Forgiving others can be hard, but forgiving yourself can be even harder
Updated: Jan 19
Christ died on the cross so you and I could be forgiven of our sins. This was the most powerful demonstration of unmerited grace the world has ever known. Because Christ is our example in all things, forgiveness must be a fundamental aspect of our daily walk. We cannot reflect the image of Christ for repentant sinners unless we are prepared to forgive their transgressions, as Christ forgives ours. We also have to be willing to forgive ourselves. Yet for many people, forgiveness is easier to apply in theory than in practice. When it comes to sharing the fruit of the spirit, forgiveness is often left hanging on the tree.
I talk with Christian brothers and sisters all the time who have been hurt by people they trusted. Some were abandoned, some abused, and others betrayed. Regardless of the offense, these fellow believers have been transgressed against by someone important to them, someone they cannot bring themselves to forgive. Consequently, they are weighed down by a burden that just gets heavier with time. They want the peace that comes from forgiving, but cannot get past the pain they have been forced to endure. As a result, they remain stuck in a perpetual state of silent resentment, unwilling to forgive and unable to move forward.
There are a number of problems, Scriptural and practical, with refusing to forgive people who have wronged you. A Scriptural problem is that is the Lord commands us to forgive others as He forgives us (Ephesians 4:32). A practical problem is that refusing gives offenders power over you, even when they are no longer present in your life. Years and sometimes decades after the offense in question, their perfidy still gnaws at you. They have probably moved on or even forgotten about the incident in question, but you are still mired in the inequities of it. Because of this, you cannot get past the hard feelings you harbor and move on to a place of inner peace. As a result, more often than not the person hurt most by your unwillingness to forgive is you.
One of the reasons people struggle with forgiveness is they don’t understand what it means. Grace, in the current context, is a willingness to forgive even when you feel forgiveness is not merited provided the transgressor is truly repentant. Forgiveness involves consciously putting aside feelings of resentment even though the offending individuals are, in fact, guilty or at least you think they are. When the Lord forgives, it means he no longer holds our transgression against us. It doesn’t mean we didn’t transgress.
Where people sometimes get off track when it comes to forgiveness is in viewing it as exoneration. They think that by forgiving they are saying their offenders are innocent. This view of forgiveness is not just misguided, it’s wrong. Forgiving offenders is not the same as telling them, “You are not guilty.” If the individuals in question weren’t guilty, they wouldn’t need forgiveness. Never forget that the Lord forgives us even though we are guilty, not because we are innocent.
Questions I am often asked by brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling with forgiveness are these: 1) Am I really called by God to forgive those who hurt me or is forgiveness optional?, 2) Will God forgive me no matter how awful my sin is?, 3) Will I be forgiven if I refuse to forgive others?, and 4) Why can’t I forgive myself after God has forgiven me? The Lord did more than show us the way of forgiveness when he died on the cross for our sins, he provided the guidance we need to be properly and appropriately forgiving in our daily walk. That guidance, including the answers to these four questions, is found in Scripture.
Seminary students write dissertations on the subject of forgiveness without covering all of the ground on this important topic. Consequently, I don’t attempt to address all of the issues that might arise concerning forgiveness in this brief essay. Rather, I attempt to help you answer the questions listed in the previous paragraph. Four verses from Scripture that are particularly helpful for answering these questions are these:
EPHESIANS 4:32. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
JEREMIAH 15:19. “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me.”
MATTHEW 6:14. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you…”
1 JOHN 1:9. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
SCRIPTURE IN ACTION: AN EXAMPLE
As a committed Christian, Miko knew the value of forgiveness. She had forgiven and been forgiven many times in her life, but the situation she faced now was different. This time there would be no forgiveness. Her husband had done the unimaginable and, to Miko, the unforgivable. On a business trip, her husband, Adrian, ran into an old high school sweetheart and their happy reunion quickly evolved into an adulterous tryst.
At the time, Miko and Adrian had been married ten years. Both were happy in their marriage and committed to each other. In fact, friends from church referred to them only half-jokingly as the “perfect couple.” Miko and Adrian even taught a Sunday school class on marriage for newlyweds. They also held a Bible study in their home every Thursday night, and Adrian was a deacon in their church.
Adrian returned from his business trip racked with guilt. He went directly to Miko and confessed everything. Then he scheduled an appointment with their pastor, confessed to him too, and resigned as a deacon. Adrian was mortified by what he had done, but his guilt was nothing compared to the betrayal Miko felt. Adrian begged his wife to forgive him and said he would do anything to atone, but Miko ignored his pleas. Instead, she told him to move out of their home immediately. This was the first step toward divorce in her mind.
Alone in their once happy home, darkness engulfed Miko and she fell into a state of deep depression. Miko couldn’t eat, sleep, or tend to any of her normal duties and obligations. She was too distraught to function. After a week passed with no contact, Adrian stopped by their house to check on Miko and found her lying in a fetal position on the floor of their bedroom in complete darkness. Adrian called an ambulance and had her taken to the emergency room where she was treated and then placed in the care of a psychiatrist.
