Blog Post

Forgiving Ourselves

One of my most vivid memories from childhood is being passed over for the class reading award in first grade. I thought for sure that I was going to win it. I think I even stood up from my desk when the award was being presented only to hear someone else’s name called instead of mine. It absolutely devastated me. I was inconsolable to such a degree and for a long enough period of time that the teachers decided the only thing they could do was to call my mom to come get me. I can still remember the inside of the classroom and where I was sitting. I can remember crying uncontrollably on my desk and the teachers trying their best to calm me down. But I cannot, for the life of me, remember why I cared so much about winning this award.

Such has been the story of my life. Fortunately and unfortunately, I have always been driven by this competitive desire to win at everything I do—from backyard football to academic pursuits and from family board games to first grade reading awards. I have learned over the years to minimize the outward manifestations of this innate desire to win. But inwardly I have torn myself apart. I have analyzed and over-analyzed everything that could possibly have gone wrong time and time again. I have beaten myself up. I have mistreated and abused myself inwardly, especially in the way that I have spoken to myself. In the end these things have all pushed me to work harder, to sacrifice more, to endure more pain, so that the next time I won’t suffer the same results. The mantra that drove Tim Tebow for at least much of his time in football has been a constant companion of mine too: “Somewhere he is out there, training while I am not. One day, when we meet, he will win.”[1]

Whether or not you can identify with these particular struggles, my guess is that you will still understand the inclination to beat yourself up or to punish yourself for something you have done or failed to do. My guess is that you will understand what it is to second-guess yourself or to speak negatively to yourself. Everyone knows failure, because everyone has fallen short in numerous ways—if not in the classroom or in sports then in relationships, diets, accomplishments, thoughts, words, and deeds. No one has had their lives turn out exactly as they have expected. Dealing with this reality is the topic of this article.

My best friend in high school drank himself to death because he couldn’t handle his failures. He expected more of himself, and he didn’t measure up in his own eyes. As Christians, we know that this isn’t the way to deal with things. We know that we have everything we need to handle our failures in and through the cross of Christ. For instance, we understand that God fully accepts us because of who Jesus is and what He has done. And we recognize that we are completely forgiven of all our sins and failures—past, present, and future—in and through Jesus Christ and, therefore, that God is for us forevermore (Rom. 8:1).

We should also recognize that God’s forgiveness of us is the paradigm for our forgiveness of others (see Matt. 18:21-35; Eph. 4:32; and Col. 4:13). We forgive others much precisely because we ourselves have been forgiven much by God (Luke 7:47). But what does this mean in regard to ourselves? Does it mean that we should always be quick to forgive ourselves? If God’s forgiveness of us is to be the paradigm for our forgiveness of others, is it, therefore, also to be the paradigm for our forgiveness of ourselves? And could this then be a solution to all the problems we face in regard to our own failures and sins?

Forgiveness in the Bible, as I have been arguing throughout this series, is a relational concept. It is always unto the restoration of a relationship that has been previously broken by sin. Because relationships by definition involve two or more people, this would suggest, in and of itself, that it is inappropriate to speak of forgiving ourselves. Every time the Bible speaks about forgiveness it does so in the context of our relationships with other people. Perhaps this is because most of us need more frequent reminders to be forgiving toward others. Most of us tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and hold others to a higher standard. That may be one reason why the Bible spends a lot of time telling us that we need to forgive others and no time at all on applying that same idea to ourselves.

Regardless, the point that I am trying to make here is this: because forgiveness is a relational category, and because relationships involve more than one person, and because the Bible doesn’t talk about us forgiving ourselves, I think the best and safest practice is for us not to apply this concept to ourselves. In this sense, I don’t think it is appropriate to speak of forgiving ourselves in any way. But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge that the Bible does have quite a bit to say about how we should and should not think of ourselves and how we should and should not treat ourselves in light of who we are in Christ Jesus.

In Romans 8:1, Paul tells us that “[t]here is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” One of the things this means is that we cannot condemn ourselves. And if we cannot condemn ourselves, then we should not engage in self-condemning behavior or adopt self-condemning attitudes. When we act in these ways, we are condemning what God has not, and this is always sinful.

What is more, in Romans 8:31, Paul reminds us that God is forever for us in Christ to the degree that nothing can ever be against us. And, if that is the case, it means that we ought not to engage in any kind of self-loathing or in beating ourselves up. To be against what God is for in any way and to hate what God loves is always wrong.

If I, like David, am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), then I should respond to my sins and failures without attacking my person. It is appropriate to be grieved over my failures and saddened over my sins. It is appropriate to be burdened by the ways my sins and failures have impacted others. But it is never appropriate to denigrate my person. I am a son of the Most High God, accepted in the Beloved. I am “the apple of [God’s] eye” (Ps. 17:8), the one to whom He has given the highest privilege that He can bestow: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1). And I am called to look at, to speak to, and to think about myself—and every other Christian too—in the light of this glorious reality.

Moreover, I am also called to treat myself in a way that makes God look as glorious as He really is. That is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 10:31 when he writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” You and I are called as Christians to treat ourselves in a way that exalts the God of the universe. People should see the way we act toward ourselves and hear the way we speak to ourselves and be ushered into the very presence of God. They should fall to their knees in worship and sing, “To God be the glory, great things he has done.”

I know that I am too hard on myself. My own self-talk isn’t what it should be. My own attitude toward myself falls too far short. But the grand and beautiful mystery of the Christian faith is that even these failures are forgiven in and through Christ. The more we reflect upon this, the more we can apply it to our self-talk and our self-perception. And maybe one day, people around us will marvel at the God who gave Himself for us as it is reflected in our own views about ourselves. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!

[1] Tim Tebow with Nathan Whitaker, Through My Eyes (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p. 94.