I would suggest that most of us have one of two models of forgiveness: a Brita model or a leaky spigot model.
The Brita model is the American model, the self-forgiveness model. The Brita model says that forgiveness of others begins with your forgiveness of yourself. The reason I call it the Brita model is that with a Brita pitcher, the water is self-filtered before it can be poured out into a cup. Have you ever accidentally tried to pour a glass before the water filters down to the bottom part? I have. And let me tell you a secret: it doesn’t work – the top falls off, and water spills everywhere. The water has to be filtered before it can be dispensed.
The Brita model says that before we can dispense forgiveness we have to filter the forgiveness internally. In fact, we only have forgiveness to dispense after we’ve filtered it internally.
John Berecz, a Christian psychologist, and the author of Beyond Shame and Pain: Forgiving Yourself and Others, says:
“When Christ succinctly summarized scripture into a triangle of love for God, others, and ourselves (Matthew 22:37-29), I don’t think he was suggesting any kind of hierarchy – that first we ought to love God, secondly others, and lastly ourselves. Although theologically speaking, God is certainly primary in this triangle, psychologically speaking we must first love ourselves if we are to genuinely forgive others.”
What does scripture have to say about self-forgiveness? Well, despite Dr. Berecz’s claim, it says nothing. In fact, there are two serious issues with this understanding of forgiveness. The first is that it minimizes our guilt. When we sin, scripture tells us (Ps 51:4), our greatest offense is against God. And no matter how well we get to the root of the sin in our repentance, we never fully appreciate how deeply we have grieved God, how seriously we have sinned against him. Scripture tells us even our righteousness is like filthy rags (Is. 64:6), what then, must our sin be like?
The other issue with this is that self-forgiveness begins with the wrong premise: that is that we have the capacity to forgive ourselves. But scripture only has two categories for forgiveness: our need of forgiveness from God, and our need of forgiveness from others. In reality, when we talk about self-forgiveness we’re trying to replace that first forgiver (God) with ourselves. But we are not the judge of ourselves, only God is. And only God can grant us forgiveness.
The second model of forgiveness we’ll call the leaky spigot model. In the leaky spigot model we know that forgiveness comes from God, but we think of that forgiveness as a scarce commodity. It’s like we’re little children playing outside who are desperately thirsty but don’t know how to work the spigot, so we shove our mouths underneath the spigot trying to get a few drops to quench our thirst. We know the water is there, but we think obtaining it is difficult and that its quantities are scarce.
And we have an even more difficult time allowing that forgiveness to translate into forgiveness of others or impact the way we forgive others. We can barely get the water ourselves, and we never get enough for ourselves, much less can we cup our hands long enough under the leaky spigot to gather enough to give to others.
But scripture tells us this is not what the forgiveness of God is like at all. True forgiveness comes from outside ourselves and is granted freely by God. It isn’t cheap: God paid the ultimate price for that forgiveness, as 5:2 says, that price was paid by the death, by the sacrifice of God the Son, Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 3:18 says it this way, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This is costly grace. But it is also freely given grace. The waters of forgiveness flow like a torrent to the contrite of heart.