Man with head down cannot forgive himself
Man head down cannot forgive himself sad

It’s not my place. If I sin against God or man it is their place to forgive me. When others wrong me, it is on me to forgive them. But it’s not my place to forgive myself.

Forgiveness Defined

I explained in my last post that I struggle to forgive myself for one key reason: I can’t.

Unless I redefine forgiveness, I cannot forgive myself since forgiveness involves a victim and a wrongdoer. To forgive myself means that I play both roles. A part of me is required to play the victim for something that I did. But I cannot, for the same offense, be both the offended and the offender.

To use the word “forgive” for a transaction where I am both the victim who needs to forgive and the offender who needs forgiveness makes a muddle of biblical forgiveness.

Because Scripture has two clear categories of forgiveness. We could call them “vertical,” or God-to-man forgiveness; and “horizontal,” or man-to-man forgiveness.

We see the horizontal, or person-to-person, dimension clearly in Colossians 3:13 (ESV):

Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

A second text is Luke 17:3 (ESV). Hear our Lord Jesus say,

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him

It is our place, it is on us, to forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12-14).

Without God’s forgiveness, received by faith in Christ, we are dead in our sins. One text that powerfully depicts the “vertical,” or God-to-man, dimension of forgiveness is Psalm 32:5 (ESV):

I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

A second text includes the beloved words from the Beloved Apostle in 1 John 1:9 (ESV):

If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Biblically, forgiveness is between God and man and between man and man (or woman).

We stand in need of both.

But I Feel Like I Need to Forgive Myself

But what about self-to-self forgiveness? Does the Bible mention that?

Not a word, at least not that I can find. But there is a feeling that makes us use the phrase. I saw that feeling up close last night.

When someone talks about forgiving himself, he likely means forgiving himself for something he did to someone else, or to a whole team. Picture Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive end Joseph Ossai.


Because last night in front of millions of NFL fans, Ossai committed a late penalty that turned the game. Rather than overtime and, with a win, a trip to the Super Bowl, Ossai and his team watched the Chiefs kick a game-winning field goal with three seconds left. Now it’s a Chiefs-Eagles Super Bowl.

The camera focused on a forlorn Ossai sobbing alone on the sidelines.

Talk about heart rending. Even if “forgive yourself” is not Bible talk, what is Ossai to do? His lapse, his wrong, hurt the whole team.

What are we to do when we did something dumb that hurts others and can’t be undone?

Godly Grief or Worldly Grief?

Self-forgiveness breaks down the clear categories of what forgiveness is: a wronged person forgiving a person who wronged him, not a wronging person forgiving a wronging person. But even if it’s “intrinsically confusing,” to use the term, “forgive yourself,” it means something real.

Maybe it’s the feeling that’s described in 2 Corinthians 7. Paul had written a hard letter to call the Corinthians out on their sin and to invite their repentance. They do repent and Paul does forgive. While they were at fault, he does not hold their sin against them. We read in verses 8-10:

Even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it. . . . I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

Pastor Kevin DeYoung describes how to tell the difference between worldly grief and godly grief:

[O]ne mobilizes you into action and the other immobilizes you. Godly grief is a fruitful and effective emotion. We are not meant to wallow in this grief. It is supposed to spur us to action, to change, to make right our wrongs, to be zealous for good works, to run from sin and start walking in the opposite direction.

But worldly grief makes you idle and stagnant. You don’t change. You don’t grow. You don’t fight against the deeds of the flesh. Instead you ruminate on your mistakes and obsess about people’s opinions and ponder what might have been… 

Kevin DeYoung, “Godly Grief

Ruminating, obsessing and pondering what might have been sound like signs that it is time to move on—to cross over, by God’s grace, from worldly grief to godly grief.

We’ve Got to Accept God’s Forgiveness

Could it be that before we cross the threshold from worldly grief—and by that I mean the kind that makes us feel bad, guilty, embarrassed, and self-condemned—to godly grief that brings refreshment and life, we feel a need to forgive ourselves?

