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"But I Can't Forgive Myself!"
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. A pastor may have done all he knows how to do and it still has not “worked.” They seem to live under a generalized feeling of condemnation. Their past does not remain past.

Many of these hapless souls are eventually referred out to the friendly, neighborhood psychological counselor. Even though we might experience a twinge of guilty regret, we feel 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.

The underpinning of psychology and the self-help industry is an emphasis on self—such as self-esteem, self-worth, and self-love. The preoccupation of the psychologist with self is not biblical. For example, on the issue of self-esteem, the Bible’s teaching is to esteem others better than ourselves, and yet our psychological goals revolve around improving the way we look at ourselves. 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 are tempted to follow the pop psychologists’ advice and 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 is particularly difficult for me to write, because I once believed all of this myself, and I was wrong. I am so sorry that I taught this to hurting souls, because I realize now that I probably did more harm than good. And so I have had to repent and go on from there. I now understand that trying to lead someone down the road toward the forgiving of self is like placing a sentence upon a person without the possibility of parole. 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 asked of them. 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—and as the church—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 therefore cannot help what they do. 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? The wife batterer is not guilty because he learned the behavior from his father. The teenager who shoots and kills three of his classmates comes from a “dysfunctional” family. 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, or the misguided Christian counselor, who tells us the victim must save himself—an impossible goal. The Bible tells us that man is guilty, and that man cannot possibly save himself!

I personally sought for 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, or you’ll never make it.”

He meant well. That’s the problem—we all mean well. We 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. 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. 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 reviewed the Bible biographies of very wicked individuals 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.”

When we repent, He is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from our sins. Our job is to lead people to this understanding, and to the acceptance of His forgiveness. Then we will begin to see progress and healing in people we had almost given up on.

Women, in particular, have been trying for years to forgive themselves, particularly of past sexual abuse, and continually fail…because they are attempting the impossible. Only God can do that. Let Him!).

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