“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“Just get over it.”
“Let it go.”
Well-meaning attempts to soothe our guilt can often feel shallow and ineffective. Yet what do we do when guilt nags at us and pats-on-the-back don’t help? When shame from hidden sin buries us and makes relief seem impossible? When prayers to God for forgiveness don’t seem to work?
For so many of us, the possibility of our guilt being forgiven may seem out of the question. We feel disqualified from freedom because we know that we don’t deserve it. Memories and consequences are irreversible and haunting. We’ve simply strayed too far this time. So, we bow our humiliated heads to accept a sash marked Unforgiveable, and learn to perceive and present ourselves as unworthy and alone.
Yet we may not be as unique and alone as we think. The need for forgiveness is relevant to us all because in every deep relationship we must both seek it and extend it. Jesus came to release and restore us from guilt by applying His forgiveness no matter how far we’ve strayed. So why do we feel unforgiven when healing can be ours through Jesus? There are at least three lies, among others, that can trap us in guilt and shame and can make us feel unforgiven.
1. I’m unforgiven because I feel guilty.
Have you ever considered pain to be a gift? Pain is a crucial indicator to us that something is wrong and drives us to seek a solution. A sore throat may require antibiotics. Stomach pain may require surgery. A burn may require wound care. The presence of a guilty conscience reflects the reality of good and evil in the world. It’s an inward signal of emotional distress that convicts us of wrongdoing and holds us accountable until we can find a solution to the pain.
We can try to resolve our guilt through distraction, denial, or rationalizing it away. Yet when we do this, we’re attempting (falsely) to adjust God’s moral standard downward so it becomes easier for us to reach. Repeat this often enough, and our consciences become seared and our hearts become hardened. Addressing our guilt through these self-made means minimizes the weight of sin as defined by God’s authority. And they don’t work – He doesn’t adjust His standard for holiness to accommodate our rationalizations.
Another way we can mishandle our guilt is by living our lives shamed. While God’s standard for holiness is clear, He became the solution to our guilt because He knew we could never uphold it. He designed the sting of guilt to drive us to its solution – Jesus. Satan’s agenda is to leverage our guilt feelings in constant accusation against us. He wants us to dwell on our sin, trap us in shame and cause us to despair. God’s agenda is to convict us (through our conscience and His Word). He wants repentance, which leads to reconciliation, and causes us to delight. Where Satan seeks to inhibit relationship through shame, God wants to restore it through repentance.
There may also be times when we don’t ‘feel’ forgiven, even after we’ve repented. What then? God’s Word guarantees us that if we confess our sin, He will be faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9). So, when our guilt feelings don’t align with the freedom that we have in Jesus, the problem is not the truth of God’s Word, the problem is with our feelings. Feelings are untrustworthy – they can say that we’re free when we’re not, and they can say that we’re bound when we’re free. When our feelings tell us that we’re unforgiven we must preach the Truth to our feelings until our feelings catch up.
2. I’m unforgiven by God because I’m unforgiven by people
Forgiveness never means that your sin is excusable, forgettable, or that natural consequences are always removed. Our guilt is deserved because our sin is abominable – it infects beauty, shatters relationships, and showcases ugliness. Sin always hurts someone. Sin is the opposite of God. This is why it’s so hard for people to forgive one another. Our sense of justice cries out when we’re told to simply ‘move on’.
Regardless of how deep we’ve fallen, or whether we’re forgiven by the person we’ve hurt, the forgiveness that God guarantees us when we repent (genuine remorse and direction change) is astoundingly secure. Whether we’re seeking His forgiveness for the first time or thousandth, His eagerness to restore us into relationship is powerful, complete, and unfailing…every time we come. The same Jesus who died and rose for us gives us full access to Himself. Where human hearts resist mercy, Jesus’s heart constantly beats out forgiveness for even our most egregious sins.
While we can’t force someone to forgive us, we can do our part to make it easier and pay forward the restoration we’ve found in Jesus to someone else. We can humbly confess our sin and ask for forgiveness, acknowledge our sin’s impact on them, and refuse to make excuses. We can ask for restoration and seek Jesus who can do immeasurably more than we can imagine to heal the relationship. We can enlist others (biblical counsellors, church community) to assist with the process of forgiveness in a healthy, supported, and biblical way. We can display the character of God to them while we wait – loving them, being patient with them as they process their pain, praying for them regularly. With God’s empowering, we can help soothe the very wound that we’ve caused. Brokenness we’ve caused can serve as a reminding scar to radically forgive those who sin against us and are trapped in shame themselves.
