In our ministry we occasionally hear counselees say that they just cannot forgive themselves. They have, in essence, already diagnosed the problem, but they have struggled with the execution. As a result, they want you, as their counselor, to help them forgive themselves. When you first hear a counselee say this, what goes through your mind?
I want to encourage you not to be too forceful with these people. At some point, you will have to explain to them that forgiving oneself is not a biblical idea. However, as their counselor, it would be very helpful to know why they think forgiving themselves is the solution to their problem. In other words, what led them to that conclusion?
Let me offer a couple of suggestions for dealing with this challenging situation.
#1. Treat your counselee as a hurting person. After all, your counselees are expressing some grief or guilt over their past.
We have all had the counselee who comes for counseling but is more interested in giving counsel than receiving it. We have seen high handed rebels against God and anyone who encourages them to change. But many times, the person talking about forgiving themselves is not one of these prideful and hard hearted rebels.
I think that more often than not the counselee is actually confessing guilt. They are somewhat sensitive to their sin and they want to take action. There is something that has happened in their life that they deeply regret, something that deeply greives them, and they do not know what to do about it. Sometimes the counselee committed adultery during a weak moment and the ongoing conflict is something they would like to move beyond. Sometimes the counselee realizes that he or she made many parenting mistakes and now experiences guilt thinking that their child’s problems are all their fault. You see, you have a hurting person with you.
Since this person is hurting do not treat them like they are a rebel who needs to be admonished, but rather treat them like they are fainthearted and weak (1Thess 5:14).
So listen to their story, engage in what they telling you, and seek to understand how they have connected all the dots of their life. Their story will explain not only the challenges they face, but how they came to the conclusion that forgiving themselves was the way out.
#2. Do not simply correct their error about forgiveness, but also show them the better way – the cross of Jesus.
I think when we hear a person say that they need to forgive themselves, our theology detector goes off and we unload on the error. While I agree that the Bible does not teach we ever forgive ourselves, our counselees need a different way. You cannot simply say “you are wrong” without leading them to the better way – to the cross. If you do not explain clearly and quickly that the way you propose is actually a better way than what they have previously heard, you may lose the opportunity to work with them.
The guilt, the pain, and memories of the past that your counselee is struggling with has an answer – it is just not the answer they brought into the counseling room. So while you correct their error, take them to Jesus. It is at the cross that their burden can finally be lifted off and it is Jesus who can do for them what they could never do for themselves – cleanse them from all sin.
A compassionate and gentile approach is the proper approach to a person who is simply uninformed and in need of some biblical teaching.