Seeing Miko in this condition, Adrian’s guilt skyrocketed. He took a leave of absence from his job and dedicated himself to caring for Miko and making sure she got the medical and counseling help she needed. In addition to treatments provided by the hospital’s resident psychiatrist, Adrian arranged sessions for Miko with a Christian counselor, explaining the situation in full, including his betrayal of Miko.
With a lot of help and much prayer, Miko finally recovered sufficiently to function once again. At this point, she and Adrian began meeting together with a Christian marriage counselor. The sessions helped both of them, but Miko still could not bring herself to forgive Adrian. Finally, the counselor asked Miko if she had ever sinned. Miko replied that of course, she had. Then he asked, “Miko, how do you expect to be forgiven if you are unwilling to forgive Adrian?” Miko didn’t respond to his question but she did pray about it for several weeks, all the while reading every verse the Bible contains on forgiveness. Eventually she relented and forgave Adrian.
This was good news for Adrian, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Adrian found he couldn’t forgive himself. He had asked Miko and God to forgive him, and they had. But Adrian could not forgive himself. All he could think about was his dear wife curled up on the floor of their bedroom, unable to eat, bathe, dress, or function. For weeks after he moved back into their home, Adrian had nightmares about what he had done. He would wake up in a cold sweat. He considered Miko’s forgiveness the greatest gift he had ever received, but the gravity of what he had done haunted him. He struggled to forgive himself because he knew he didn’t deserve forgiveness.
Eventually, Adrian had to seek counseling to deal with his inability to forgive himself. He told the counselor about all of the things he had done and was doing to atone for his sin, but explained that no matter how much he did it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t rid himself of the guilt and, as a result, couldn’t forgive himself. The counselor was direct and to the point. “Adrian, I am pleased with your efforts at atonement, but you must understand that forgiveness is not something you earn. Forgiveness, even in the case of forgiving yourself, is an act of unmerited grace.”
When he asked if Adrian believed that God and Miko had forgiven him. Adrian assured the counselor he did. “Then you are guilty of another sin if you don’t forgive yourself, and it’s a terrible sin. Your refusal means one of two things, both bad. It means that you either do not believe God’s word as set forth in 1 John 1:9 or you don’t trust that God’s forgiveness is real.” Adrian was stunned by the counselor’s comments. He came away from the counseling session determined to get himself back on track with God.
Adrian set about following Miko’s example of reading every verse in the Bible on forgiveness while also praying continually. He was still unable to erase that terrible image of Miko curled up on the floor of their bedroom, helpless and unable to function because of what he had done. That image still haunted him and probably would for a long time. But Adrian finally came to the point that he could forgive himself. If God forgave him and Miko forgave him, what right did he have to do otherwise?
SCRIPTURE LESSONS FOR YOUR DAILY WALK
To enhance your walk with the Lord, learn from the example of Miko and Adrian. There are important lessons in their story. The first and most important lesson is that God commands us to forgive. His guidance in Scripture on this subject is direct and to the point: “God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32), now you, in turn, must forgive others. Our willingness to forgive is so important that Christ included it in the Lord’s Prayer. Miko understood this, but could not bring herself to act on what she knew. For a while, Miko allowed her pain to cloud her understanding of what God requires concerning forgiveness.
When we sin, we stray from God. When we confess our sins and repent, we return to God. No matter how heinous our sin might be, if we confess and sincerely repent, he will forgive us. This is what the Lord meant in Jeremiah 15:19 where he said, “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me.” We “return” to the Lord by confessing our sins and repenting. When we do this, he allows us to stand before him forgiven.
Recall that deeply burdened with guilt, Adrian confessed, repented, and atoned for his sin of adultery. At that point he knew God had forgiven him, but Miko hadn’t, nor had he forgiven himself. Miko’s reluctance was understandable on a personal level. She needed time to come to terms with the betrayal she felt versus what she believed as a Christian. But Adrian’s inability to forgive himself was evidence of a lack of faith.
If you want to be forgiven, forgive others. If you refuse to forgive others who confess and repent, you will not be forgiven. Forgiveness is a two-way street. This is the message in Matthew 6:14. Miko had to come to terms with the message in this verse. She understood the Scriptural mandate in her mind but struggled to accept it in her heart. We all face this same struggle from time to time. But eventually, Miko put her faith ahead of her pain. This is when the healing process began.
No matter what you have done, if you confess and sincerely repent God will forgive you (1 John 1:9). This being the case, refusing to forgive yourself after God has forgiven you is unacceptable. When God forgives you, you must forgive yourself. To do otherwise is to commit another sin; the sin of self-importance. Never presume to overrule God. Adrian had to learn this lesson. He could not get past the heart-wrenching image of his distraught wife, so depressed and debilitated she couldn’t function, lying on the floor of their bedroom. He knew he was the cause of her anguish. As a result, his heart was flooded with guilt.
Adrian wanted to earn forgiveness; he wanted to deserve it. He had certainly earned the guilt he felt and the spirit-crushing memory of his distraught wife’s agony. Frankly, he deserved both. But Adrian had to come to grips with the fact that forgiveness is not earned; it is given as an act of unmerited grace. Once God forgave him, Adrian had to forgive himself or risk committing yet another sin. He had to come to grips with the messages in Matthew 6:14 and 1 John 1:9. Once he did that, he and Miko were ready to start rebuilding their relationship.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com