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“God may have forgiven you, but you’ve got to forgive yourself.”

How many times have you heard this homespun wisdom?

What does it mean?

What does the Bible say about it?

Is it good advice or just 'bunk'?

Popular advice

A quick google search of "self-forgiveness" gets 852,000 hits in 0.62 seconds.

The first hit is “The Art of Self-forgiveness” posted on “Wildmind Buddhist Meditation.” The post advocates getting your “inner protector” to tell your “inner critic to shut up.”

A sampling of turns up several titles, including The Self-Forgiveness Handbook by Thom Rutledge (2015) and Radical Self-Forgiveness by Colin Tipping (2011). Rutledge is a psychotherapist; Tipping a clinical hypnotherapist.

There's also Sidney Simon’s Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get on with Your Life. I reviewed and commented on this book in an earlier post: “Forgiveness Distorted.”

A search of the Bible for "self-forgiveness" turns up blank.

No doubt advice on “self-forgiveness” is popular, but is it valid?

Self-forgiveness techniques

One technique is to stand in front of a mirror for thirty consecutive days and say something like, “I forgive you for (past event),” or “You’re a good person. I love you” (Messina, Growing Down).

As observed in “Forgiveness Distorted,” these techniques involve most, if not all, of the following:

  • Self-centered: It's all about “I, me, and my.” It focuses on removing 'my' pain, guilt, regret – you name it – so ‘I’ can feel better about ‘me’.
  • Makes God optional: He is not necessary. It’s not that he doesn’t exist, he just isn’t required. This is “something you do for you.”
  • Considers reconciliation optional: The other person is irrelevant to the process.

Self-forgiveness techniques, whether a form of inner protector vs. inner critic, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, or something else, inevitability are about 'me' convincing 'me' that I’m forgiven by 'me'.

For the most part, these techniques presume that you should never feel 'crappy' about what you did, and you should engage in some form of psychological or other manipulation to remove or lessen those feelings.

Is there a way forward?

Four ways forward

We've been walking through the process of forgiveness for a few months, beginning with “Reclaiming Forgiveness.” At some point, you will want to start at the beginning and work through those posts.

Here are four helpful insights. 

1.       Listen to your feelings.

If a person commits adultery, or lies about someone, or steals from someone – if they have any sense of right and wrong, in other words, a conscience – they will feel ‘crappy’.

Those feelings are a mixture of shame, guilt, regret, and any number of other reactions.

In those circumstances, feeling ‘crappy’ about what you did is not only good, it’s right.

Trying to get rid of those feelings without dealing with your wrong is like smashing the oil light on the dashboard to fix the problem. That's simply an act of self-deception.

Our feelings can be warnings that something is wrong, and prompts that something needs to be done.

I’m not saying that feelings should control your life; I’m saying that feelings are indicators that should not be ignored. 

2.       Use accurate language.

Sometimes we desire the right goal but use the wrong words. Of course, mixing up the language results in mixing up the concepts.

One way forward is to untangle the confusion between love and forgiveness. We use the words for forgiveness when we mean love and vice versa. The result is we lose both the practices of love and forgiveness.

Some people who talk about self-forgiveness are probably yearning for self-acceptance

That’s something different.

Healthy self-acceptance flows from knowing you are loved by God.

Although much can be said on self-acceptance, check out “The Therapy of Love,” and “Love is Active.”

For the Christian, there are many wonderful benefits bestowed by the God who reveals himself as Jesus Christ.

Read and think about Ephesians 1:3-14 and the blessings freely available to all who are “in Christ.” Among them is the truth of being “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6 NKJ).

Now that's real acceptance!

3.       Embrace functional theology.

Don’t glaze over when you hear the word ‘theology’.

James K. A. Smith writes that (biblical) theology “is the graced understanding that makes us faithful disciples.”

If we embrace dysfunctional core beliefs or theology, we will behave in ways that are dysfunctional. Our beliefs inform and direct our behavior

If your 'theology' of sin is distorted or wrong, you imagine you can 'go it alone'.

If your 'theology' of forgiveness is distorted or wrong, you leave a trail of broken relationships.

If your 'theology' of self is distorted or wrong, you have erroneous views about yourself.

These dysfunctional theologies are ultimately destructive.

Functional theology will be rooted deeply in the person of Jesus Christ, the text of the Bible, and the love of God.

4.       Listen to God.

This is more than a matter of theology. It’s about keeping company with God, which includes listening to him.

Here are two things he tells us about forgiveness:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace. (Ephesians 1:7)

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

The first text tells us the amazing cost and source of forgiveness – real forgiveness; the second, that God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ is to be our model for forgiveness among ourselves.

To reject, or ignore God’s forgiveness – or, to substitute it with a therapeutic counterfeit – is not only arrogant, it dishonors God.

I’ll close with this tongue-in-cheek link to an article: “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,” says a woman whose moral compass is more developed than God’s.

Enough said.

What are your thoughts?

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Photo credit: This photo is used by for the article in my concluding link.

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