Imagine having witnessed the following:
A man came running up to a police officer standing on a corner. "Sir," he shouted desperately, "someone just stole my wallet. You have to arrest him before he gets away."
The policeman responded, "Now calm down, sir. When did this happen?"
The man replied, "Just five minutes ago, officer. Please hurry!"
The officer held his hand up patiently to quiet the man. "Now, sir, can you describe the thief to me?"
Hurriedly, the man spurted out, "He is about five foot ten, 180 pounds, wearing a blue button-down shirt with khaki pants and running shoes. He has light brown hair, blue eyes, and a mustache. Oh, and a large mole on his right cheek."
As the man who lost his wallet was describing the thief, the officer was busy looking him up and down. He then said to the man, "Excuse me, but that description describes you exactly."
The man nodded eagerly. "Exactly! I stole my wallet. Now hurry!"
At that point, I doubt the officer would arrest him, though he might have the man committed to a psychiatric hospital. You cannot steal your own wallet. Yet, spiritually speaking, many sound as confused as this man.
How many people, seeking counsel for some difficultly or trauma in their life, have said to me, "I'm having trouble forgiving myself." Undoubtedly, in the process of recounting their own contribution or response to the problem, they mean by that they are having difficulty shaking guilt and shame over their sin. Yet this language is unhelpful and untrue, and is actually a sign of the deeper problem the counseled one has.
For you cannot forgive yourself. You cannot steal your own wallet. You cannot write yourself an IOU. You cannot be indebted to yourself. Forgiveness implies that an offense, a spiritual crime, has been committed against another. Either God or another person - or both - is the one who has to release you from your debt.
Is this not what we express in the Lord's Prayer? "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." No self-forgiveness heard there. Indeed, nowhere in the Scriptures are you encouraged to forgive yourself. Is it not for obvious reasons? You cannot steal your own wallet. Any debts you must pay are held by others. One cannot be indebted to self, just as one cannot truly give himself a gift on his birthday.
Usually I find that those who use this language of self-forgiveness have a greater problem. They are morbidly self-centered. Using the language of "I cannot forgive myself," they are seeking pity for themselves rather than taking responsibility for what they have done to others. In vain human pride they consider more greatly the embarrassing shame of their actions on their own reputation than the painful hurt their sins have brought to God and their fellow man. Those that go down this path find it is an endless cycle of trying to reassure themselves that they are not as bad as they feel. The problem is, that is a lie. They are actually worse than they are making it out to be.
Indeed, "forgiving myself" is the language of self-salvation, an expression of justifying one's self by works rather than by faith in Christ. Nothing is more odious in the eyes of God than wretched sinners ignoring the cross work of His Son in a vain attempt to forgive themselves. As the Lord's Prayer teaches us, there is a better way. Through the blood of Christ we can ask God to remove the penalty for our sins from us. Living under the blood of Jesus, we can maintain a posture of willingness to release any who might have hurt or offended us.
To paraphrase John Newton, great sinners need a Great Savior. I have yet to find a person who can forgive himself like Jesus can.