(by Dr. Deb Waterbury)
I love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Some of us even read it to our children at Christmastime. It’s a good reminder for us to get our minds off of ourselves and onto others at this time of year. It’s a classic.
However, it just scratches the surface, doesn’t it? Poor Ebenezer Scrooge is pitied by the audience because he has so obviously missed what his nephew and the Cratchits know, what Dickens portrays as the “true meaning of Christmas,” but what really happened to Ebenezer was isolation and loneliness because of a hurt he suffered a long time before.
Remember the story? He wasn’t always cold and heartless and unkind and ALONE. He was mistreated as a child by his father, and then relationship upon relationship began to falter, because of greed and malice and pain, until he became the curmudgeonly man we all love to hate in Dickens’ story.
The truth of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge goes all the way back to relationship. It goes back to the breakdown of relationship between him and someone he loved, and this is unfortunately an age-old problem. It’s a problem for men and women, but as the sex who lives a veritable life based on relationships, this issue often permeates our lives–the lives of women. (more…)
Editor’s note: The following is a guest-post by The Philippian Jailer, whom I referred to in my last post as “my friend, the Jailer”. Aside from being a dear friend and brother, the Jailer sometimes helps me with the technical side of blogging and social media. His family and mine go back a quarter century, and they are very dear to us. More immediately, the insights he shares below first appeared on his site after the Facebook interaction which prompted my last post. — Dr. Deb
Quick, how many books, sermons, Bible studies, blogs, and pithy social-network posts revolve around the concept of self-forgiveness? Any guesses? A quick Google search revealed 13,400,000 hits. Needless to say, it’s a hot topic for the church as well as for popular culture.
Now … how many verses in Scripture tell us to forgive ourselves? I’ll give you a hint: the answer rhymes with “hero”. That’s because self-forgiveness isn’t a Scriptural concept; it’s part of the Oprahization of modern Christianity.
Frankly, who really cares if I forgive myself?
Okay, now I’ve just offended (or terrified) several groups of people. But hear me out:
1. For those true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over past sins … relax! Stop worrying about forgiving yourself. Instead, live in the joy of God’s amazing, transforming grace! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) In other words, you’ve been forgiven by the Lord and King–the only being in the universe with the authority to truly and effectively forgive sins. So follow Him joyfully and gratefully, like one who’s redeemed from the grave! Jesus paid your entire debt; stop wasting the life He redeemed trying to charge yourself a meaningless surtax.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:1-2, 33-34)
2. For the true followers of Christ who struggle with guilt over current sins … er, don’t relax. We call that “conviction”. You’re supposed to feel guilty when you rebel against God. The Holy Spirit is trying to get through to you. Confess, repent, and seek the counsel and accountability of your fellow believers–the best of whom will not judge you, but will respect you more for the transparency and maturity you display by facing your sin directly and Scripturally. As I’ve mentioned once before:
Guilt, like pain, is unpleasant. If we are in great pain, we understandably want it to go away. We want relief quick! But pain also alerts us to some medical malady. If by treating the pain we mask the malady and leave it untreated, the results can be catastrophic. For this reason, those who suffer from leprosy and lose their nerve endings learn to very carefully monitor their extremities. Because they may not feel the pain of a simple cut, infection can set in before they realize they’ve been injured.
Guilt plays a similar role with respect to sin. Its primary function is to alert us to a deeper problem. David needed to feel the guilt of his sin with Bethsheba. Denying it merely prolonged his rebellion. In the end, God used Nathan to apply the scalpel to David’s conscience, revealing David’s guilt and enabling him to repent.
3. For those who are more interested in “living victoriously” than taking up the cross and following Christ, pay attention! Self-forgiveness is self-delusion; it may help deliver “Your Best Life Now“, but it won’t save you from the judgment to come! This guilt of the unredeemed is not merely valid, but entirely necessary:
For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus. “… to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment. To provide him superficial “healing” in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence.
The bottom line is this: the concept of self-forgiveness is not Biblical, but secular-humanist at its core, because it idolizes the self. If I have the power to condemn or forgive myself, then God is irrelevant to my salvation. Self-forgiveness is not merely unnecessary and redundant; it is foolish, delusional, and self-idolatry.
Not long ago I shared a quote on my Facebook page from a fairly well-known American pastor about being able to forgive one’s self. The quote was:
“‘I can’t forgive myself’ is another way of saying ‘Even though Jesus forgives me, there’s a god above Jesus whose opinion matters more—me.’”
On a cursory level, this seems perfectly true. However, then my friend, the Jailer, made some interesting observations about self-forgiveness on his blog that made me think deeper on the topic. (The Philippian Jailer, “Does God Want Me to Forgive Myself,” http://networkedblogs.com/NiedC)
Now, let me begin by saying that as a minister, I counsel quite often. In this counsel, as well as from personal experience, I know the necessity of letting go of the guilt from past mistakes. Often the burden of who we are and what we are capable of seems to completely negate any possibility of forgiveness. For this we look to the cross and try desperately to understand the concepts of justification and propitiation as they have been given to us by our Savior, Jesus Christ.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)
Here is the issue, then, as I see it: The phrase, “Forgive yourself,” has become blurred by a worldview that puts self as center.
For example, when I counsel someone who is struggling with acknowledging Christ’s complete forgiveness of her transgressions, the problem is that for as long as she lives on this earth she will look in the mirror and see herself. She knows what she’s done. She knows the depths to which she has sunk. It is absolutely impossible for us to view ourselves as God views us once we’ve been justified by the blood of Jesus. We still sin. We still have sinned. We know this.
Consequently, my objective is always pointing her to God’s Word where the truth of what it means to be justified comes clear. From that we can hopefully move to accepting that we have a God who is that gracious and that merciful, and that the only way to live a joyful and purposeful Christian life is to know that we are justified, even though we can’t imagine why. We shouldn’t imagine why. There’s no reason other than God’s grace.
The problem is when someone begins to think that there ismore to it than that. The problem is if people look into the mirror and come to the point where they actually forgive themselves of their sins—deeds committed against the Lord of all creation.
Dictionary.com defines forgive as:
“To grant pardon or remission; to give up all claim on account of.”
According to the very definition of the word, I can’t forgive myself. It’s fully and completely out of the realm of my power. Only God can pardon me. Only He can justify me when I’ve done nothing to deserve that clean slate.
As believers then, we have to be supremely careful of throwing phrases around like, “Forgive yourself,” because although I know what I mean and another Christian might understand the context of those words, there’s a world out there that has no concept of answering to the Judge and Ruler of everything. When the world says to “Forgive yourself,” it literally means “Forgive yourself.” “Pardon yourself.”
“What you did is okay. You’re good. Forget it and move on.”
I know that not only can’t I pardon myself, but there is relevance in remembering my sin as I seek to live under no condemnation because of it. It is good for me to remember how precious is my Savior and how gracious is my God to forgive me, a sinner. There is a unique balance in remembering and not living under condemnation because of it, of course, but correct perspective in regards to me and my Lord is vital.
So, after some contemplation, study, prayer, and lack of sleep, I still agree with the pastor whose quote I posted, but in principle and context only. It’s the words that perhaps need to be altered. The issue for all of us who are sinners saved by grace is accepting the reality of the greatest of all gifts—justification—even if it defies all human reasoning.
Shouldn’t it defy all human reasoning?