HOW DO I FORGIVE MYSELF AS A CHRISTIAN?
It is human nature to be too lenient on ourselves, justify ourselves, and sometimes be too harsh on oneself and condemn oneself.
Paul addresses pride: we are all unjustifiable (Romans 3:23), and we are not allowed to think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3). Jeremiah says that while we can deceive ourselves, only God can interpret our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
Although pride is prevalent, it is also possible to condemn and hold oneself to contempt, even when God has forgiven our sins. This is the fate of the one who, having sinned, cannot forgive him or herself.
But John makes this amazing promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
I want to discuss the need to forgive oneself of sin and God’s heart for an anguished soul that is harsh on itself.
The basis for forgiving ourselves is God’s compassion and kindness for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:32). Those who are in Jesus are freed from condemnation (Romans 8:1) and freed to love (Galatians 5:13). We are expected to display God’s mercy as sinners whose sins have been forgiven.
Extending grace and kindness to oneself and others are the transformation of God to those who have earned His grace and kindness. This gentleness is only possible for all of us because Jesus has set us free from the power of sin, the tyranny of self-rule, the slavery of evil (Galatians 5:1).
Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36). The starting point for forgiving ourselves is to experience the forgiveness of God.
Does God want us to be stuck in regret and guilt, or does He provide us a way out of them? What should you know about forgiving yourself?
Often our past deeds will weigh heavily on us. We cannot change the mistakes we’ve done in the past, though many of us wish we could.
THE APOSTLE PAUL’S REGRETS
Even the great apostle Paul looked with deep regret in his history. “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
Paul wrote these words about 20 years after his persecution of the early Christians, and they prove that he had never forgotten his shameful and destructive acts as a young man. The Bible record tells us that Paul left that life behind and lived a more fruitful and productive life. And, as we’ll see, he had a lot to say about forgiveness and not being stuck in feelings of guilt.
What can we do when regret and guilt about our past actions prevent us from continuing our lives? How do we learn to leave things behind and move forward? The Bible does not speak in terms of forgiving ourselves, but it does provide a path to follow in freeing ourselves from past regret and regaining mental health.
We can begin by understanding that forgiveness, whether it involves forgiving others, or forgiving ourselves, is not about condoning wrong acts. It’s not just a lack of accountability. It involves understanding that God forgives sinners, who turn away from their sins and turn to Him and that God then encourages and wants them to move forward.
The life of Manasseh, King of Judah, is very instructive as to how God treats a repentant sinner. Manasseh was the son of King Hezekiah, who was widely regarded as one of Judah’s greatest kings. Manasseh, on the other hand, was considered to be one of the worst. Ironically, his reign over Judah was the longest of any kings—55 years!
The Bible mentions some of King Manasseh’s bad deeds in 2 Chronicles 33. Verse 2 starts by telling us that Manasseh did evil things in the sight of God. He rebuilt Baalim worship places that had been torn down by his father (verse 3). He abandoned his own children to worship gods and consulted mediums (verse 6). He placed an idol in the temple of the Lord (verse 7). He seduced Judah’s people to do more evil than the surrounding heathen nations had done(Verse 9).
According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, Manasseh was responsible for the most of bloodshed among those who tried to follow the Lord: “For by setting out from contempt for God, he barbarously slew all the righteous men who were among the Hebrews; and he would not spare the prophets, for he slew some of them every day, till Jerusalem was overflowing with blood” (Antiquities of the Jews, p. 214).
In time, God caused the Assyrians to take the country into captivity and Manasseh was taken away in chains (2 Chronicles 33:11). Manasseh eventually took stock of his actions and repented of his sins (verse 12).
What was the answer of God, after the enormity of Manasseh’s sins and evil? He saw the change of heart of Manasseh and heard his cries. He “received his plea” and restored Manasseh to the throne in Jerusalem (verse 13). Manasseh showed his real change of heart by destroying the places of worship of idols and restoring God’s altar (verses 15-16).
Even Manasseh’s sins weren’t too great to be forgiven by God.
FORGIVENESS COMES FIRST FROM GOD!
We must first seek the forgiveness of God, as the example of Manasseh indicates. The common denominator among people forgiven by God, no matter how deplorable their actions may have been, is repentance (turning from their sins and turning to God).
The Bible explains Manasseh’s repentance: “And when he was in affliction, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.” (2 Chronicles 33:12).
Repentance involves remorse for past actions and moving from past deeds to live in a new way. The Apostle Paul said, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts17:30
God’s opinion of us is what will matter, and He’s ready to forgive us if we repent. Understanding that will help us move on with our lives, no matter what we’ve done in the past.
When we repent of our sins, not only does God forgive them, but He also removes them from us. Knowing this is a crucial starting point for forgiving yourself.
Psalm 103:11-12 describes this glorious truth about God’s forgiveness: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.”
God’s mercy toward us gives us every chance to move on in our lives with a clean slate!
THE PROBLEM WITH GUILT
Guilt can be a healthy emotion to alert us to the fact that we have made mistakes, and we need to make changes to the way we treat others or to the way we live our lives. But if we hold on to feelings of guilt after repentance and make the necessary changes, it can become an unhealthful emotion.
Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary offers this definition of guilt: “Feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses or for a sense of inadequacy: morbid self-reproach often manifests in a marked concern for the moral correctness of one’s behavior.”
