Mike Wittmer on whether you should “forgive yourself”:
Initially I can appreciate why forgiving yourself might seem like a good idea. For instance, if I was driving drunk and accidentally killed another person, I think I would find the guilt unbearable. . . . I can see why it might seem necessary for me to forgive myself before I could move on with my life.
But this is why I can’t go there. Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I, like the person I killed, am a victim of my sin.
So rather than say that I must forgive myself, I think I should say that I must receive God’s forgiveness. His forgiveness matters more than mine anyway, and receiving his forgiveness reminds me that my proper and only place in this matter is the offender.
If you think my position is too harsh, imagine that someone has deeply wounded you. When they come to ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, what would you think if they said, “I need you to forgive me, and then I need to forgive myself.” Wouldn’t you be insulted? Wouldn’t you reply that after what they did, they don’t get to play the victim? That they are in no way the innocent party here?
And if you are struggling under the burden of unbearable guilt, ask yourself what you really need—your forgiveness or God’s? Isn’t it enough for you to know that God, and the person you offended, have forgiven you?
A very helpful resource on the pastoral dimension of this issue is Robert D. Jones’s Forgiveness: “I Just Can’t Forgive Myself!” Before responding to someone who says he can’t forgive himself, it’d be wise first to discern what the person means by this phrase. Jones suggest five possible underlying assumptions, which are not mutually exclusive:
1. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness.
2. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may not see or be willing to acknowledge the depth of his depravity. The expression “I can’t forgive myself” often means “I still can’t believe I did that!” . . . Inability to forgive oneself often expresses an underlying problem of self-righteousness and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.
3. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be venting his regrets for failing to achieve a certain cherished desire. In essence, such a person says this: “I had an opportunity to get something I really wanted, but I threw it all away! I can’t forgive myself.”
4. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be trying to establish his own standards of righteousness. In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I haven’t lived up to my own perfect standards” or “I haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations.” His longing for self-forgiveness arises from his failure to measure up to his own standards of performance, his own image of how good he is or ought to be.
5. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may have ascended to the throne of judgment and declared himself to be his own judge. In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I’m in the role of Judge and will dispense forgiveness as I decide.” Such a person has convened the court, rendered a guilty verdict upon himself and now believes that he must grant the needed pardon! But the Bible declares that God alone is both judge and forgiver as well as penalty-bearer for those in Christ!