As a part of my college degree program I once took a class on post-abortion counseling. The instructor repeatedly said that a woman who has had an abortion struggles with forgiving herself, even when she knows that in Christ all her sin has been forgiven.
Is there really a concept in Scripture called self forgiveness? What does it mean when a person says, "I just can't forgive myself for what I've done?" In light of the psychological perspective on forgiving yourself I think this is a question that biblical counseling must address.
I understand that women who have had an abortion or committed adultery may struggle with that decision for years afterward. Many women who have grievously sinned say they think their sin is unforgivable. They do not believe God can forgive them even though intellectually they know that in Christ all sin has been forgiven and they are under no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
Despite having correct theology she continues to believe wrongly and is merciless toward herself. It is though she thinks by self-abuse she is satisfying an angry, wrathful God who will not forgive her without her paying for her crimes through self-abuse.
A woman who believes she must forgive herself has become her own judge and jury. In her mind she determines if forgiveness is warranted. James 4:11-12 reminds us that God alone is the judge of sin and is the only one who can forgive sin.
A woman who is struggling with forgiveness of self may still be dealing with an issue of real guilt. Careful questioning and probing at the heart level may reveal an incomplete repentance for what continues to plague her.
Is it that she stopped sinning out of fear of exposure and not out of conviction that the sin she was committing was wrong? Was there no true grieving over the sin that was committed? Sometimes these truths are difficult to admit, even to ourselves. We like to think we have repented and experienced godly sorrow for sin when in reality we have not. Ephesians 4:22-24 teaches us that we must put off or throw away the sinful desires of the flesh. And a person who is struggling with self forgiveness does not believe they are forgiven because they continue to struggle with repeating the same sin. Perhaps she is unaware of how to put off that particular sin and then put on its righteous replacement. Or, she may believe that because she continues to struggle with that sin that she is unforgiven by God because there seems to be no victory over it.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find a command, a suggestion, or an exhortation to forgive ourselves. Nowhere does the Bible speak of self-forgiveness. As we read The Bible cover to cover we find forgiveness from God, we find forgiving others, and we find being forgiven by others, but we don't find a command to forgive ourselves anywhere.
When a person continues to struggle repetitively with sin with no victory over it, it is logical to wonder if perhaps there has been no true repentance and faith in Christ. Perhaps she has never truly been regenerated and if that is the case there will be no power or ability for growth and change. She may understand the gospel, but never have truly accepted the complete sufficient Atonement of Christ for all of her sin. She may not have an accurate view of salvation or of the Christ who saves.
The only remedy is to accept and believe and live out the gospel. Accepting the acceptance of Christ and accepting the sacrifice of Christ is what brings us acceptance. He brings us forgiveness, and He is the only means of a switching guilt and shame for the sin we have committed.
A person who says, "I know God has forgiven me but I just can't forgive myself" really does not understand the complete forgiveness of God in Christ. This person believes on some level that the sacrifice of Christ is not enough to meet their desperate sin need, so they must augment Christ's forgiveness. Usually the person self punishes takes over the job of penalizing themselves. They believe ultimately that God's forgiveness is insufficient, that because of remaining guilt the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was not enough to cover their particular sin as though it was greater than the sacrifice of Christ.
There is no sin is greater than the forgiveness of Christ.