“For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20 ESV)
We just can’t seem to let it go. The scene replays itself over and over again in our minds. How could I have been so careless? Why did I allow it to happen? What was I thinking? The questions lead only to frustration, as we castigate ourselves one more time for the memory of a mistake that casts its shadow on our daily lives. For many Christians, caught in the grip of deep anxiety and spiritual neuroticism, moving past one’s past seems impossible. In short, we simply are unable to forgive ourselves for some (seemingly) terrible wrong. Sometimes this is due to the nature of the sin: perhaps we feel that we have committed something unpardonable, or near to it. Other times this is due to our emotional make-up: we are simply sensitive souls. Other times this is due to the effects of our sin–perhaps the mistake was commonplace enough, but it affected a relationship, led to the loss of a job, or ended a close friendship. Whatever the reasons, some Christians find that years and years of apologies–to God and to others–never seems to remove the pain from our own hearts; and the burden continues to weigh us down. If that is part of your story, allow me to share five key thoughts that have helped me deal with the problem of self-loathing that comes about from an inability to forgive myself.
1. We are far worse than we think we are. This point sounds miserable and hopeless, but hear me out! Our ceaseless panic and worry about a particular sin or set of sins in our recent or distant past can blind us to the scores of mistakes–through both sinful action and inaction–that we have committed. It can also keep us from admitting that our present righteousness (judged on the basis of our accountability before God) is but “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). The Bible teaches that “all have sinned” (that’s past tense, meaning all have committed acts that reveal their sinful ways) ‘and are coming short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That second part is in the present tense, implying that we don’t measure up to the full measure of Christ. Let us not kid ourselves…accepting a standard of righteousness that is anything less than the full measure of Christ does injustice to the character of God and the story of the cross. Even if you and I remove that “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1), we then must deal with the multitude of symptoms that reveal our dependence on foreign soil: proof that we do not fit comfortably in the garden of God. Only when we open our eyes to the true portrait of how we stand in the sight of God on the basis of our deeds can we allow the full force of the gospel to make its home in our heart, working its healing power. The failure to forgive ourselves ironically may, in part, be due to a prideful view of ourselves: that apart from those things that weigh us down, we can produce a righteousness that needs no forgiveness.
2. God is far greater than we admit He is. The good news of God’s saving grace is that Christ has paid the penalty for our sin–past, present, and future. God does not see you in your sin, but in your Savior, since the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from any system of law-keeping (Romans 3:21), so that no one has any room to boast of their ability to redeem themselves (Ephesians 2:9). God does not see you in terms of that sin-memory that keeps weighing you down; nor does he see you in terms of your “best day”: he sees you (warts and all) in the light of his perfect sacrifice on your behalf. We find ourselves clothed in His righteousness, not our own (Philippians 3:9). He knows that we are dust (Psalm 103:14). He understands human weakness (Hebrews 4:15). He sympathizes with our plight. And he pronounces us justified on the basis of the finished work of Christ. Whatever you’ve done or said, it’s been erased. Though at one time our sins separated us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2), the Christian is ‘in’ Christ, and can proudly proclaim “I am convinced that…nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). My blessed assurance is not found in how magnificently I repent, or how recently I confessed; my assurance rests in the work of Christ on the cross, and in God’s promise to never let me go.
My blessed assurance is not found in how magnificently I repent, or how recently I confessed; my assurance rests in the work of Christ on the cross, and in God’s promise to never let me go.
3. God’s forgiveness is real, constant, and complete. The once-for-all finished work of Christ is the reason why a Christian can sing “blessed assurance” and really mean it! John said that he wrote his little book of 1 John “so that you might know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). I have known some Christians who were unable to express this level of confidence, thinking that one mistake committed just before death would render void all the promises that God has expressed. The doubt and fear that can plague a Christian concerning their future reward (because of their past or present performance) is unbiblical. Do we think that our security is based on how well and how often we repent and confess before God? We must not exchange one form of works-righteousness for another. It is true, of course, that the Christian who follows Christ has a confessing spirit, ever cognizant (in his mind, and in his prayers) that he is a sinner saved by grace. But just as John says “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8) and declares that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9), he says that the blood of Jesus (continually) cleanses us from all sin as we “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7). “Walking in the light” includes recognition of our sins, rather than excluding people who have sins. In John’s gospel, Jesus says “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The Christian–that struggling, failing, tempted, ailing, far-less-than-perfect Christian–is “walking in the light” if he is a follower of Jesus. It simply isn’t the case that we fall out of favor with God, out of his grip of grace, every time we sin…until such time that we have opportunity to confess and then “once more stand justified in God’s sight” (to quote an older misguided prayer). Doesn’t the cross of Christ repudiate such thinking? My blessed assurance is not found in how magnificently I repent, or how recently I confessed (to cover any sins of omission, let alone commission); my assurance rests in the work of Christ on the cross, and in God’s promise to never let me go. As long as our daily walk (including stumbles and failures) is as a follower of Christ, the blood of Christ covers us completely.
4. As disciples of Christ, we are called to extend God’s forgiveness to others, including ourselves. Just as our love for God and neighbor can only proceed from a healthy heart that allows us to love ourselves, our ability and willingness to forgive the faults of others starts with forgiving ourselves. How can our forgiveness of others be genuine and lasting, if we continue to hold a grudge against our past selves? The Bible says that anyone who hates a brother or sister manifests the heart of a murderer, like Cain (1 John 3:15), and that such a person does not have eternal life abiding in them. If this applies to how we think of others, does it not seem fair to apply it also to how we view ourselves? If we are to see with the eyes of Christ–to see others not in their sin but in their Savior–then we are also tasked as disciples to see ourselves in the same light of grace. We are tasked as disciples to see ourselves in the same light of grace as we offer to others. tell the world
5. Accepting God’s forgiveness releases the Spirit to do His refining work as we walk in step with the Spirit. The Bible forbids us to “quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) whose primary work is to produce spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people (Galatians 5:22-25). The process of sanctification begins with accepting His love, which gives us true joy, and a lasting peace. As long as we harbor the lie that says our past defines us and our struggles condemns us, we keep the tree of spiritual life from taking root in our souls and producing the harvest of righteousness. Brothers and sisters, “if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything” (1 John 3:20) — including the fact that in His grace He has already pronounced a verdict: I do not condemn you (John 8:11). And if it’s God who justifies, who is it that condemns (Romans 8:33-34)? Don’t let it be yourself. Trust God instead.
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.