We all need help. If we are humble enough, we will ask for it. Who we turn to for advice is important since following their advice may lead us on a rewarding path. But it also may lead us on a destructive one. Though even the wisest of people tend to get led astray from time to time. In light of this, here is the second part in the series, Bad Advice from Well-Meaning Christians. To read Part 1 (Loving Yourself), click here.
Nearly every Christian and non-Christian resource written on the subject of forgiveness contains the advice to forgive ourselves. There are several reasons for this:
The Destructive Emotions of Guilt, Shame & Anger has got to go!
Personal sin is a self-inflicted wound in our hearts and in other’s lives. The guilt we feel is a deep, penetrating stain left behind, which can marinate in our souls for years. Lingering guilt can ruin people’s lives and relationships, making its removal a necessary step to be healed from sin. Shame is a close cousin of guilt. In shame, we personally attack ourselves, declaring us worthless because of what we have done, or what others have done to us. Anger is another emotion displayed when moral laws have been broken. If we have sinned, we may become angry at ourselves for doing wrong. We failed at meeting our expectations, so we get angry at ourselves. Both Christians and non-Christians alike understand the effects of guilt, shame, and anger on a person’s life and relationships, and both recognize the need to “let go” and be free from these self-destructive emotions.
Forgiveness is the Path to Freedom
Guilt, shame, and anger are not only common emotions, but enslaving emotions as well. While there may be times where feeling these emotions are appropriate, these emotions can capture us and rule our hearts for extended periods of times. We need to be free from emotional captivity and most would agree that forgiveness plays an important role in becoming free from guilt, shame and anger. Quotes about forgiveness, such as “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that prisoner was you” (Lewis Smedes) and “Forgive others. Not because they deserve forgiveness, but you deserve peace” (author unknown) demonstrate the freeing effects of forgiveness on the one who forgives. These quotes focus on forgiving someone (not self) who hurt you in some manner resulting in freedom or peace.
While forgiving others can bring freedom for self, forgiveness from others does not always bring the same promise. If our freedom from these emotions is dependent on another granting forgiveness and the other person does not forgive us, then we can never be free. Yet even if we are forgiven by the other person, we often still feel the guilt, shame, and personal anger at ourselves. Therefore, many Christians and non-Christians conclude that freedom from the emotions of guilt, shame, and anger can only be achieved through self-forgiveness. They argue, “If you are angry at yourself, then forgive yourself and you will be free.”
Christians, however, would argue that forgiveness from God, in addition to self-forgiveness, is also necessary for real freedom. Sadly, Many have not experienced the freedom from God’s forgiveness alone, therefore they argue self-forgiveness is a necessary step for freedom.
A BIBLICAL RESPONSE
Most of us agree that freedom from compounding guilt, shame, and anger are essential for healing for self and for relationships. The path to such healing is where we may differ. While forgiving yourself is a popular teaching, we must first ask if this teaching is taught in Scriptures. Then, we need to determine if this teaching is either in accordance with Scripture or contrary to it.
Is Forgiving Yourself Taught In Scripture?
If you study the context of the words forgive or forgiveness in the Scriptures, you will find both vertical and horizontal forgiveness. Vertical forgiveness is when we ask for forgiveness from God. God’s forgiveness is requested because we have sinned. Horizontal forgiveness, however, is either seeking or granting forgiveness to others. Yet there is no place in Scripture where self-forgiveness is taught. If self-forgiveness is necessary and required like vertical or horizontal forgiveness, why is this left out of the Scriptures? I would argue it is not in the Scriptures because it is not only unnecessary, but forgiving yourself diminishes the forgiveness of Christ.
Is Forgiving Yourself in Accordance to or Contrary to Scripture?
Forgiveness is taught throughout the Scriptures. With all the teachings about forgiveness, why would God leave out self-forgiveness if it so important for healing? I believe there are several reasons:
- God’s Forgiveness Through Christ is Sufficient – While books have been written on this topic, I’ll give an extremely brief explanation. Scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ has set us free from sin and the effects of sin, such as guilt and shame (Gal 5:1, Rom 6:18, 6;22, 8:2, Ps 32:5, etc.). If we hold onto sin, guilt and shame, it is because we either have not accepted his complete forgiveness of our sins through Christ, or we don’t believe it is enough. When we say, “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,” we are saying, “Christ’s death for my sins, and his resurrection, was insufficient to set me free, I need to forgive myself. Only I can set me free.” In other words, salvation or freedom from our sins, guilt and shame is by my works (the act of forgiving self), and not by God’s love, grace, and death on the cross. Scripture repeatedly states salvation and redemption come from God through Christ, and not by ourselves (Jn 8:36, Eph 1:7, 2:8-9, I Jn 1:9, etc.). I like Rick Thomas’ explanation: “If sinner-man could forgive himself, he would not need a perfect sacrifice. If an imperfect sacrifice would do, who needs Christ? How convenient: I can sin, forgive myself of my sin, and be free from my sin. I can live in a hermetically sealed self-made redemptive world.” If we can forgive ourselves, then God’s forgiveness becomes unnecessary or insufficient.
- Practicing and Applying Grace brings Freedom – I have had conversations with people who have “forgiven themselves” and who felt completely healed from these emotions. My assumption is that such freedom is because they learned more about grace, God’s unmerited favor. They’ve admitted they have sinned / failed, accepted that it is in their nature to do so, and understood that they are still loved, have value and worth beyond their wrongful actions. When we understand that we are not defined by our sins, but by God’s grace, we experience healing. Such understandings, especially in light of the cross of Christ, will bring freedom from guilt, shame, and anger.
Concluding the Matter
All of us recognize it is a problem to hold onto guilt, shame, and anger. While we all wish to help others become free from these harmful emotions, or we may need to be free ourselves, the Scriptures always point to freedom through Christ alone. When people say “I know that it my head, but not in my heart,” they are telling you that they don’t yet believe it. They know and believe it to be true, but they have not incorporated that belief into their life, which is why one isn’t free from guilt, shame, or anger. When we wish to help people with these emotions, point them to Christ alone. If we need this healing ourselves, read and study more about His redeeming grace and love. For “if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed” (Jn 8:36). Do you truly believe this? Then you are free.
For Parts I and III:
Other related blogs:
About the Author – Fred Jacoby, MA is the Director of Foundations Christian Counseling Services in Northeast, PA. Fred also serves as the Pastor of Counseling at Cornerstone Community Church, Fred has authored a mini-book “King of the Road: Overcoming Road Rage” and his newest book, “The Black and White Thinking Christian.”