3. I’m unforgiven because I can’t forgive myself.
We often root for the marginalized, the victimized, the sinned against. We resonate with feel-good endings of underdogs vindicated and villains punished – even when the villain is us. Forgiveness extended to an oppressor might seem unfair to the offended, and seem too-good-to-be-true to the offender. Perhaps that’s where you find yourself now. You know that Jesus paid justly for your sins and that His offer of forgiveness stands, but you’re still unable to receive His mercy. Your sin was too big, too dark, too you-fill-in-the-blank.
It’s true – the forgiveness extended to us by God is completely illogical. Yet against all logic, the Creator of all things gave Himself up for those who turn to faith in Him. He left the throne room of heaven for a place in a manger. He became sin so that we could become righteous. Our sin and evil dissolve into purity and holiness when we repent. To refuse this lavish offer of forgiveness only multiplies our sin. It is a sin of unbelief to suggest that Jesus’s death and resurrection were adequate for everyone else, but insufficient to cover sin like ours. It is sinful to suggest that our view of justice is better and truer than God’s plan of redemption. Perhaps unknowingly, we’re assuming authority that is not ours to wield. Instead, let the depth of our joy reflect the depth of our sin – His love is lavish, sufficient, and illogically ours.
So how do we forgive ourselves?
We come to Jesus repeatedly.
Satan is eager and active to hold us at arms length from the peace and intimacy that is ours in Jesus. We must resolve to keep looking to Jesus who paid for our sin and will usher in relief and delight. We must stay in community with God’s people and continually remind ourselves that we’re not alone in our guilt and shame. We’re all sinners, and have all believed the lie that our sin will bring us greater joy than walking in God’s truth.
We come to Jesus’s forgiveness His way, not ours.
A 38-year-old man was paralyzed and attempting to find healing in a way that made sense to him – entering a healing pool when it began to bubble. (John 5:1-9) Enter Jesus who asked, “Do you want to get well?” which seemed an obvious (and somewhat peculiar) question. Jesus’s instructions were clear but different from any approach he’d heard before. “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:8) Right now some of us may be paralyzed by unforgiveness. Know this – Jesus sees you and understands both you and your unique circumstances. He’s noticed and collected every tear. While we can’t change what is behind, Jesus’s forgiveness can dramatically change our future. If you are weighed down by heavy chains of shame, and wondering – hoping – if His forgiveness can reach you, He asks you now, “Do you want to get well?” He longs to apply His liberating forgiveness to you without exception, and launch you on a new trajectory of restoration and joy. Are you trying to heal your own way or will you walk according to His?
We come to Jesus humbly.
We’re much like the hope-filled leper in Matthew 8 who begged Jesus on his knees, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, I will; be clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” Centuries later, we come on the knees of our hearts before this same Jesus, asking Him if He’s willing to make us clean. Let the clarity of His answer to the leper dissolve our doubt that His forgiveness could also apply to us. His triumphant, too-good-to-be-true words pull us out from hiding and hold us in committed embrace. Jesus came to proclaim liberty for shame-filled captives like us and give us freedom that’s secure.
Hear Him now through Matthew – He is willing to make you clean.
When shame washes over you, think of Jesus’s blood cleansing you, when memories haunt you, remember the freedom that Jesus bled to buy you – a real death bringing real forgiveness and real newness of life. There is no condemnation for you as you stand in the full, perfection of Jesus’s life and work. The weight of our sin and its consequences may be deserved and overwhelming, but the power of Jesus to release us – while undeserved – is empowering.
He longs to restore your relationship with Him so that He can carry out His plans for you.
He is willing.
Do you want to get well?
Just Be Held by Casting Crowns
A Next Step
The more we learn, the more questions can sometimes arise.
We can struggle with how to apply forgiveness in our own unique circumstances.
God designed us for community, not to figure everything out by ourselves.
Harbour Fellowship Church in St. Catharines would love to connect with you, hear your story, and join you in moving forward.