There is a lot of stuff out there that talks about the importance of forgiving yourself. I am not surprised. After all, we have all done things that we feel horrible about in retrospect, things that we feel like we have to forgive ourselves for if we are to move on.
When I was researching my book, Forgiveness is Tremendous, I discovered something that did surprise me, and maybe it will surprise you too: there is not one Scripture that addresses forgiving yourself! The Bible is full of passages about how God can and does forgive people. The Bible also has a lot to say about our forgiving other people. But there is no verse or passage in the Bible that has to do with forgiving yourself. Not one! That leads to the question, “Can you forgive yourself? What do you do when you feel that is what you need to do?”
Certainly there are examples of people in the Bible who have felt like they needed forgiveness for their own sanity. David, for instance, wrote a number of Psalms that tell of his own struggle with such feelings. A great example is Psalm 38. David wrote this Psalm at a time when he felt over-ridden with guilt and was looking for relief. Listen to his words. We have all identified with them at one point or another.
O LORD, don’t rebuke me in your anger!
Don’t discipline me in your rage!
Your arrows have struck deep, and your blows are crushing me.
Because of your anger, my whole body is sick;
my health is broken because of my sins.
My guilt overwhelms me—
it is a burden too heavy to bear.
My wounds fester and stink
because of my foolish sins.
I am bent over and racked with pain.
My days are filled with grief.
A raging fever burns within me,
and my health is broken.
I am exhausted and completely crushed.
My groans come from an anguished heart.
You know what I long for, Lord;
you hear my every sigh.
My heart beats wildly, my strength fails,
and I am going blind.
My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease.
Even my own family stands at a distance.
Meanwhile, my enemies lay traps for me;
they make plans to ruin me.
They think up treacherous deeds all day long.
But I am deaf to all their threats.
I am silent before them as one who cannot speak.
I choose to hear nothing,
and I make no reply.
For I am waiting for you, O LORD.
You must answer for me, O Lord my God.
I prayed, “Don’t let my enemies gloat over me
or rejoice at my downfall.”
I am on the verge of collapse,
facing constant pain.
But I confess my sins;
I am deeply sorry for what I have done.
My enemies are many;
they hate me though I have done nothing against them.
They repay me evil for good
and oppose me because I stand for the right.
Do not abandon me, LORD.
Do not stand at a distance, my God
Come quickly to help me, O Lord my savior.
Guilt can make you feel that way. It can eat away at your soul and infect your body. Our failures, sins, and shortcomings can stop us in our tracks. While no one knows what event or events led to David’s writing this, there are four things we can take from it that can help us when we are feeling this way.
1. David felt like God was against him. Does God still “punish” us for sin after He has forgiven? Jesus Christ has paid for sin at the cross. There is no reason for God to “punish” His children. God’s punishment has been spent. But God still disciplines us. In Hebrews 12:5-11 we are told,
And have you entirely forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you, his children? He said,
“My child, don’t ignore it when the Lord disciplines you,
and don’t be discouraged when he corrects you.
For the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes those he accepts as his children.”
As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Whoever heard of a child who was never disciplined? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children after all. Since we respect our earthly fathers who disciplined us, should we not all the more cheerfully submit to the discipline of our heavenly Father and live forever?
For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always right and good for us because it means we will share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.
“What is the difference” you say? Isn’t punishing and disciplining the same? There is a difference, but the popular idea of discipline has been given a very negative connotation. Discipline is perceived as negative, as something that keeps us from doing what we want to do. Personal choice and freedom from the judgment of others are two of the ideas in our culture that have taken away any positive power the proper idea of discipline should convey.
The author of Hebrews gives us a clue to the true meaning of discipline here in verse 11. There is a parallel made between “discipline” and “training.” Think of seeing God as the coach, and each of us as members of His team. Everyone has the will to win, but not everyone has the will to prepare to win. Before you play the game, you need to be trained. Training is hard. It can be strenuous. It is often monotonous. It sometimes makes you wonder if you are nuts for going through such pain and agony.
Heavy weight champion boxer Evander Holyfield talked about how the training he went through to get ready for a fight was so grueling and draining that the fight was easy. To win it took the willingness to accept the discipline of his coach. He had to be willing to do the necessary training so that when the event came, he would be well prepared.
That is what discipline means here in Psalm 38:1 and Hebrews 12:5-11. Discipline is God training us changing us and getting us ready for the things He has prepared in advance for us to do. God uses our mistakes, our sins, our failings and our struggles to make us better people, to make us more like Him, to make His ministry through us more powerful.
2. David felt overwhelmed by the situation. Guilt can do that to us. Feelings of guilt can actually make us physically ill. David did not think he could take the pressure much longer. His guilt brought depression, fear and illness. His guilt left him bedridden. This is what can happen when we can’t get our eyes off our failures. What makes the difference in these times is how we respond to them. Oswald Chambers reminds about this fact, “If we were never depressed, we would not be alive. If Human beings were not capable of depression, we would have no capacity for happiness and exultation.”
One of the keys to having a healthy attitude during overwhelming circumstances is in understanding that your experience is not unique. Everyone has gone through times of such pain and agony that they wondered whether they would make it to tomorrow—and most will experience such times again! One of the most important lessons to remember in times like that is from the story of Job.
