She sits in my office, tears running down her face. Two years ago her mother died in hospice while she lay asleep at home. She was trying to get a decent night’s rest after days spent at her mother’s side. “I just can’t forgive myself. I let her die alone. I knew I should have been there, but I was selfish. I can never forgive myself for that.”
I’ve heard dozens share similar confessions with me. Does this resonate with you? What guilt do you bear? What burdens are you carrying because you can’t forgive yourself?
Many are trapped because they can’t forgive themselves. My friend isn’t alone. And she feels trapped. Because she will never hear her mother offer her forgiveness, she feels like she can’t release herself from her guilt.
Why can’t you release yourself from your sin? Is it because the weight is too much? Because you know you haven’t changed? Because the ripple effects of your sin can’t be reversed?
I have good news—such good news. You don’t need to forgive yourself, because you can’t forgive yourself.
I know—this sounds foreign. Our contemporary therapeutic culture tells us that self-forgiveness is not only a category of forgiveness, it is the most important category of forgiveness. Writing in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Beverly Engel says, “I believe that self-forgiveness is the most powerful step you can take to rid yourself of debilitating shame.”[i] But let me ask you: can you point me to one example of someone forgiving themselves in the Bible?
There is no category of self-forgiveness in the Bible. And that is a freeing truth! Your shame and guilt is not dependent upon your ability to forgive yourself.
There are two biblical categories of forgiveness biblically: others’ forgiveness and God’s forgiveness: horizontal and vertical.
Horizontal forgiveness marks us as Christians. Seeking the forgiveness of others is not optional. Forgiving one another is not optional. Paul says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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.”[ii] It’s not enough to ask forgiveness from God, we must ask forgiveness from those we have injured.
As important as horizontal forgiveness is, even more important is vertical forgiveness, which comes from God alone. After committing a heinous double sin of adultery (one could argue it was actually rape[iii]) and murder against Bathsheba and Uriah, David cries out to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned!”[iv] Is David minimizing his horrifying sins against Uriah and Bathsheba? Hardly. He realizes that as awful as his sin is horizontally, his sin is much worse vertically. He has profoundly offended his Creator and the Creator of Uriah and Bathsheba by devaluing one life and then snuffing out another. He has profoundly offended his righteous, covenanting God with his wicked, covenant-breaking actions.
But you know what David never walks through? The process of self-forgiveness. He doesn’t entertain for a second that he needs to forgive himself, or that, once he has sought forgiveness from God, he needs to self-flagellate to fully release himself from his sin. In fact, David shocks the modern therapeutic sensibilities with how quickly he feels release. He says that once forgiven, he will sing—sing! “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” Have you experienced that kind of freedom? Have you ever felt the complete forgiveness of God so much that you have sung with joy?
Vertical forgiveness allows us to experience the power and release that comes through the cross and then it sends you back to the horizontal, where you are made right in community.
Dear ones, fellow sinners, does guilt plague you? Seek forgiveness from those who you have sinned against. Seek forgiveness from God your Rescuer who has purchased your salvation through the death of Jesus. And then sing! Celebrate your forgiveness. Enjoy your freedom.