Alan and Tina had been married for thirteen months but their relationship was a rocky one. There was little trust, little selflessness, and much that was unhealthy. One day Tina discovered that she was pregnant. Not wanting to disrupt her new law career and afraid of motherhood, she secretly got an abortion. A year later, when Alex found out, he exploded and walked out. A year after that Tina and Alex were divorced.**
THE PAIN OF GUILT AND SHAME
Let’s say that you happen to become acquainted with Tina five years later. She has become a believer in Jesus Christ, but continues to wrestle with one major hurdle. “I know that the Lord has forgiven me for killing my unborn child,” she says, “but I just can’t forgive myself.”
What would you say to Tina? How would you, as a fellow believer, counsel her? We are all called to do that, you know. God puts us into contact with other human beings who are often in pain and He doesn’t simply want us to hand him or her off to the professionals. He wants us to walk with that person—with the help of a pastor or a professional therapist perhaps. But He wants us to walk with that person. So how would you do that? How would you lead Tina to deal with her inability to forgive herself?
Perhaps a question that we ought to ask first is whether it is necessary or even possible for Tina to forgive herself. Is it actually important that she do so? And what does she mean, exactly, when she says that she can’t forgive herself? Where does she get the idea that she has to accomplish self-forgiveness, and that once she does everything will be all right?
This issue may seem hard to relate to for some of us but the fact of the matter is that the notion of “forgiving oneself” is a popular one today. Psychologists tell us that we have to forgive ourselves for whatever wrongs we think we may have done in the past. We have to get past those things, and put a bright face on it all. We have to tell ourselves that “it’s okay” for us to move on. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” our friends tell us. “Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and forgive yourself when you do,” today’s therapists say.
How about it? Have you ever felt that familiar uneasiness that arises when you remember something wrong that you have done in your past, someone you hurt, or something you never got around to doing but probably should have? You who have children who are wandering from the faith have a special agony here. You wonder, “What could I have done? What should I have seen? What might I have said?” Sometimes that old, ugly feeling leads us into a kind of despair, and we wish that we could be rid of it. We may even slip into the kind of conclusion that Tina came to–that our emotional or spiritual pain is a result of the fact that we have not yet been able to forgive ourselves and that only when we do will things get better.
I know of a woman who, many years ago, accidentally ran over a child with her car. He had been riding along the street on his bicycle, suddenly turned to cross the pavement, and drove right into the path of the oncoming car. The woman whose car rolled over his little body struggled with deep trauma for years afterwards. Her friends would sometimes find her in quiet places, sobbing with grief. There was no reason for her to feel responsible for the accident and yet she was plagued by guilt and very likely thought to herself, “I just can’t forgive myself.”
A MISDIAGNOSIS OF THE REASON FOR THE PAIN
Would it surprise you to hear that scripture says absolutely nothing about forgiving yourself? There is not one word or verse or even description of anybody coming to terms with the pain in his or her own life by forgiving him or herself. The notion of “forgiving oneself” may sound kind of biblical but there is, in fact, nothing in Scripture about it. There is a lot of information about and examples of and commands to exercise forgiveness, but the Bible always presents forgiveness as a relational issue–something that takes place between two parties who are in relationship with one another. One cannot forgive oneself any more than one can kiss oneself.
There are people who have tried to find a biblical background for the practice of forgiving oneself but the passages that they mention are all about the forgiveness that God gives to us or the forgiveness that we are called to give to one another. Again, there is nothing in the Bible about forgiving oneself!
So where does that leave Tina, the woman who had an abortion and now feels intense grief and guilt because of it? What do we say to her when she laments, “I just can’t forgive myself”? Well, one thing we shouldn’t do is take her statement at face value and assume that self-forgiveness is actually what she needs. Instead of trying to help her forgive herself, which is impossible to do, we should instead try to find out what is the real cause of the spiritual pain that she is feeling.
You see, Tina has misdiagnosed her condition. She has come to the wrong conclusion about what is the matter with her soul and has come to the wrong conclusion about what she needs to do to make it right. She is like a doctor whose patient complains of constant headaches and who prescribes aspirin without running some tests to find out what is causing those headaches. He treats the symptom without ever trying to discover the cause. Likewise Tina has been so consumed with her spiritual and emotional pain that she has been unable to go deeper into her condition to find its cause.
PAUL’S ENCOURAGEMENT TO LOOK ELSEWHERE
Let’s take a look at the passage that we have read, because it is a passage that talks about what forgiveness is really all about. In Romans 3 Paul is expounding on one of his favorite themes: That the law is useless for earning or winning or demonstrating personal righteousness. We cannot count on it to make us right with God because our ability to keep it is so flawed. Reliance upon the law to earn God’s favor leads only to death.
The question that Paul must answer for his readers, then, is this: If the law is unable to bring us righteousness, where do we need to go to get it? “Ah,” says Paul, “let me tell you about a new righteousness–one that is guaranteed to reconcile us to God and bring us new life. This new righteousness has come from God Himself, and the one in whom it is given is Jesus Christ. In Him we have our righteousness. His perfection, His righteousness, His purity is imputed to us, and we are made right with God. All we need to do is believe. No more self-reliance. Now you must simply have faith that you can’t do it and that Christ has already done it.” We shouldn’t even pretend that we can come close to making up for our sin and sinfulness. “Give it up,” says God, “and rely on my gift of new righteousness through my son, Jesus Christ.”
