Monday, September 24, 2012

Forgiving Yourself: A Virtue or a Vice?

Psychotherapists would have us learn to forgive ourselves. However, shouldn’t we instead seek forgiveness from the offended party? If you just robbed the local convenience store and beat up the clerk, self-forgiveness represents a refusal to acknowledge culpability, a denial of the obvious. Instead, you first have to be reconciled to the victim, as Jesus taught:

·        “If you are offering your gift at the altar [or are performing any spiritual exercise] and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

We cannot forgive ourselves until we deal with the circumstances of our guilt. Clearly, there are objective moral debts that first have to be paid. Certainly, the clerk would not be overjoyed to hear of the abuser’s self-forgiveness as long as the actual offense is ignored. In fact, the refusal to objectively deal with the offense just compounds it. It is no better than an adulterer taking a drug to assuage his guilt. Rather than silencing his conscience, he must listen to it!

This has been on my mind because I just heard a sermon ending with the benediction to “forgive yourself.” While I am sure that the pastor wasn’t talking about a self-forgiveness apart from taking responsibility for the sin, she seemed to be leaving an important ingredient from her equation.

I’m referring to God. When we transgress, we also transgress against the Law-Giver. Therefore, if self-forgiveness is both inappropriate and offensive when it ignores the offense and the offended, it also offends God.

I know that it sounds medieval, archaic and guilt-producing to suggest that God is also offended by our sins, but why shouldn’t He be? He is righteousness, and He is love. When we are victimized, we tend to look favorably upon a God who is equally disturbed by our victimization, One who suffers along with us. We want justice and also a God who promises justice in the form of punishment.

The imposition of justice brings peace and the possibility of reconciliation. I have heard of many cases where the victim lovingly reached out to the now convicted prisoner. However, I have never heard of a case where the rape victim reached out with love to the defendant who had beaten-the-rap. Instead, the victim is understandably left with the burning feeling that justice must first be done.

If we are created in the moral image of God (Eph. 4:23-24), then we shouldn’t expect that God lacks a moral compass, moral sentiments, and perhaps even a sense of moral outrage. Instead, the entire Bible confirms the fact that He is deeply offended by sin. If this is the case, what does this suggest about self-forgiveness? It suggests that exonerating ourselves without first checking in with God about our guilt-status is terribly offensive to Him.

Well, how can we first be reconciled to Him and forgiven? For one thing, we need to recognize the seriousness of the offense. A man who had an affair with a married woman cannot pay-off the aggrieved husband. Such a payment cannot compensate for the enormity of the offense. It fails to recognize its enormity and just compounds the insult.

If God loves His children more than the husband loves his wife – and He does - it is even more futile to attempt to buy-off God.  Meanwhile, forgiving yourself for the affair is an utter abomination in His eyes. No amount of self-adulation could possibly lift the weight of the offense.

On the other hand, if the aggrieved husband has also been unfaithful on several occasions, he might be easier to placate. However, God has never been unfaithful. He has birthed us, feed us, sustained us, and has planted His truths within us. He cannot be placated by any amount of gifts. (Even self-sacrifice is futile!) He made them all and is able to give Himself far greater gifts than we can.

Even our best offerings are “filthy rags,” the garments of adultery, before our perfect and all-sufficient God. In light of this, our only hope is in His mercy. Although we cannot buy-off God, He has bought-off our sins by paying the price for them on the cross. An adequate payment had to be made, and only He was able to make it.

Instead of crying out for mercy, any attempt at self-forgiveness or even restitution is a grave insult to Him and a minimization of our culpability. Instead, our God desires us to confront our guilt and to take full responsibility. And He has promised to aid us in this (Psalm 51:6).

If virtue and relational restoration are measured by an appreciation of the enormity of our sins, then Western society and secular psychotherapy have taken us in the wrong direction.

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