Job was a righteous man who sought after God’s own heart. God himself says there was no one else like him on the face of the earth (Job 1:8). And then, for no humanly discernable reason, everything Job valued—everything Job had worked for, and prayed for and fought for—was gone. Just like that. The man of God of whom there was no equal on earth, that blameless and upright man, was left sitting in a pile of coarse ashes scraping at himself with a dirty shard of broken pottery saying, “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come to be. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead, only trouble comes” (Job 3:25-26).
The story of Job teaches many things, but perhaps the most important is this: Job is not the exception—he’s the rule. We often think of Job’s experience as something God does only to people with extraordinary faith who can handle such trauma. But God did not put that huge forty-chapter book right in the middle of the Bible so that a few of us who really struggle and suffer have a little word from God on how to cope. Job is not the exception—he’s the rule!
All God’s great leaders go through valleys of disappointments, pain, betrayals, suffering and loneliness—deep and lonely valleys. Before he was king David had to run for his life and hide in a cave. Abraham had to give up Isaac. Moses had to run for his life and live in the dessert for forty years. Joseph had to be beaten, betrayed and sold as a slave. Jeremiah had to remain lonely his whole life. Jonah had to be thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant sea creature. Daniel had to be thrown in the lions’ den; his friends needed to be thrown in to the fiery furnace. Jesus needed to take on the wrath of His Father for the sins of the entire world. Job is not the exception—he’s the rule!
All God’s children experience times like these. Life is not designed to be a bed of roses. Being a Christian does not make these painful things go away. Quite the opposite is true in fact. There is one thing you can know with absolute certainty about your future: there will be times in your life when you will feel like things can’t possibly get worse, and then they will!
These events, which we might be tempted to think of as being the end of us, become the very things that build our perseverance, character, and hope. “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation” (Romans 5:3-4). They are the very things that make us the people we want to become. Think about it. How many people do you know and you look up to that did not come through some terrible low point in their life? The greatest people, the wisest people, the people we all want to become, the people we most admire; these are the people who have failed the most, hurt the worst, been rejected the most, and had the most disappointments. Be prepared. Life is going to knock you down. God says get back up.
3. David felt responsible for getting himself in the painful position he was in. David acknowledged that his choices and his sins had, in many ways, brought him to where he was (verses 4 and 18). David knew he was responsible for his own actions. The positions and circumstances we find ourselves in are almost always a direct result of past choices.
This is one of the things that made David great—his willingness to take responsibility for his failures. David acknowledged that the guilt he was feeling was his own fault. He deserved the fault. He was responsible and culpable for his sins.
When we feel this way about ourselves, we need to do what David did and take responsibility for our actions. Making excuses and blaming circumstances does not help, in fact it does just the opposite. Instead of preparing us to move on it conditions us to accept the lie that there is no way for us to get out from under the grasp of sin. That is not the message of grace and forgiveness. We are free of that. “For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need” (Philippians 4:13).
4. David looked to God’s grace for relief, not to himself. In this situation, overcome with grief for his sins and failures, agonizing under the weight of his circumstances, David did not look to forgive himself. He looked to God for forgiveness. It is important to remember that David was not afraid to tell God how he felt. Certainly there was confession—he knew that in many ways he had brought this trouble on himself—but he felt free to vent his frustrations and hurt to God. He trusted that God would forgive him. He not only trusted that God would forgive him, he trusted that God’s grace would bring him through to the other side of his suffering. God was the source of the grace he needed. God was the person he had offended, and therefore, only God could remove his guilt.
Our attitude here is crucial. This is one of Satan’s biggest traps: keeping us in the prison of guilt when the door has been unlocked, swung open, and we are free to leave. It is at this point that we either grow from the experience or define ourselves by that experience. Oswald Chambers writes about such situations in My Utmost for His Highest,
Depression tends to turn us away from the everyday things of God’s creation. But whenever God steps in, His inspiration is to do the most natural, simple things—things we would never have imagined God was in, but as we do them we find Him there. The inspiration that comes to us in this way is an initiative against depression. But we must take the first step and do it in the inspiration of God. If, however, we do something simply to overcome our depression, we will only deepen it. But when the Spirit of God leads us instinctively to do something, the moment we do it the depression is gone. As soon as we arise and obey, we enter a higher plane of life.
When we forget the fact that we have been forgiven and focus instead on our failures, we are robbing ourselves of the freedom God’s forgiveness has purchased for us. When feelings of guilt are overcoming us, the solution does not lie in becoming fixated on our feelings or on the situation or how on we got there, but in doing the next right thing. There is nothing wrong in examining past failures and sins to find what caused us to do those things so that we can avoid them in the future. That is healthy. What we don’t want to do is become fixated on them so that we never move on.
When we feel like we need to forgive ourselves what we really need (if we are honest with ourselves) is God’s forgiveness for ourselves. Remember, forgiveness is a divinely powered action. You cannot forgive yourself by yourself—you need God to forgive you. Perhaps the real challenge comes when the situation, the feelings, and the pain do not simply disappear after God forgives us.
Often feelings of guilt still linger and we still feel the need to be forgiven. We still feel like we must somehow do something to redeem ourselves. We can’t believe that we actually have been forgiven. The issue here is not how to forgive oneself, but needing to accept the fact that we already have been forgiven. Christ has paid for our sins. God has accepted that payment. We are free from guilt. There is nothing left to do or pay.
(This post was adapted from the chapter “Forgiving Yourself” in my book, Forgiveness is Tremendous!)