A friend is struggling to forgive herself. She repented of her sin. She confessed it to God and to the person she hurt. The two forgave her. My friend did the job right. But months later, she just can’t forgive herself.
Maybe that’s as it should be. Because maybe the problem isn’t a forgiveness problem, but a pride problem. Before you call me cold-blooded and calloused, let me explain.
Proudly Pre-Occupied With Our Sin
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5b-6
The connection between feeling unforgiven and being proud is not obvious. But it’s there, not too far beneath the surface. Because, rightly understood, pride is not just thinking too highly of ourselves, it’s also thinking too lowly or too often of ourselves.
Neither does being humble mean tearing oneself down. Humility, in other words, is essentially a form of self-forgetfulness which is opposed to pride’s self-preoccupation. If we accept these definitions, it means our fixation on sin we’ve already confessed may in fact be pride’s counterfeit version of humility. It means, in short, that the focus on feeling forgiven is not an itch we must scratch.
The humble, forgiven saint doesn’t get hung up scratching that itch. He can let it sit. When the boys were younger and would scratch mosquito bites until they bled, I would dab on the Benedryl and distract them with toy to keep their little hands busy. They stopped scratching. The focus was off the bug bite.
But self-condemnation can sneak in under the guise of humility because it doesn’t boast or belittle others. But don’t rule out underlying pride, writes Jason Meyer:
Self-degradation, self-demotion, and self-condemnation all come when the show is on the other less-fortunate foot…Why would we want others to see these things? Ironically, self-demotion can be a sneaky form of self-promotion because we’re actually fishing for the affirmation and reassurance we believe we deserve…Self-condemnation passes judgment on us when we fall short of our own standards. Sometimes we carry out the painful judgment on ourselves. We can mentally replay poor performance in order to beat ourselves up over our failures. Self-condemnation…feels shame for falling short. (Killjoys, p. 11)
Pride doesn’t want us to forget our failure. Pride wants us to camp there on a shameful, beside Camp Woe-Is-Me. Humility camps elsewhere, writes Meyer. Humility pitches its tent under the mighty hand of God. Pride insists on carrying its sin and failure, but humility is fast to cast its cares on God. But since God in mercy is faithful and just to forgive our sins, we’d best accept it. We’d best cast our post-confession cares back to Mighty God and camp out there.
I don’t mean to be cavalier here. I know it’s no cake walk, accepting forgiveness and moving on. I’ve been there. I’ve spent plenty of nights at Camp Woe-Is-Me and never once have I had a good night’s sleep there. Sometimes after I repent of the selfish, stupid things I’ve said or done, and I don’t feel instantly refreshed (Acts 3:19). So I wallow in my guilt for a while, astounded that I could think, say, or do such ugly things; that conduct so un-becoming a Christian came from moi. I was, as Lewis aptly put it, sorry to find that I was the sort of [wo]man who did those things.
So why the big push for self-forgiveness these days? Why do well-meaning friends urge you to “forgive yourself”? It’s no doubt because they want to see you at peace, not in pain. They really want you to be able to move forward and live joyful. But the expression betrays a misunderstanding of biblical forgiveness.
Why We’re Confused
While Scripture assumes that we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34, Eph. 5:29), it nowhere calls us to forgive ourselves. Throughout its pages, forgiveness is transacted vertically between the sinner and his God, and horizontally between the sinner and the one he has sinned against. Nowhere is it transacted inside the self-same sinner.
So why do we feel a need to forgive ourselves? Why don’t we feel forgiven?
Maybe we stay and wallow in self-deprecation because deep down we feel like we still have to atone for our sin. It’s too good to be true, this message of Christ’s mercy. Maybe it’s because we haven’t grasped the immensity of the price Christ paid to purchase our pardon. Maybe we haven’t, maybe we aren’t, truly humbled and amazed that, He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Or maybe it’s because, like little kids, we confuse being forgiven with having no consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t mean no consequences. We know this. We know we can forgive a son who stole some cash and still make him pay it pay it back. We can forgive a daughter who broke curfew and still deny her Friday-night privileges. Forgiveness quite often co-exists with consequences.
But our feelings confuse us. We think that if we’re still feeling bad we need more forgiveness. Could it be we need more grace, more faith, to keep the humble tent pitched there where it belongs? Maybe we should pray,
Lord, we believe we are forgiven. Still, help our unbelief. Help us look on you more and think about ourselves our success and sin less. May these sins of earth grow strangely dim in the light of your mercy and grace. Please help us accept your forgiveness and your loving discipline.
Forgiven Like David
And make us more like King David, the man after your own heart.
David is a marvelous model of how to humbly accept forgiveness and consequences. After Nathan’s confrontational, convicting you-are-the man sheep speech, David and Bathsheba’s borne-of-wedlock baby dies. David’s servants are confused when, rather than weep and wallow, he rises from his mourning and, worships. He explained, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said,‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 2 Samuel 12:22
At the end of his life, against all wisdom, David orders a census. His conscience is quickly pricked and he repents. God makes him choose his consequence. David’s answer: Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” 2 Samuel 24:14
When David sinned, he repented. When he repented, he was forgiven. But, still he was disciplined. David might have felt unforgiven, but lying in the bed he made for himself, but he wasn’t trying to forgive himself. He did not grovel under it or spurn it. He didn’t despair nor express entitlement.
David? He did the right thing. David humbly hoped in God’s goodness. He camped right under God’s mighty hand, and accepted God’s mercy and his consequences.
Me? Discipline after being forgiven, but not feeling it, can leave me groveling; prone to the “all or nothing” syndrome. Either, I’m so horrible. How could God possibly forgive me for the mess I’ve made? Or, equally faithless, I don’t deserve this.
You? Do you pitch your tent in that refreshing, shady spot? Do you humble yourself like David and move on? Do you camp under God’s gracious, merciful mighty hand?