By Kathy Pollard
That’s a great question! We often hear of the importance of being able to forgive ourselves, but is that actually in the Bible? We’re commanded to forgive others in multiple passages, but where is there any mention of forgiving ourselves?
While there isn’t a verse that states “you should forgive yourself,” it is certainly implied.
First, let’s make sure we understand how we’re using the word “forgive.” When God forgives us, He is removing the guilt of our sin. He is wiping away our sins (1 John 1:9). When we forgive others (or ourselves), we are not doing that. Only God can do that. When He asks us to forgive others, He is not asking us to take away the guilt of their sin. That’s His job. He is asking us to not harbor ill will toward them, to let go of our anger or any grudges, and to offer that forgiveness from the heart (Matt. 18). So when we forgive ourselves, we’re not saying we have the power to forgive our sins. That’s God’s role only. But we are saying we can release the burden we carry because of it. We can trust, from the heart, that we can let it go.
Second, consider Paul’s example. He had a “former life” he wasn’t proud of (Gal. 1:13). If we’re supposed to forgive ourselves, why doesn’t Paul say anything about forgiving himself? He may not come right out and say it but it seems like he does describe it. Paul wrote about “being anxious for nothing” and praying for the “peace of God that passes all understanding and guards your hearts and minds” (Phil. 4:6-7). He said even though he “persecuted the church,” he wanted a “righteousness of his own…through Jesus Christ.” How? By “forgetting what is behind and reaching for what is ahead.” That is the perfect definition of what it means to forgive ourselves (and others, for that matter). He then goes on to say “all of us who are mature should take such a view of things” and “join together in following my example” (Phil. 3:6-17).
Third, consider Peter’s example. Jesus told him that Satan was going to go after him and he was going to give in. Peter replied, “I’m ready to die for you!” Instead he denied Jesus. “When Jesus looked straight at Peter…he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:31-34, 54-62). How that must have weighed on him! But somehow he went on to serve as an elder in His Lord’s church (1 Pet. 5:1) and serve on mission trips (Acts 9 & 10). When struggling with forgiving self, it can be very helpful to read 1 & 2 Peter with Peter’s denial of Jesus in mind. “Grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Pet. 1:2). “Cast all your anxiety/ worry on Jesus because He cares for you…and the God of all grace will make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:7,10). Peter was able to move forward because he trusted God’s grace. And that gave him peace, strength, determination.
Fourth, what would NOT forgiving ourselves look like? It would involve hanging on to the burden of guilt and being weighed down by it. Or not being able to let the shame go. Perhaps it would include being unsure of our own salvation because of it. But it seems like all of the reassurances that God gives of His complete forgiveness are to remove those very feelings we might struggle with (Heb. 8:12; Micah 7:18-19; Psa. 103:12 and so many more!). He wants us to have faith and confidence in our salvation (1 John 5:13), in our cleansing (1 John 1:7-9), and in our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Forgiving ourselves just means that we take to heart God’s promises and assurances. We reach for that with both hands instead of dragging remnants of our past behind us.
Finally, why is it important to forgive ourselves? Paul wrote to Christians about how to treat a brother who had seriously messed up. He said, “forgive and comfort him…reaffirm your love for him.” Why? “So he will not be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow.” He went on to give another reason, “If there is anything to forgive, forgive…in order that Satan might not outwit us” (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Forgiveness is so important to the spiritual wellbeing of others and their ability to move forward and stay strong. Those same reasons are no less true when it comes to the importance of forgiving ourselves. Another reason it’s important to forgive ourselves is because it changes how we live, think, and act. There’s an observable conduct that points others to God’s mercy. Paul mentioned this when he called himself the “chief of sinners.” He said finding mercy allowed him to show others what Jesus is like (“longsuffering”) so others may believe in Him (1 Tim. 1:15-16). One more reason it’s important to forgive ourselves is that it will affect how we treat others. “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5). One might argue that this involves how we love ourself, too (Mark 12:31), but it’s perhaps more important to note that how we handle our own past mistakes could impact our ability to love others. We need to let go of them (in essence, forgive ourselves) so that we can offer that same love and grace to others as we’re commanded.