When You Can't Forgive Yourself

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Take, for example, a person who is driving a car when a child runs out into the street at the last second and is struck down. The guilt can be overwhelming, but there was no sin. It doesn't need to be confessed to God.

The other kind of pseudo-guilt comes when you have confessed your sins but you don't feel forgiven. Once we have acknowledged our sin, we should accept our forgiveness and leave the rest in God's hands.

During the years I have developed a sense of failure as a father. I wish I had given more time to T.R. and Melissa in my early years at Westminster Chapel.

I now understand that putting them first—rather than my church or sermon preparation—would have allowed the Chapel to carry on just as well. Of course, I can't change the past.

But for me to continue to feel guilty over this is not pleasing to God because He has already totally forgiven me. If I let myself dwell on my failure, I am giving in to pseudo-guilt and sinning as I do because I am dignifying unbelief. I must keep destroying the record of my wrongs—every day.

Not forgiving ourselves is a subtle way of competing with Christ's atonement. God has already punished Jesus for what we did (2 Cor. 5:17). Instead of accepting Jesus' sacrifice, I want to punish myself for my failures. This competes with Christ's finest hour.

Fear. Fear is one of the main reasons we do not forgive ourselves. The person who fears has not been made perfect in love, and fear "has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:18).

Recognizing that fear—and punishing ourselves for our mistakes—displeases God should result in an ever-increasing sadness for this self-loathing spirit. We are required to walk away from our past folly and not look back.

My wife was greatly blessed by the music ministry of Janny Grein and her song "Movin' On" at a Rodney Howard-Browne meeting. Louise remembers Janny shouting out the words, "Let the past be past—at last." God speaks those words to us.

Let the past be past at last. Forgive yourself as well as those who have damaged you.

Pride, self-righteousness and self-pity. Our unforgiveness of ourselves may be traceable to pride. We, in our arrogance, cannot bear having the Lord do everything for us so graciously, so we think we must help Him out a bit.

Our pride must be eclipsed by humility. We must let God be God and the blood of Christ do what it in fact did: remove our guilt and satisfy God's sense of justice.

Just as fear and pride are like identical twins, so are self-righteousness and self-pity. We feel sorry for ourselves and show it by not forgiving ourselves.

Pseudo-guilt can develop into very real guilt before God. It is false guilt, since God says, "You're not guilty." We make it into real guilt when we in effect reply, "Yes, I am."

The bottom line is this: Not forgiving ourselves is wrong and dishonoring to God. But God will use the sorrow we feel over what we've done to draw us to Himself.

Guilt and Grace
The initial work of the Holy Spirit is that He convicts of sin. When we walk in the light we know the blood cleanses us of sin, but walking in the light also reveals sin in us that we may not have seen before (1 John 1:7-8).

The sense of guilt God instigates is temporary. God uses guilt only to get our attention. When we say, "I'm sorry," and mean it, that's enough for God.

He doesn't beat us black and blue and require us to go on a 30-day fast to supplement Christ's atonement. He convicts us of sin to get our attention, but having done that, He wants us to move forward.

The ability to forgive ourselves therefore extends from an understanding of grace. Grace is undeserved favor.

Mercy is not getting what we do deserve (justice). Grace is accepting what we don't deserve (total forgiveness).

It may seem unfair when we have been so horrible. We have let God down; we have let others down.

But it is fair (1 John 1:9). The blood of Jesus did a wonderful job. God is not looking for further satisfaction.

All accusations regarding confessed sin come from the devil, who works either as a roaring lion to scare or an angel of light to deceive—or both (1 Pet. 5:8; 2 Cor. 11:14). Never forget, perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).

Let The Past be Past
The sweet consequence of not keeping a record of all wrongs is that we let go of the past and its effect on the present. We cast our care on God and rely on Him to restore the wasted years and to cause everything to turn out for good.

We find ourselves accepting ourselves as we are with all our failures (just as God does), knowing all the while our potential to make more mistakes. God never becomes disillusioned with us; He loves us and knows us inside out.

Moses, David, Jonah, Peter—all these men in the Bible had to forgive themselves before they could move into the ministry God had planned for them. It's time for you to follow their example.

That is exactly what God wants of you and me. Let the past be past—at last.

Read a companion devotional.

R.T. Kendall is the author of Total Forgiveness, published by Charisma House, from which this article is adapted.

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