Sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive is ourselves. A friend might not be there for you when you need her most, but later she expresses her remorse and you forgive her, repairing the relationship. Your spouse pick a devastating fight with you, but you know their work has been particularly stressful and when they ask for your forgiveness you assure them that you will always forgive them. We can often forgive even the deepest wounds inflicted on us by others even if it means that the relationship with the person who hurt us changes.
But what happens when the person who has failed us is our self? We were paying more attention to our phone than to our toddler, and that’s when she broke her arm, falling down the stairs. We never meant for it to happen, and now the guilt is crushing us. Our toddler is too young to grasp the idea of forgiveness, so all of our “I’m sorrys” don’t do much for the guilt we feel. We slammed the door and walked out on a marriage 6 months ago, convinced that happiness was waiting in the arms of someone else, only to realized how wrong we were and how deeply our betrayal hurt our spouse. It’s too late to reconcile the marriage, and the guilt over what you have done feels like too much to bear. We can never find space from the one who hurt us because we brought the pain upon ourselves. How do you extend forgiveness to yourself for the wrong that you have done?
Before we even consider how to forgive ourselves, it’s vital to consider how we have handled our wrong with God and with the one that we have hurt. After all, if we’ve lost our temper with our teenage daughter, and we’ve not bothered to ask God’s forgiveness or her forgiveness, trying to forgive ourselves is premature. Perhaps the anguish we are feeling isn’t the anguish that stems from our need to forgive ourselves but our need to acknowledge our sin to God and to others. Psalm 32 describes the inner turmoil of a man wracked with guilt:
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).
We don’t know the details of what the Psalmist did. Did he violate his marriage vows? Did he betray a friend? The Psalmist is short on details, but whatever it was, the sin he refused to confess ate him away from the inside out. Perhaps he tossed and turned all night, as he tried to rationalize what he had done wrong, yet the guilt consumed him. Finally, he “said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And [God] forgave the guilt of [his] sin” (Ps. 32:5).
The relief he so badly sought for his guilt began in prayer, acknowledging to God that his actions were wrong. And, if his actions had hurt others, no doubt that too would require him to go to the person he had hurt, name his sin, and ask forgiveness.
One of the first steps we need to take to forgive ourselves is to ensure that we have dealt properly with our sin before God and the one we have hurt. Have we prayerfully confessed our sin to God? Have we tried to understand what motivated our sin in order to better fight sin in the future? Have we gone to the person we’ve hurt, and asked their forgiveness? Have we made an effort to make amends and restore what we’ve broken, if possible? Forgiveness of ourselves cannot happen until we’ve properly handled our sin before God and others.
Sometimes the bible speaks of guilt in judicial terms, in which we violate a principle. Ultimately, all of our wrongdoing is against God first, which means that what matters more than anything else is how God sees us. In Christ who paid the penalty for us, God wipes our slate clean; he declares that we are free from guilt. In Christ, we stand before the bar of God’s justice not as a condemned criminal but as a well-loved child. This is true no matter what we’ve ever done wrong. Adultery that tears a marriage apart, an addiction that ruins the life of your child, envy that spoils a friendship, greed that leads to selfish decisions, Christ paid for it all. Whatever it is that you have done, when you ask God’s forgiveness in Christ, God grants you a full pardon.
You might be thinking, “I know that God forgives me. I can’t forgive myself!” But ask yourself the question, are you more holy or righteous than God? Are your standards higher than his? Does Christ need to do something yet more to pay just for your sins? Do you expect greater perfection from yourself than he does? Of course not. There is no one more holy, there is no one more perfect, there is no one more righteous anywhere. And if he knows you down to the core of your being, including everything that you have ever done wrong, yet he loves you and grants you forgiveness, why are you holding a higher standard over yourself? In other words, to forgive ourselves, we may gently preach the gospel to ourselves.
The need to forgive ourselves is often Satan’s effort to undermine what God has already determined about us. Satan would like nothing more than to hold our sin against us, reminding us of that terrible mistake, that grievous lapse, that awful failure. When we’ve confessed our sin to God, the ongoing voice condemning us (and suggesting that we need to forgive ourselves) is not the voice of the Holy Spirit but the whisper of our enemy. So, when Satan tries to hold our past over our head, reminding us over and over again of how terrible our moral failure was, “forgiving ourselves” means telling ourselves that God has already thrown that sin into the sea of forgetfulness. Over and over again, a thousand times if necessary, “forgive yourself” by reminding yourself of the forgiveness you already have in Christ!
As Christians, we can cling to the joyful assurance that because God forgives us, we stand pardoned, and perfect in the sight of God. Forgiving ourselves is simply a way that we may claim God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ, and live freed from the guilt that Jesus has removed.