Of course, in a very real sense, this new righteousness is nothing new at all. Paul says that righteousness has been revealed already in the law and the prophets. Not in dependence upon them but in what they teach us about where righteousness actually comes from. The law teaches us about our sin, a truth that Paul himself makes clear just before our text, and it reveals to us that we are unable to do what God demands of us.
The fact that God does not destroy His people because of their failures reveals that He is gracious! He counts His people as righteous even though they aren’t! It’s like a carnival attendant who allows someone who is 38 inches tall onto the roller coaster ride even though the sign says that you have to be 40 inches tall. He counts that person as being 40 inches tall. Similarly, God counted His Old Testament people as righteous even though they weren’t and He did so even before Christ’s sacrifice. And all of the rules and regulations that Israel was supposed to follow were never meant to earn God’s favor by making them righteous but to thank Him for declaring them righteous already. All Israel had to do was believe in God’s graciousness and obey God out of gratitude. This is what Abraham did, as Paul will tell us in the next chapter, Romans 4. In other words, Christ is actually the continuation of God’s favor for His people. He is the perfect illustration and definitive revelation of it.
In verses 25-26 Paul makes this picture of the new righteousness a little clearer and sharper by saying that Christ is a sacrifice of atonement. His death pays the price for all of the sins that, up until now in world history, have gone unpunished and all of the sins that will ever be committed afterwards. God Himself pays the price for sin through Jesus Christ, and by doing so He is, at the same time, just and compassionate. His justice is expressed towards Jesus Christ, while His compassion is directed towards us as He declares us who are not righteous righteous. God forgives us in Jesus Christ. He cancels our sin. He atones for us. He reconciles us to Himself. This is the chief kind of forgiveness that the Bible talks about.
The only other kind of forgiveness that Scripture talks about is our responsibility to forgive one another. We are to imitate God, Paul says in Ephesians 5, and live a life of love just as Christ loved us. We are to forgive one another when others hurt us. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Christ taught His disciples, puts it very strongly. In it we are led to pray for forgiveness and to pray with the knowledge that God’s forgiveness of us is, in some way, connected to our willingness to forgive the people around us (“Forgive us our sins just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us”). We image God when we forgive. We become conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ when we do so.
And that is all that the Bible has to say about forgiveness. Again, there is nothing in there about self-forgiveness. When Tina says that she is just not able to forgive herself, the Bible’s response is, “That is not the problem here.” In Tina’s case, what is really happening in her pain-filled heart is that she has not yet fully come to grips with God’s forgiveness of her. She may understand it conceptually. She may even be able to receive it for her other sins. But she has not yet grasped its power to cover even this one sin. That is the source of the spiritual pain that she feels. That is the source of her uneasiness. What Tina must know is that, as the catechism says, “In Christ (she is) right with God and heir to life everlasting.” Her freedom from guilt and shame is not now nor ever will be dependent upon her forgiving herself. Her freedom is dependent upon her knowledge of and belief in God’s deep, deep forgiveness of all her sins.
THE SURRENDER TO GRACE
How will she come to that point? How will you come to that point if you are not there yet? It is, of course, something that only the Holy Spirit can do, but if you or Tina sense a desire to have peace from the remembrances of your sin, understand that as the Spirit’s moving you. And then all you need to do is surrender to the scandalous grace of God. Believe that whatever sin still torments your head or your heart was taken care of long ago at the cross of Calvary. You’ve heard this so often that it has likely grown too familiar. But hear it again with fresh ears: “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)
Let’s think of God’s grace this way: It is powerful enough even to cover Judas’ sin of betrayal (and would have if Judas had come to God with confession and repentance). . But Judas did not repent and confess. . When his conscience turned against him, he could not believe that his evil was conquerable. Perhaps, in the moments before he took his own life, he thought, “There is no way that I can forgive myself, and there is nobody left who could possibly forgive me.”
What a tragedy that he died in such despair! All he needed to do was observe what the law and the prophets had already revealed about God’s righteousness–that it was given freely to His people without their deserving it. All he needed to do was listen to Jesus’ often-made call to repentance and belief. All he needed to do was wait and listen to Jesus forgive the thief on the cross, and then watch Jesus die to save us all. Judas simply needed to receive, in the depths of his heart, the free gift of God’s grace. He didn’t need to forgive himself. He couldn’t.
There is an awful irony here that makes the tragedy even more bitter: We often seek forgiveness from ourselves, and our standards for righteousness are relatively low. Yet we can’t find it within us to forgive ourselves when we transgress them. Meanwhile, we should seek forgiveness from God, whose standards are very high, and who gives forgiveness freely when we don’t meet them.
To all of us who have been trying to forgive ourselves, God says, “Don’t bother. What you are really seeking is reconciliation with me. That is what will resolve the pain you feel. And the only one who can give it to you is me, and I do so freely. Believe it. Accept it. Live in it.”
Tina must, someday, be brought to see this. Hopefully, someone will take her there. Maybe one of you. Maybe you will have the high honor of taking her to Calvary, and telling her to leave all of her guilt and shame there. Hopefully, she will let go of the notion that she must forgive herself, and then turn to the boundless grace of God.
Ultimately, Tina is right: She can’t forgive herself. She will never be able to forgive herself. But God can…and has.
** The opening story is based on an article on self-forgiveness by Robert D. Jones entitled “I Just Can’t Forgive Myself: A Biblical Alternative to Self-Forgiveness”. The article appeared in the Winter 1996 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling (pp. 22-25).