A few years ago at our church in Las Vegas, we did a sermon series on forgiveness. The first three weeks dove into forgiving the people who have hurt you. This was a wildly popular topic and our attendance shot up each week.
What surprised me the most happened in the fourth week; that’s when our audience exploded. The fourth week was about forgiving yourself. It turns out people didn’t struggle to forgive others nearly as much as they struggled to forgive themselves.
Confronting The Truth
An author named Brennan Manning once told a story of a time when he spent 28 days in a treatment program for alcoholics. One day during a group therapy session, everyone was encouraged to disclose to the group the truth about the extent of their drinking.
They sat in a circle, and each person took the opportunity to elaborate on their drinking history. Everyone except for a successful businessman named Max. He said, “I never really drank that much.” The group members told him, “You’re in an alcoholic treatment center. Be honest with yourself and admit you have a problem.” He said, “I am being honest. I’ve never had that much to drink.”
Later on, the group had to answer the question, “Have you ever hurt anybody while you were drunk?” Everyone shared their truth until they got to Max, who said, “I would never hurt anyone, sober or drunk.”
The group leader replied, “Max, we don’t believe you. What would your wife say if we were to ask her?” The group leader eventually did call Max’s wife on a speakerphone for everyone to hear. Max’s wife answered and the leader asked, “Has Max ever mistreated you or any of your kids when he was drunk?”
Max’s wife said, “Just this last Christmas Eve he took our 9-year-old daughter shopping. On the way home, Max passed a bar and noticed cars belonging to his friends, so he pulled in. That night, it was only 12 degrees with a high wind chill, but Max left the car running so the heater could stay on. He told our daughter he’d be right back out.”
Everyone looked shocked, as she continued. “Max went inside and started drinking with his buddies, and he didn’t come out until midnight. The car had run out of gas and shut off. The windows had frozen, so he was unable to open any of the doors. When the authorities came, they opened the door and rushed our daughter to the hospital. Her thumb and forefinger were frostbitten so severely she had to have them amputated. Her ears were so damaged by the cold that she’ll be deaf for the rest of her life.” The group turned to Max, who had fallen off his chair and was convulsing on the floor.
Max was convulsing on the floor because of the truth about himself. The truth was a reality he couldn’t handle, so he had been living in denial. He was living in a fantasy world because he couldn’t forgive himself.
How Do I Forgive Myself?
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you:
Physically hurt someone in some way.
Walked out on your family.
Were involved in an accident that seriously injured someone.
Had an abortion when you were younger.
Found yourself wrapped up in an affair.
Went through a rebellious period in your teens, and know the damage it did to your parents.
Were in the military and can’t forget the things you saw and did.
Did someone wrong in a business deal and it ruined them financially.
You may have asked yourself on more than one occasion;
Where do I even begin to forgive myself for the things I’ve done?
What Forgiveness Isn’t
To begin to forgive others, we need to understand what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. To forgive ourselves, we need to understand those same things and apply them to ourselves.
Forgiveness is not saying it wasn’t wrong. Part of the reason we won’t forgive ourselves is that we know what we did was wrong. It was bad. Yeah, it was. But you still need to forgive yourself. When you genuinely forgive yourself, you won’t be saying it wasn’t wrong.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. We can’t forget what we’ve done. Honestly, we’ll never forget. But we still need to forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness is not pretending it didn’t happen. We may not want to forgive others because we think we’re letting them get away with it. The same may be true with forgiving ourselves. I know I deserve punishment for what I did but I hang on to the awful feelings resulting from what I’ve done because I don’t believe I should easily get away with it. But forgiveness is not pretending like it didn’t happen; it’s not ignoring sin. It’s dealing with my sin in love.
That’s some of what forgiveness is not. Let’s get clarity about what forgiveness is.
What Forgiveness Is
Forgiveness is releasing my hope for a better past. The truth is we can’t change the past, and, if we hold onto it, will ruin our future. When we forgive – ourselves – it doesn’t change our past, but it can change our path.
You have a God who says, “You’ve beaten yourself up enough.” God wants you to move on. He’s giving you the gift of a better future, through giving you the gift of forgiveness of your sins. But when you say, “I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself” not only will you stay stuck in the past, but you’re refusing to accept God’s gift of a better future, through refusing to take His gift of your sins being forgiven.
Forgiveness is also releasing my right to retaliate. The Bible says, “Don’t repay evil for evil,” and Jesus taught, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ but I tell you to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” Guess what? Those verses apply to yourself as well.
You did something evil? Ok. But you have to stop thinking evil thoughts about yourself because of it. Don’t repay evil for evil. Pave the way to forgiveness. You need to stop hating yourself and beating yourself up.
Forgiveness also releases the power of Jesus into my life. God is asking you to forgive – yourself. He knows it’s not easy, so He’s offering to come alongside you and empower you to do what you need to do.
The Price To Be Paid
One reason it can be so hard to forgive ourselves is, more than likely, we hurt another person. We may feel like we can’t forgive ourselves for the hurt that was done to someone else.
Forgiveness always involves a cost. We’ve sinned and there’s a cost to sin. Someone has to pay. We’ve been making ourselves pay, by feeling miserable and hating ourselves. But Jesus has already paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. Jesus paid the cost.
What we need is someone outside ourselves who can take the penalty and guilt of what we’ve done. That’s why we need Jesus. Because of what He did, God forgives us, and because God forgives us, we can forgive ourselves. The price has already been paid. And so, the God tells us, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
My friends, you are free from having to bear the guilt of what you’ve done.
A Life Of Love
So, yes, you screwed up. (Welcome to the club!) You sinned, but are you going to allow that define you? Are you going to let it ruin your entire life?
We need to take our sins seriously, but our sins don’t define us. We’re not worthless because of our sins, and we’re not worthwhile because of the good we’ve done. Our worth is based on God’s love for us. The Bible says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).
You’re defined not by your sin, but by God’s love. And you need to forgive yourself, allowing your evil to be overcome by God’s love and moving forward into a life of love.
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