You Can’t Forgive Yourself

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February 11, 2013 by Dwight Bernier

“I can’t forgive myself”. “I finally forgave myself”. Both of these statements are popular in our culture which looks to rid the self of any blame. I hear these types of statements all the time. But proclamations of self-forgiveness miss the fact that forgiveness is something that must be granted by the person who was acted against.

What both of these phrases assume (intentionally or not) is that self-forgiveness is the greatest reconciliation that can happen. We celebrate when someone forgives themselves. “Yes, you got yourself back again!” But no forgiveness actually took place. Rather, self-forgiveness looks at the action that they committed and finally says, “it doesn’t matter that I did that. I’m moving on. I’m forgiving my action. I’ve paid my dues with my guilt (or whatever other punishing feeling might be involved).” But you can’t forgive an action that has impacted someone else. They must forgive you for committing it against them.

In Dave Harvey’s book, When Sinners Say I Do, he shows that forgiveness works much like water flowing through a pipe with three valves. All three of these valves must be opened for forgiveness to truly flow. The first valve is controlled by the one who sinned (repentance and request for forgiveness). The second valve is mercy, and this is controlled by the one sinned against. The third valve is the reality that the one sinned against must absorb the cost of the sin, as it will cost them something to forgive the other person. If one of these valves has not been opened, forgiveness can’t happen.

Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration have to happen between two persons. You can’t open all three valves yourself. You are dependent on others forgiving you. Hopefully, the person you are approaching for forgiveness and restoration is willing to open the other two valves so that relationship can take place again.

But what about the actions that we commit that don’t seem to hurt anyone else? What about the actions we commit against ourselves? What do we do with the guilt that we have from that? Why do we have it? Is this where the term “I forgave myself” applies? No. In both the situation of acting against someone else and acting against self, we are ultimately acting against God.

In Psalm 51.4, David declares, “Against you (God), you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight”. David understood that regardless of who was impacted by his action, and there were many affected, he grasped that sin is primarily against God. Later on in the Psalm, David asks for God not to hide His face from him or cast him away, to create in him a clean heart, and to restore to him the joy of salvation. David is approaching God in repentance (turning from sin) and requesting forgiveness. And David knows that God will open the remaining two valves of mercy and absorbing the cost: “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51.17b).

How does God absorb the cost? On the cross. Jesus wore our rebellion and our actions committed against God, others, and self. Jesus has absorbed the cost of sin, which is death, and He experienced the wrath of God against sinners so that the valve of mercy could be opened to us, sinners needing forgiveness.

The valve analogy is backwards for how God deals with forgiveness. He has already absorbed the cost in Jesus. The offer from the cross and the empty tomb (Jesus is alive!) is mercy, not wrath. And our role is to go to the first valve and ask for mercy. From that pipe will flow living water, of which God is the fount of!

You can’t forgive yourself. But Jesus stands to save you, full of mercy, full of love, and full of forgiveness (even for the things you can’t imagine anyone could forgive you for!).


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