Pastor John Piper suggests that that is the case.

[T]his reality is very close to what people are dealing with when they speak of the need to forgive themselves. They mean they need to move through worldly grief over sin to godly grief over sin and beyond into life and freedom. And the difference is a grief that leads out of death-giving self-condemnation to life-giving acceptance of God’s, and in this case Paul’s, statement of no condemnation.

Let’s humble ourselves and step down off the judge’s seat and let God be God in his pronouncement of no condemnation.

Pastor John Piper, “Should We Learn to Forgive Ourselves?”

In other words, when we say we need to forgive ourselves we might mean that we need to accept God’s forgiveness. But we might mean something else entirely.

6 Reasons You Might Try to Forgive Yourself

I’ve been learning that “I can’t forgive myself,” can mean many different things. Robert D. Jones’s Forgiveness: “I Just Can’t Forgive Myself!” has been a helpful resource. Jones offers five possible underlying meanings, which may overlap. (Summaries from Justin Taylor.)

Before I respond to a friend who says she can’t forgive herself, I would be loving and wise to first discern which of them she means.

Do any of these meanings express what you mean when you said, “I just can’t forgive myself?”

1. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be expressing an unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness.

This seems to be the most common meaning. It’s the worldly grief just described. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us… Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt.

2. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may not see or be willing to acknowledge the depth of his depravity.

The expression “I can’t forgive myself” often means “I still can’t believe I did that!” . . . Inability to forgive oneself often expresses an underlying problem of pride and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.

3. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be venting his regrets for failing to achieve a certain cherished desire.

In essence, such a person says this: “I had an opportunity to get something I really wanted, but I threw it all away! I can’t forgive myself.”

4. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be trying to establish his own standards of righteousness.

In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is like saying, “I haven’t lived up to my own perfect standards” or “I haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations.” His longing for self-forgiveness arises from his failure to measure up to his own standards of performance, his own image of how good he is or ought to be.

5. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may have ascended to the throne of judgment and declared himself to be his own judge.

In this case the expression “I can’t forgive myself” is equivalent to saying, “I’m in the role of Judge and will dispense forgiveness as I decide.” Such a person has convened the court, rendered a guilty verdict upon himself and now believes that he must grant the pardon. But the Bible declares that God alone is both judge and forgiver as well as penalty-bearer for those in Christ!

To these five meanings I would add a sixth.

6. The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may be feeling the pain and unease when the person he has offended has not granted forgiveness.

I think this common. I’ve felt it myself. We long to have experience the refreshment and restoration that forgiveness brings. While our God is faithful to forgive, people are not. That means that even if we know that God has forgiven us, for all of our sins are ultimately against him (Psalm 51:4), we may have to endure the pain of broken relationships.

But self-forgiveness is not the cure for any of these.

Helpless, Look to Him for Grace

Do you know the hymn, “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady? In a 1775 article, “Life a Journey,” he wrote,

Yet, if you fall, be humbled; but do not despair. Pray afresh to God, who is able to raise you up, and to set you on your feet again. Look to the blood of the covenant and say to the Lord, from the depth of your heart,

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee!
Foul, I to the fountain fly:
wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Make those words of the apostle, your motto: ‘Perplexed, but not in despair; cast down, but not destroyed.'”

Viewed 1/30/2023 in Hymnary

Back to Joseph Ossai and his penalty. He owned it. But as the tears dried, he told a reporter, “I’ve got to learn from experience. I’ve got to know not to get close to that quarterback when he is close to that sideline… In a dire situation like that, I gotta do better.”

Learn. Do better. Cast down, but not destroyed. No excuses. Nothing in our hands we bring. Simply to the cross we cling.

God forgives us there. He is able to set us on our feet again.

Without an ounce of self-forgiveness.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

— Augustus Toplady

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