A Spiderman 3 moral: When doing something wrong, “start with forgiving yourself.” Aunt May says that to Peter after Peter feels bad for hitting his ex-girlfriend Mary Jane. This solution for Peter’s guilt isn’t the Bible’s answer to this common dilemma, but it’s worth thinking about.
Why does one come up with a solution of: “forgive yourself?” I think the answer is because people feel guilty, their conscience is restless, and they seek relief. It’s right to feel guilty when you do something wrong. So how does one get rid of the awful feeling of guilt and a nagging conscience? The answer that is popular today among some people, as evidenced by the movie Spiderman 3 is, “forgive yourself first.”
What’s good about this: It’s good that one feels guilty and it’s good that one’s conscience is functioning enough to nag someone out of discomfort. Without either of these things, living in LA with 4 million other Angelenos would be a nightmare. I would be a horrible husband, father, neighbor, and friend to those in my city and church. So it’s good to feel guilty because it makes one aware that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed. Secondly, it’s good that forgiveness is seen as the answer to guilt. That is certainly true in the Bible’s teaching and in the life of Jesus and his apostles who wrote the New Testament. Thirdly, by Aunt May saying, “first,” she implies that this is not the only thing to do to clean one’s conscience from guilt.
What’s wrong with the solution: There are several things wrong with this: (1) you are not in the position to forgive, (2) you aren’t to forgive yourself first, and (3) the basis, motivation, and hope for forgiveness is missing.
First of all, your guilt from you being the sinner and offender, not the sinned against and offended means you are not in the position to forgive yourself or others. You are not to forgive, you are the one in need of forgiveness. The person who forgives is the one who is sinned against. In the movie, Mary Jane is sinned against. So Peter is not in the position to forgive himself for sinning against and mistreating Mary Jane, Mary Jane is the one in position to forgive the offender.
Secondly, one isn’t to forgive oneself first. Now, no doubt, you hurt yourself whenever you sin and violate others. But you aren’t the one to forgive yourself first (if ever or at all, which I’m inclined to think never, but I can see that an argument could be made that this is possible). You are to ask forgiveness from the offended party first. And one is to ask forgiveness from not only the human offended party but also the divine offended party, namely God the creator. David says in Psalm 51, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Though David sinned, hurt, and offended many other people, the weight and burden of his real guilt was sin against God. So don’t forgive yourself first, first see that you sinned against God (and maybe others) and so seek their forgiveness for your offense first and foremost.
Lastly, in this short sound bite of supposed wisdom from Aunt May to Peter Parker, the certainty of a clean conscience is not stated. Neither is the basis of righting the wrong. As a Christian, we can be forgiven by God because Jesus died for our sins. Furthermore, we can know that other Christians should forgive us when we ask because they too have been forgiven of way more in Jesus Christ. And when we ask forgiveness from those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ, then we can ask forgiveness motivated by a desire to please God and an assurance that the most important person we offended and the primary offense against God himself is taken away. This provides significant relief from guilt. It also helps us to rejoice in God’s forgiveness if forgiveness is withheld from our human offended party. We can continue to seek forgiveness while resting soundly with a clear conscience that (1) God forgave us, (2) we are pleasing God in genuinely seeking the forgiveness of the offended party, (3) the best way to help them desire to forgive us is humble confession and repentance seeking their forgiveness, and (4) before God, the responsibility to forgive is now on the offended party to forgive us as offenders. And if they don’t forgive they too are now offending God and sinning against us, even as we continue to humbly, persistently, and genuinely ask them for forgiveness. And they may eventually come around and forgive. If they don’t, you must not react with bitterness but more humility and desire to be forgiven, grieving in part that they are still unwilling to forgive you for the way you really wronged them.
Update: For a post on the theme of forgiveness, check this one out – “Are Christians Meant to Feel Guilty All the Time?”