I received a heart-rending letter this week from a brother who is suffering the earthly consequences of his heinous sins. He had heard a sermon I preached entitled “We are Allowed to Love Ourselves.” You may remember the series on this very topic that I wrote on this blog. The brother wanted to know how he could ever forgive himself. Having committed some heinous sins myself, I want to know the same thing. What does it mean to forgive ourselves? Should we forgive ourselves? How can we?
What forgiving yourself is not
As I thought about this, I realized that sometimes I’ve pushed some of my sins aside, thinking that was forgiving myself, but it wasn’t. On the other hand, some sins I’ve let dominate my conscious because I simply didn’t think I could or should forgive myself. So, before you can grasp what forgiving yourself is and means, you need to get rid of misconceptions.
Forgiving yourself is not…
1. …acting like you didn’t do anything wrong or “that bad.”
I can’t possibly forgive myself if I’m saying I didn’t do anything wrong or if I’m saying that I didn’t do anything that bad. That isn’t forgiveness. That is denial.
2. …getting away with sin.
Sometimes I don’t want to forgive others because I think that means letting them get away with something. It dawns on me that I do the same thing with me. I know I deserve punishment so I want to hang on to the awfulness of what I did because I know I shouldn’t just get away with it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean overlooking or ignoring sin. It simply means dealing with sin in love.
3. …shifting blame or avoiding responsibility for the sin.
Adam couldn’t forgive himself for eating the fruit because he claimed it was someone else’s fault. The same goes for Eve. I’m not forgiving myself when I’m trying to figure out how it was really someone else who sinned.
4. …avoiding consequences.
Even when we forgive ourselves, we may still have to suffer consequences for our sins. I may forgive myself for all my drinking and drunkenness, but my cirrhosis of the liver won’t go away.
5. …getting rid of your sorrow and mourning.
Godly sorrow leads to repentance according to 2 Corinthians 7:10. But repentance and forgiveness do not necessarily remove the godly sorrow. That sorrow may continue for a long, long time. In fact, it should.
What forgiving yourself is
Okay, if forgiving yourself is not all these things, what is it? What does it mean to forgive yourself?
Forgiving yourself means…
1. …owning your sins.
Though this is probably clear from what forgiveness is not. We need to state it positively. You can only forgive yourself if you completely own your sin. Notice David’s ownership in Psalm 32 and Psalm 51. You have to accept responsibility and admit that you are the man without overlooking, justifying, or excusing what you did.
2. …accepting God’s grace.
You must recognize that apart from God’s grace through Jesus Christ, there is no real forgiveness. Sure, you can overlook sins. You can forget sins. You can act like sins don’t matter. But none of this forgiveness. If, as we said above, forgiveness is dealing with sins in love, then you can only forgive yourself when you accept God loves you and He has forgiven you through Jesus Christ (I John 4:19).
3. …not defining yourself by your worst moments or your best moments.
Paul was not a persecutor, blasphemer, and insolent opponent (I Timothy 1:13). Those were things he had done, but he had been forgiven. He didn’t have to define himself or the entirety of his life by those things. Was he still sorry for them? Sure. But he did not have to view himself as those things. Instead, he could accept the overflowing grace of the Lord in faith and love. On the other hand, if you are like me, instead of forgiving yourself, you often try to offset your sins with the better things you have done. You say, “Well, I know I did this wrong thing, but look at all these right things I did and am doing.” The problem here is when you finally realize how heinous your sins are, you can’t find good enough works to define yourself as something other than your sins.
4. …defining yourself by God’s love for you.
“For God so love the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). You are not worthless because of your sins. You are not worthwhile because of your righteous acts. You are worthwhile because God defined you as worthwhile when He paid the price to purchase you from your sins with the blood of His Son. And He did that fully knowing every sin you were going to commit (cf. Romans 5:6-8). Forgiving yourself means seeing a person loved by God that much.
5. …no longer trying to pay for your sins.
When you realize how heinous your sins are, you realize you can’t pay for them. Forgiving yourself means simply letting that debt go. It means realizing Jesus paid the debt on the cross. As said above, it doesn’t mean ignoring your sins or overlooking them. It means coming face to face with how awful they are and realizing only one thing can be done with them. Give them to God and let Him wash them away by the blood of Jesus.
6. …setting yourself free to behave differently.
Some people fear forgiveness because they think it means giving permission to continue in sin. But consider the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. Forgiveness did not mean continuing in adultery. Rather, it meant being set free to no longer have to commit adultery. If this woman defined herself by her worst moments of adultery, she had no reason to ever stop. But, having been forgiven set her free to go and sin no more. It set her free to be defined by Jesus’ love so that she might live differently. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean overlooking and continuing in your sins, it means breaking the chains that bind you to your sins.
7. …doing right just because it is right.
If forgiving yourself means no longer trying to pay for your sins and also no longer trying to cover up your sins, then it also means doing what is right simply because it is right. It means having no ulterior motives. It means not trying to impress people or God. It means just doing the next right thing because it is the next right thing.
8. …stop punishing yourself.
Forgiveness means there is no longer any condemnation (cf. Romans 8:1). If you are like me, you sometimes think you can make everything okay if you punish and beat yourself up for all the wrong we have done. That may salve your conscience some, but it doesn’t really deal with your sins. The fact is there is really no way to deal with your sins other than paying the cost of death. You can’t pay that cost, but Jesus did. He dealt with your sins. Let Him. If He won’t punish you because He has forgiven you, why don’t you do the same?
9. …accepting blessing from God.
When you don’t forgive yourself, you seek your own punishment which generally means you sabotage your own life. You can’t imagine that you should have any blessing in your life ever again. You can’t accept blessings or enjoy them because you think your sins mean you should never have them. God has forgiven you in Jesus so He can bless you with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3-14). Further, He is the good Father who wants to give you good gifts (Matthew 7:7-11). Forgiving yourself means seeking and accepting God’s other blessings for your life without sabotaging them.
10. …letting everyone else deal with their own thoughts and feelings about your sin.
I wish I could say that forgiving ourselves meant everyone else would also forgive us. It doesn’t. We may seek their forgiveness, beg for their forgiveness, cry for their forgiveness and they may never forgive us. We want to proclaim, “But Luke 17:3-4 says they must forgive us.” Yes. But that is between them and God, not them and us. Forgiving ourselves means not basing all this on what anyone else thinks of us. We are asking others for mercy. That means we don’t deserve it. That means they may not give it. That means we cannot demand it. But we can forgive ourselves based on God’s grace, not based on their struggle. Forgiving ourselves means letting them have their struggle and just walking hand in hand with God.
We are allowed to love ourselves despite our awful sins. God has loved us. We are allowed to forgive ourselves despite our heinous sins. God has forgiven us. It is not easy. It is a growth process. But we can do it.
This post has dealt with what it means to forgive ourselves. What practical steps would you encourage someone to do to actually forgive themselves? You can your input by clicking on the following link: Post a Comment.