Clinging on to feelings of guilt (whether the crimes are true or imagined) will keep you from forgiving yourself and moving on to a better life. It is necessary to decide which opinion really matters and to know how God sees us. The apostle Paul clarified that “Because he hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”(Acts17:31).
One day we will all respond to God and be judged by Him. God made it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and be reconciled to Him through the death of Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism.
When we have really repented and been baptized, we are absolutely forgiven and reconciled to God. “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:”( Colossians 1:21-22)
When God forgives us and reconciled us to Himself through the death of His Son, there is no need to hold on to any feelings of guilty for something done or undone in our past!
KEYS TO FORGIVING YOURSELF
1. CLARIFY RESPONSIBILITY
We sometimes blame ourselves for our own misery when others are truly responsible. This is common among survivors of sexual abuse and other childhood trauma.
One may experience self-contempt to be vulnerable to trust, longing for love, or even experiencing any gratification or approval while being abused. Children are never responsible for what grown-ups do.
Many people have borne inordinate or false responsibility for a significant part of their lives because the trauma of childhood abuse has not been recognized and healed. They may struggle to determine what they are responsible for and what they are not.
Through therapy, they may discover the need to express anger at the perpetrator as they project and displace anger against those who do not commit but evoke memories of past abuse. Many adults need compassion for their younger selves and integrate the needs and longings that have once been violated.
If we falsely blame ourselves, we delay our recovery, because in doing so, we avoid having to grieve and forgive others’ decisions. It’s terrifying to face our pain, so it seems safer to take the blame for it. Compassion for self and self-forgiveness will arise from the recognition of responsibility for our suffering.
2. RENOUNCING PRIDE AND WORLDLY GRIEF OVER SIN
Pride says, “God cannot forgive me; I am beyond grace.” sometimes, a lack of willingness to forgive oneself is a matter of pride: “I can earn the favor of God and that of others.”
Self-justification is a common spiritual disease that leads to spiritual death (Romans 6:23). Self-condemnation also leads to spiritual death: for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to redemption without remorse, while worldly sorrow causes death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Renouncing both pride and worldly self-condemning sorrow over sin opens us to receive God’s forgiveness and grace, the pillar of self-forgiveness.
3. SEEKING REPAIR/AMENDS/RECONCILIATION
God’s forgiveness gives us a desire to seek repair, make amends, and seek reconciliation with others whom we have hurt, or hurt us. When we accept our responsibility and impact others as adults, ask for and experience the forgiveness of others, repair broken relationships, our own experience of God’s love and forgiveness is deepened by the grace of the one you have hurt. When you experience God’s forgiveness and others, you can extend it more easily to yourself (Ephesians 4:32).
4. LOVING COURAGEOUSLY
Jesus classified loving God and neighbor as the two greatest commandments. Love requires boldness and courage because love is always costly; it opens us to possible suffering (for unrequited love, sacrifice, misunderstanding) and deeper connections.
Sometimes our unwillingness to forgive ourselves is a justification for protecting ourselves from further pain. But love and intimacy are only possible if we are vulnerable to being hurt again.
Despite past sins (both our own and the sins of others against us), we are always faced with the choice of how to live. Love is kind (not just to others, but to ourselves); love has no record of wrongs (not only of others but of our own) 1 Corinthians 13:4-5. As failure to forgive ourselves hinders our love for others, so our love for others can make self-forgiveness easier.
HOW CHRISTIAN COUNSELING CAN HELP
If you are hard on yourself and you struggle to forgive yourself and others, Christian counseling can help to clarify responsibility, be a process in which understanding about the past is sought and gained, be the setting in which trauma is relieved and healed, and where anger and grief and forgiveness can be expressed and treated.
A counselor with a biblical worldview can support and encourage your faith in Jesus Christ to seek truth, humility, repentance, repair, and a life of courageous love. If you are interested in these opportunities, I encourage you to contact any Christian counselor around you.
When we have repented of our sins, baptized, and made the required changes in our lives, it is time to leave the past behind and move forward. Even after baptism, we will always have to be aware of the times when we fall short, and we will always have to repent of sin when it enters our lives. However, our focus should be forward-looking, and we should bear in mind that when God forgives sins, He forgives us completely and wants us to move forward.
A promising passage from the Book of Jeremiah is also repeated in the Book of Hebrews: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them. And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” (Hebrews 10:16-17).
What about the concept of pardoning yourself? The Bible has revealed to us that the path we should follow is to repent before God, change the path we are on, and be assured that God forgets about our transgressions when He forgives.
Let us consider one more passage from the Apostle Paul: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Failing to see yourself as the word of God sees you mean, denying the very work that Jesus did for you when He suffered and died for the sin of mankind. Do not let this continue in your life another day, accept God’s free gift, and begin to see yourself as a new creation in Christ Jesus, whose past mistakes have been bought with the precious Blood of Jesus!
If you hate the person that you are, but God’s Word tells us that you are a new creation that has been washed clean with the Blood of Christ, the “past” has been bought with the work Christ has done for us on the cross … do you hate that person? Do you hate the new life that God has given you? Or are you still a sinner who wants salvation? Are you in Christ or not?
Do you want to bring honor and glory to Jesus? Then accept His gift with great joy, and begin to see yourself as a new creation, begin to see your past mistakes as being “fully paid” by the great sacrifice that Christ made for you. Start to see yourself the same way your Heavenly Father sees you!