You may have heard someone say, “I know that God has forgiven me; I know that others have forgiven me, but I just can’t forgive myself.”
For example: Charles' struggle with substance abuse becomes overwhelming, and he is a Christian. He loses his job. His wife moves out to keep their children safe. His friends turn away. He eventually ends up in jail. Finally, God brings him to his senses. He knows that God has forgiven him. He confesses his sin to his wife and children as well. They forgive him. But his family still has many struggles, because of what he did. He says, “I know that God has forgiven me. I know my family has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself.”
How can you forgive yourself for something you did that had such awful, and maybe even ongoing, consequences for others? Someone may then tell us, “Yes, the problem is self-forgiveness and therefore the solution is learning to forgive yourself.”
That sounds good, but here’s where things get interesting. When you look to God’s word to learn how to forgive yourself, do you know what you find? The concept of forgiving yourself is just not there. God’s word has much to say about knowing that we are forgiven by God — that through Jesus all our sin has been forgiven. It also says a lot about forgiving or being forgiven by others. But the Scriptures are strangely silent on forgiving ourselves. It is not there by narrative or illustration or precept. There is nothing — zip, zero, zilch, nada!
At this point, we can say one of two things: either Scripture is of no help for this problem. Or, perhaps, Scripture gives us a different diagnosis for what is really happening.
Self-recrimination is a symptom. Self-condemnation is a symptom. Anger at yourself may be a symptom. But what is the underlying cause? Scripture never points us to lack of self-forgiveness, but it does point us to other possibilities.
1. If you cannot “forgive yourself,” you may not have truly grasped God’s complete forgiveness of you in Christ. I think this may be the most common problem for those who struggle with self-condemnation. Romans 8:1 rings out clearly, “There is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Some people know those words, but their hearts seem almost immune to this amazing forgiveness.
Let me say this plainly, Jesus by his life, death and resurrection has born the guilt and paid the price for all your sins — big sins, small sins, habitual sins, hidden sins, Technicolor sins, sins of immense shame, sins that seem to have never-ending repercussions.
Jesus’ words to Charles or to you this day are, “If you have trusted in me, I have forgiven that sin. As awful as you think it is, I have paid its price and it is forgiven. You don’t have to condemn yourself or punish yourself — it is finished.”
For many who struggle with past sin there are reminders that seem to trigger self-condemnation. Charles sees his family and it constantly reminds him how he hurt them. But reminders of past sin can become reminders of the amazing love of Christ. As the hymn writer put it, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought-my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
2. If you cannot “forgive yourself,” you may think that to stop feeling guilty over your sin is saying that your sin is no big deal. After all, isn’t it a good thing to feel bad for doing bad things?
If you truly love and trust Jesus, then you should feel bad when you do bad things. That is God’s Holy Spirit doing his work in our hearts. But the Holy Spirit wants to bring us — not to a place of being crushed and burdened, but to a place of repentance for our sin where we know once more our Father’s forgiveness and love because of the cross of Christ.
Someone who continues to be angry with himself or herself, even after repentance, has a problem. They may continue to beat themselves up over their sin because they think they should. They think it is the right thing to do. The effects of their sin may continue in the lives of those they care about and so they think the self-loathing should also continue.
Remember: “Neither your human limitations nor your sins hinder the good plans of your sovereign Father.” You don’t have to keep beating yourself up to make everything right. God will make it right.
The results of your sin are not more powerful than the hand of the Lord. God will use even the bad consequences of your sin to be a means of grace into your life and the life of others. God is that great and he is that gracious. To live under the burden of self-condemnation is to fail to see not just how gracious God is, but how powerful. Your sin and its consequences will not hinder God’s good purpose for you or anyone else.
James Calderazzo is pastor of Safe Harbor Presbyterian Church in Destin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.