Discernment Filter: Forgive Yourself

Spiritual discernment is a subject that has been much on my mind in recent weeks. I have been thinking a great deal about how I can become more discerning and how I can serve others in helping them understand the value of discernment as well as the practice of discernment. To that end I have been attempting to formulate a “discernment filter.” I have been attempting to formulate a small set of rules through which I can pass a teaching or doctrine in order to discern whether or not it is consistent with Scripture.

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Today I am going to make my first public attempt at passing a teaching through this filter. The teaching I would like to examine is “self-forgiveness.”

Self-Forgiveness

A few days ago I purchased the newest album by Downhere, a band I quite like and have followed for some time now. It is a good album and I’ve enjoyed listening to it. There is one song, though, that got me thinking. The song is entitled “Forgive Yourself.” I’ll give you the lyrics so you can read them for yourself:

You keep laying down $100 bills
On the counter of your untamed guilt
And you’ll keep paying out from your empty purse
Until you feel you’ve satisfied your curse
No one here is throwing stones
But you have got to drop your own

Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Anyone who bears a scar wants to forget it
Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Nothing ever frees you more than just believing
That you’ve been forgiven, come out of the prison

Can you tell me how you spend every day
Looking in the mirror of your shame
And staring like a judge, you are ruling for yourself
You tied a stone around your neck
You’re drowning in a past regret

Don’t believe it’s okay to be like this
Don’t believe you deserve to live like this
‘Cause every part of you wants to know
Just one reason why you should let go

Forgive yourself, forgive yourself
Nothing ever frees you more than just believing
Come out of the prison
You’ve been delivered

The idea of self-forgiveness, which is clearly presented in this song, is one that I have come across in the past. But as I thought about this, I realized that I could think of no biblical proof to support it. And so I decided that this teaching could become a test for this discernment filter.

This filter has three steps, modelled after 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 which exhorts all Christians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” And so in this filter we first test, then abstain, and finally hold fast.

Test

We will first test this doctrine, studying the issue and holding it up against the truths of Scripture. We may seek the wisdom of other believers who, having been guided by Scripture and plain reason, have reached conclusions of their own. If possible, we will also seek the consensus of historic Christianity.

As we peer into Scripture, it becomes quickly apparent that “forgive yourself” is not biblical language. I have not found any place in Scripture where we are told to forgive ourselves, either in those word or even in concept. We are told to seek forgiveness from God and from our fellow man. We are told to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us and release any bitterness we feel towards them. But I do not see that we are ever told to forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness is a constant, recurring theme in Scripture, so I will present only a few of the many verses dealing with it along with a brief comment for each:

  • “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!” Psalm 32:1-2. The man is blessed whose sins have been forgiven by God.
  • “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” Mark 11:25. We are to forgive each other so that God will continue to forgive us.
  • “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Colossians 3:13. We are to forgive each other as a way of modelling the forgiveness God extends to us.
  • “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. When we confess our sins to God, He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us.
  • “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” 1 John 2:1. When we sin, Jesus Christ stands as our advocate before the Judge.

In searching other resources, I was not able to find much material on this subject written by Bible-based, discerning authors. In fact, much of the material advocating forgiveness of oneself is written from the perspective of a New Age, pop-Christianity. It is the “Dr. Phil” brand of Christian psychology that tends to advocate the view that we need to forgive ourselves. One discerning leader who has written on this subject, though only briefly, is John MacArthur. He writes the following:

I realize there are some who teach that a kind of self-forgiveness is necessary. I find this nowhere in Scripture. I’ve met many people who claim to be unable to forgive themselves, but on careful examination this usually turns out to be a kind of sinful pride exacerbated by modern self-esteem philosophy. The person who complains about not being self-forgiving is often simply looking for flattering or consoling words from others as a way of salving the hurt that guilt has caused to their pride.

He also quotes Jay Adams who, in his book From Forgiven to Forgiving, wrote:

The problem is not self-forgiveness. Their expressed agony stems from the very fact that, in the worst way, they want to forgive themselves. They want to put it all behind them, they want to bury it once and for all…

The problem is that people who talk this way recognize something more needs to be done. Forgiveness is just the beginning; it clears away the guilt. They also recognize that they are still the same persons who did the wrong–that though they are forgiven, they have not changed. Without being able to articulate it, and using instead the jargon they have heard all around them, they are crying out for the change that will assure them they will never do anything like it again. When, as a counselor, I help them to deal with the problems in their lives that led to the wrong, in such a way that they lead a more biblical lifestyle, I then ask, “Are you still having trouble forgiving yourself?” Invariably, they say no.

Discernment, as the word is used in Scripture, implies that we are to “separate things from one another at their points of difference in order to distinguish them” (Jay Adams). The point of difference in our study seems to be in our understanding of who it is that we sin against. We must realize that, first and foremost, no matter who has been harmed by our sin and how many people have been affected by it, our sin is primarily sin against God. Many of those who advocate the view that we must forgive ourselves would have a low or non-existent understanding of the holiness of God. Thus, in their view, my sin is primarily against myself. They hold forth a selfish, self-centered view of sin which says “Against myself, myself only have I sinned.” It seems to me, then, that self-forgiveness has roots buried more deeply in self-esteem and sinful, human-centered psychology than in Scripture.

While Scripture does not forbid self-forgiveness, it also does not require it. I would suggest, then, that we do not need to forgive ourself and nor should we make this our practice. If we struggle with guilt or shame, forgiving ourselves may be a temporary salve but it cannot bring the peace and healing we seek. We can only have true peace, lasting peace, by accepting God’s forgiveness and allowing Him to remove the guilt of our transgression. This must be an act of God rather than an act of self.

Abstain

In this step we will determine what it is that we must avoid, now that we have determined that we are not required to forgive ourselves. We will substitute what is false for what is true.

It seems to me that the lesson here is that we must always remember and believe that we sin primarily against God. What we need to avoid is a man-centered approach to sin where we first ask “how have I harmed myself with this sin.” Rather, we must turn to God and ask Him to forgive us, for our sin has been primarily against the Lord. We substitute self-forgiveness for true repentence before God and acceptance of His forgiveness.

Hold Fast

In this final step we implement the truths we have learned and seek to apply them to our lives. We will hold fast to the truths God has revealed and ask that He will help in the application of these truths.

As I have suggested, it seems to me that I do not need to forgive myself for my sin. Rather, I need to ask God’s forgiveness and, having confessed and repented of my sin, I need to hold fast to God’s promises that He has forgiven me. My primary responsibility is not to myself but to God. When I sin against another person or against myself, I primarily sin against God. Thus it is His forgiveness that I require. I can live without the forgiveness of men. I can live without self-forgiveness. But I cannot live without God’s forgiveness. My responsibility and my privilege is to receive God’s forgiveness, trusting that, if I confess, He is faithful and righteous to forgive me my sins and to cleanse me from all unrighteousness.”

The application of these truths may be a deeply personal matter. I may need to change the way I ask God for forgiveness. I may need to extend greater effort in seeking the forgiveness of others. I may need to repent before God of taking His holiness so lightly that I could believe that my sin has been primarily against myself.

Conclusion

So there it is: my first attempt at passing something through this “discernment filter.” I would be interested in your feedback (more on the process than this particular teaching).