Skip to main content

Is 'Forgiving Ourselves' a Christian Concept?

When I hear people use the line, 'You need to forgive yourself', I usually respond like a negligent zoo keeper who watches a baby penguin step on ice for the first time – I just let it slide. 

But perhaps my coffee was especially strong earlier this week when I read the comment yet again. I felt stirred to have a closer look at this turn of phrase. Over the last few decades, these words have worked their way into our pop-culture and are frequently given to people struggling with chronic guilt and shame. Perhaps you have come across many who testify personally to the power of ‘forgiving yourself’ – both Christians and non-Christians. Though many speak well of the practice, I have one lingering concern about the phrase and the paradigm it helps create:

It’s not actually in the Bible.

Nowhere in Scripture are we exhorted to ‘forgive ourselves’. It’s simply not there. Not only that, I can’t find any Christian leader from Church history even mentioning it until the late 20th Century. Now some point to verses that they think contain the general idea. They may say that Paul wrote of our need to ‘forget what is behind’ (Phil. 3). Yes, he did. But in the context Paul is referring to past successes – legal righteousness - not past sins per se.

Or Mark 11 where Jesus says, ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ Some would suggest that our very selves might be included here under the term ‘anyone’. But we must ask - in the context, do we really think that was Jesus’ main point? Secondly, even if we are open to including that possibility, is that really the strongest Bible verse we have for creating this practice of ‘forgiving ourselves’? If that stretch of an application is all we have – perhaps we need to look closer at our terminology.

‘But what about all the testimonies?’ That’s why I believe it’s so important to have this discussion. Something spiritually powerful is obviously happening. Most people have struggled with guilt and condemnation at some point. Many Christians – years after a failure – still find it hard it hard to feel forgiven. Those who speak of forgiving ourselves aren’t teaching the latest silly trend - they are trying to convey something of real substance. They are not false teachers - they are speaking about life-changing truth, but with a less than ideal terminology. We should not hinder the goal of this teaching, but we should ask: Is there a more accurate way we can communicate what’s really happening under our spiritual hoods?


I believe the key to understanding our lingering sense of condemnation is to understand the first commandment: have no other gods before me. We are constantly looking to gods other than the one true God who created us and who came to save us. The Bible refers to these other gods as ‘idols’. At any given point in our lives, we have some idol fighting for the loyalty of our hearts. We are repeatedly tempted to find our security and a sense of self-worth in something other than the grace of Jesus Christ. So often – as Christians - we live with divided hearts. We get our sense of security from God – but also from our success in a certain field. We get our sense of self-worth from God – but also from that romantic, friendly or familial relationship.

Follow me so far? Here’s where the lingering sense of condemnation comes in…

Jesus Christ is the only one who – if you serve him – will forgive you when you let him down. He died for your sins. Your career won’t save you. Your romantic engagement or friendships or role as a parent - these things don’t forgive. Your success and performance will never be sufficient to justify your existence. That is why so many Christians often struggle with not feeling forgiven: part of their heart is trying to obtain security from an idol – from the works of their hands – rather than as a gift from Jesus.

Practically Speaking

This is why we may hear a man say, ‘I can’t forgive myself for cheating on her.’ You know the story: a man was infatuated with a woman and then – in a moment of foolishness – he cheated on her and she left him. He was living for a relationship with her. When he failed that relationship, the relationship didn’t forgive him. Idols don’t forgive.

Or what about the man, who lives for his job and then blows a presentation, resulting in the loss of a promotion? He says, ‘I can never forgive myself for doing so poorly.’ It would be more accurate to say that the job that you were living for will never forgive you. It can’t. It didn’t die for you.

Or what about the woman, who makes poor choices as a parent and - as a result - her child is rebellious. ‘God may forgive me, but I can never forgive myself for how I failed as a mother.’ It’s the idol of motherhood that can’t forgive. Good mothering cannot justify your existence - only Christ.

Idols are based on our performance. The technical word here is ‘self-righteousness’. We want to feel like we are good people in and of ourselves. But then we go out and fail in ways we never thought possible. We ‘let ourselves down’. Our pride (that is our view of ourselves as being good people apart from the free gift of goodness the Jesus gives) is hurt by such foolish sins. When we say we ‘cannot forgive ourselves’ shouldn’t we be asking why we are looking to ourselves in the first place? According to Isaiah, our own self-righteousness is filthier than a ‘used menstrual cloth’ – let’s not try to reconcile ourselves to that. Perhaps our lingering guilt only shows that we are still hoping to find goodness in our own record and not fully receiving the free gift of righteousness and forgiveness that comes as a gift from Jesus?

Trust Leads to Freedom

Do we need healing? Yes. Is the paradigm of 'forgiving yourself' the best? Probably not.

It is unbelief in the finished work of Christ that may be what causes us to look to other things – and to ourselves – for the forgiveness only God can give. Trust in him fully to justify your existence – forget about yourself and how bad you are – and experience the freedom of him being your everything.

‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. ’
– Rom 8.1
Please share or leave a comment, here or on the FB link.

Or, check out my book Forbidden Friendships on Amazon: in the USA  or the UK 

Also, if you would like a FREE chapter to try it out, just email me at


Popular posts from this blog

Where I Turn Down a Gay 'Wedding' Invitation

Dear Katie,
I hope this letter finds you well. You’ve been in my mind lately as it’s been a few weeks since we’ve met up. We’re overdue to grab a coffee – I hope we can soon.
I also want to thank you for thinking of me as you sent out invitations for what I know will be a big day for you and Joanna. I’ve known you since before you met her (two years ago now is it?) and I appreciate all you’ve shared with me about how meaningful that relationship is to you. 

I received the invitation for your ceremony. Thank you. It was kind of you and Joanna to think of me, especially since you know that I have a Christian faith. You've never directly asked me my views on gender or sexuality. But I think our conversations must have touched on it enough times to at least make you a bit unsure of my reaction when you sent the invitation.

I have to say 'no' to your kind invitation. You know that I care for you and that I value our friendship. You know I don't reject you because you are gay. T…

Is Jesus Really Silent about Homosexuality?

For non-Christians, this seems an odd debate. After all, mainstream society sees gender, marriage and sexuality as a form of individual self-actualisation and believes that one should be free to express these things however they wish – so long as they don’t hurt others. To people who aren’t Christian the whole discussion seems soooooo last millennia. But we Christians are foreigners to this world. 

Many of us don't have personalities that naturally enjoy debate. But as there are those who – in the name of Christ – are saying we need to adjust our teaching to the new LGBTQ ideology, then debate is upon us whether we like it or not.
In any debate involving people’s lives, points of view need to be expressed both sensitively and accurately - especially this one. Misinformation – however well intended – helps no one in the long run. That’s why it’s important to access popular sound bites that are often used in social media discussions to determine their truthfulness. One such is the lin…

Holy Halloween?

The big ugly debate is upon us.
No, not the Presidential one. This debate involves dwarves and banshees of quite another variety.
As heated as the political scene may now be, it will pale to fervor with which Christians will begin debating if and how they will celebrate what is now commonly called "Halloween". This battle of ideas will be waged from the beaches of church pews to the hills of Facebook. There will be shots fired and people unfriended.
But what cyber surfing culture warrior would be complete without some historical trivia and theological sanity? Here you go...

The Background Story
The devil would love to steal All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) away from Christians. He is making good progress at it too.
All Hallow’s Eve is neither American nor pagan in heritage. The name should be obvious enough. Hallow means ‘holy’ (‘Hallowed be thy name’) and it marks a three-day celebration of the victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness as experienced by departed saints and Christi…