My classes have been interacting with Chris Brauns’ careful and thorough guide, Unpacking Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a rabbit hole topic, for sometimes the more you think about it the more confusing it gets. Must the person repent before you can forgive them? What if their repentance is not sincere? If you suspect they aren’t sincere, then aren’t you being victimized again when you reconcile with them? As Neal Plantinga wrote in his review of L. Gregory Jones’ book, Embodying Forgiveness, the topic of forgiveness kicks up more rabbits than we can catch.
One of the questions that came up in class was whether it is right and good to forgive yourself. I’ll share what I told the class, and since I’m quite sure I don’t have the final word on this topic, I would welcome any insights from you (and Chris, if he wants to weigh in).
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 (notice how I picked a sin that, as a Baptist, I have almost no chance of committing). 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?
These are my thoughts. If you think they are off base, please forgive me (because I won’t be).