Where did the self-help notion, “you have to forgive yourself” come from? Certainly not the Bible! It is a bizarre notion. You are complicit after all…. yes, you did it. So how does one go about forgiving oneself? Biblically, forgiveness is a transactional word. It is nonsensical unless there are two people involved. There are several words used in the New Testament for the concept of forgiveness. All of them have to do with pardon – a debt is not held against a person by the one to whom it is owed and they are instead freed from it. So what is the dynamic of freeing yourself from yourself?

“And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.” (Luke 23:34)

SelfIn his sci-fi trilogy, CS Lewis introduces us to another Eden in the book Perelandra. An Eve-like figure, Tinidril (aka The Green Lady), is living in a Paradise that has not fallen. Satan appears and tries to tempt her. How? With a mirror. He asks her to gaze at her own beauty. The mirror is a device, he says, with which she can love herself. She says to him, “that thing is me and yet is not me.”

“But if you do not look you will never know how beautiful you are, he said.”[1] But she is not persuaded. “It comes into my mind, Stranger,” she answered, “that a fruit does not eat itself, and a man cannot be together with himself.” Satan insisted that she could love herself and be together with herself – walk alongside herself as a second person and be delighted with herself. She refused him.

Self 2Greek mythology addressed this in the story of Narcissus, from whom we get the word Narcissism (self-absorption). Narcissus came upon a reflecting pool and fell in love with his own reflection. He couldn’t touch the face without making it go away (the water was stirred). Not realizing it was merely an image and unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus drowned.

As a pastor, I hear this idea of self-forgiveness frequently. Recently, I was speaking with a man who was shattered by some things that he had done – partly because of the consequences they brought into his life and partly because he recognized his own sinfulness. When I explained the completeness of the forgiveness of God, he said, “I know God forgives me, but I cannot forgive myself.”

“Really”, I asked, “So you don’t want God to be God, do you? God, the Creator of the Universe and the Lord of Lords has made provision for you in Christ and has forgiven you at the cross through the death of Jesus, but you cannot forgive yourself? Well, of course… since your standards are so much higher than God’s!” He did not even recognize the self-absorption. He could never free himself from himself – the enemy of his soul would continue to wreak havoc on him in a downward spiral of self-accusation.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

How much unrighteousness? All unrighteousness!!!! I said to him, “Your problem is not that you cannot forgive yourself, but that you will not trust God to forgive you.” If you will trust Him, you can be free of this. And so he did. And he found freedom.

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

[1] Lewis, C. S. (2012-04-03). Perelandra: (Space Trilogy, Book Two) (The Space Trilogy 2) (p. 117). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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6 Responses to Self

  1. Pingback: Self | Jacob's Brook

  2. nickysue says:

    This is so important to understand. God forgives us! Failure to understand that means that we will forever be incapable of receiving what God has provided for us in Christ!

  3. gdueker says:

    It sounds like you have been talking to Harry. If you talk about self-forgiveness you can really get him going!

    I totally agree with you. It has to do with trust and surrender. As if our puny efforts at self-flagellation has anything to add to Christ’s stripes before the cross and the nail-holes on the cross.

    I appreciate your Perelandra reference…it is so true. To that I would add a scene from Calvin Miller’s apocalyptical work, The Finale, where the message of the Antichrist is self-love and self-hope.
    “The giant moved on, compelling other miners to look into his glass. As each in turn beheld himself, the Prince of Mirrors [Antichrist] cried, `You sir. . . and you. . . and you. . . are free with eyes to see the only hope of man is men.’ ‘Men,’ he smiled in gifted understanding, ‘you are the universal gleam! . . . You are the light unhideable—the hope of Terra!'” (p 30, 32)

    I think I will settle for 1 John 1:9 every time. Besides, I really don’t look that good in a mirror.

  4. terrysahnow says:

    Mark (and Greg) Seems like a paradox, but I know it’s a common problem – thinking that we could forgive ourselves, eliminating the only Possibility of real forgiveness.

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