of God. But the question is, does the concept of “forgiving yourself” actually contradict the written word of God? Is “forgiving yourself” truly unbiblical?
Like I said. It all depends on how you define the terms.
Let’s look at the 3 reasons she gives.
Assertion #1: “You have zero power to truly forgive – wipe sin away in yourself.”
Ok. Now she’s defining her terms. She assumes true forgiveness means wiping sins away completely. And of course, going by that definition, God is definitely the only person with the power to do something like putting our sins as far as the east is from the west, washing us white as snow, etc.
Is that definition, itself, a biblical definition of forgiveness? Honestly….not so much. Let me put it simply:
Are we able to completely “wipe away” the sin of other human beings? Of course not.
But are we still told to “forgive” other human beings? Absolute YES.
And the exact same Greek word is used for God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness in verses like this one:
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.Ephesians 4:32
The Greek word translated forgiveness – charizomai – does not mean “wipe away sin”. (Look it up in the lexicon if you don’t believe me). It has several different meanings (like do a favor, gratify, be gracious, kind, benevolent, give freely, preserve someone from peril, and of course, forgiveness or pardon) but none of them are special God-only abilities that mere humans are unable to do.
So, the author is simply incorrect here to say that forgiveness means “wiping away” sins in a way that only God can do. That’s not the meaning of the word.
Assertion #2: “Your sins and mistakes are against God, not yourself.”
Ok…I’m honestly not sure why she thinks these two are mutually exclusive. Of course, every sin is ultimately against God, since He is the source of all goodness and any evil/sin is going against His ways. But that doesn’t mean He is the ONLY person we ever sin against. Scripture clearly acknowledges we can and do sin against other people (See Gen 42:22, 1 Sam 2:25, Matt 18:21, 1 Cor 8:12, and many other verses), which is why we ask forgiveness from people as well as from God.
Furthermore, in at least one place, Scripture indicates it is possible to sin against ourselves. Against our ‘own bodies’ if you want to get real specific.
Flee sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body.1 Corinthians 6:18
Of course, the passage immediately goes on to explain that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and therefore we are ultimately sinning against God too, even when we sin against our own bodies. But the point remains. It IS possible to sin against God and sin against our own bodies at the same time.
The two are not mutually exclusive.
Assertion #3: “His forgiveness is enough. It should give us all the comfort and rest we need.”
Hmmmm. Enough for what? All the comfort and rest we need for what? God’s forgiveness is enough (in conjunction with atonement, faith, etc) to cleanse us and allow us to receive salvation and come into relationship with Him, obviously. And it gives us the comfort and rest of knowing that we are ‘right with God.’ But that still doesn’t mean it’s the only forgiveness we ever need or seek.
Again, we’re still supposed to seek the forgiveness of other people. Not because their forgiveness is what allows us to live at peace with God, but because it allows us to live at peace with them. It allows us to be ‘right with them.’ If you will.
Obviously, God’s forgiveness is far and away the most important to have, but if we don’t have the forgiveness of others, it can still cause a certain amount of discomfort and unrest in our lives. In fact, it goes both ways. If we fail to forgive others, that will also cause discomfort and unrest in our lives, because we are busy mulling over those wrongs done to us instead of moving forward and focusing on God’s kingdom.
So on the one hand, yes, God’s forgiveness is all we ultimately need for salvation and eternal comfort and rest. But it’s not always the only forgiveness involved in the process of achieving “comfort and rest” in this earthly life.
Now, whether that same principle applies to “forgiving yourself” again depends a lot on how you define the terms. Which is why the final answer to this question is a bit complicated, as we’ll see below.
So…what’s the verdict?
This post has been a lot shorter and simpler than some of my other “Is It Biblical…?” posts. But that doesn’t mean the final answer is simple. Like I said, everything depends on how you define terms. As I’ve demonstrated above, I think this author defined her terms incorrectly, and that’s why her conclusion is weak.
(I want to be very clear here that I’m not in any way trying to attack the author of this Instagram post personally. I’m sure she sincerely believes what she wrote, she simply ended up at a faulty conclusion because of starting with a faulty assumption. We all do that periodically. So this critique is certainly not intended to undermine anything else she has done or said that is good and helpful.)
If her definition of forgiveness was correct, then concluding that “forgiving yourself” is an unbiblical concept would be a no-brainer. But since we’ve seen that the real definition is rather different, that complicates things.
So let’s think about it this way. What do we mean when we say we as humans forgive other humans?
We obviously don’t mean we are offering them eternal salvation. No, we mean we are making a choice to NOT view them in light of their past failures. We will not hold their past sin against them, keep bringing it up and throwing it in their face, secretly stew over it, or use it as an excuse to hurt or degrade them. When we forgive, we are changing the lens through which we look at someone. We stop seeing “My brother who made fun of my singing voice”, “My mother who was overprotective and stifled my dreams”, or “My sister-in-law who snapped at me for no good reason”. We remove the unforgiving lens that defines them by their past, and instead choose to see them through the clear lens of forgiveness, as simply “my brother”, “my mother”, “my sister-in-law”, etc. No previous bad records attached.
If this is the way we understand forgiveness, then it could certainly be something we apply to ourselves. Especially if we have a tendency to continue beating ourselves up for something we know God has already forgiven.
Now some people don’t call this “forgiving yourself.” They might instead call it “fully accepting God’s forgiveness”, or “living in light of God’s forgiveness”, or simply “living like you know you’re forgiven”. But the principle is the same. You are choosing to view yourself through that same clear lens of forgiveness, instead of thinking of yourself as “Me, the mother who snapped at my kids”, or “Me, the husband who looked with lust at another woman” or “Me, the pastor who let his ego blind him to God’s plans for my church”.
Obviously, forgiving ourselves is NOT the first step. We need to first of all seek God’s forgiveness, as well as the forgiveness of others we have hurt. But if, after doing that, we find we are still “beating ourselves up”, wallowing in the mire of our past sin, and failing to see and think of ourselves as the forgiven people we are, (in other words, if we are doing to ourselves the thing that we aren’t supposed to do to other forgiven people) then we need to change our perspective. Whether we call that “forgiving ourselves” or simply “living like we are truly forgiven”, it’s definitely something we should be doing.
So is it unbiblical to think you can “wipe away” your own sin? Of course.
Is it unbiblical to elevate human forgiveness to the same or higher status than the forgiveness of God? Definitely.
But is it unbiblical to accept and live in God’s forgiveness, seeing ourselves as He sees us, cleansed and no longer defined by our past sin? Not at all!
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!2 Corinthians 5:17
All forgiveness ultimately flows from God’s forgiveness. We can forgive others because God forgives them. We can forgive ourselves because God forgives us. You might quibble about the terminology, but the principle remains.
If we are forgiven people, than we should absolutely choose to look at ourselves through the “forgiveness lens.” We may vary in what terms we use to describe that action, but the action itself is an entirely biblical one to take.
How about you? Do you think “forgiving yourself” is a phrase Christians should use, or do you prefer different terminology? Why? Also, are there other topics you’d love to see me cover in an “Is it Biblical…?” post? Let me know in the comments!