It may have happened 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. For Richard, it was a sexual encounter with a young boy. For Rachel, an abortion at age 15 has haunted her dreams for years. Seth’s vicious punch to his mother’s face fractured her nose and destroyed their relationship. Althea lives in the shadow of the drunken car crash that snuffed out the lives of a mother and child.
My friends have paid the price society exacted upon them: the label of sex offender, the condemning rhetoric of the abortion debate, the sorrow of an estranged relationship, the prison term for manslaughter. As Christians, my friends have come to Jesus, confessed their sins, sought the forgiveness that Christ promises and tried to make amends. But the question still lingers: How can God forgive me when I can’t forgive myself? Is my sin unpardonable?
Some of us have been spared these kinds of life-shattering actions, permanent stains no amount of scrubbing will remove. We have all sinned (see Romans 3:23), but as the tagline from Law and Order: SVU reminds us, certain sins seem “especially heinous.” Some of our brothers and sisters carry a cross of shame and blame upon their backs that they fear will never be lifted. What can we say to them? What can we say to ourselves when this is our story?
You are not alone. David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed (2 Samuel 11). An adulterous woman was caught in the act and dragged before Jesus to be stoned (John 8). Peter repeatedly denied Jesus shortly after pledging his undying allegiance (John 18). These were no garden-variety transgressions. Yet David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalms 51:10). Jesus told the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn you.” As for Peter, the redemptive exchange on the beach prompted a blessed reconciliation between the traitorous disciple and his Master (John 21).
We all sin. We break God’s heart and we hurt other people. Yet God does not withhold forgiveness even if our sins are great. If that was true for David, the accused woman and Peter, then it is true for us as well.
You are not your sin. I got to know a man who had viciously raped a little girl about twenty years before. At first, I shuddered in disgust at the thought of his crime. However, in time, I discovered a man who was so much more than his sin. He knew what he had done; it had broken him. In the years following his release from prison, his kindness towards others was incredible to witness. Now he lives out of a spirit of forgiveness.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening verses of Romans 8: “Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.”
Secrecy breeds shame. For some, those around them know of their sins. Yet it is still possible to live in a way that says, “That was who I was, but this is who I am now, in Christ.” For others, few, if any, know the truth, and that tortured silence becomes its own stamp of condemnation.
One day, when I was counseling a woman struggling with depression, she blurted out, “I was a witch.” She had practiced witchcraft as a teenager, and although she had become a Christian in the intervening years, she felt she had irreparably damaged her relationship with God. In our work together, I listened to her confession and spoke words of absolution to her. In the light of her confession, the darkness no longer gripped her, and she began to recover from the depression that had bound her for so long.
You can move forward. Psychologist Everett Worthington Jr. provides guidance in his book, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past. His steps are not easy to accomplish, but he provides thoughtful direction by drawing from personal experience and scholarly research. Beginning with asking for God’s forgiveness, Worthington challenges us to repair relationships, rethink our struggles with God and our own unrealistic expectations, forgive ourselves and rebuild our self-image. To complete our journey to self-forgiveness, Worthington advises us to resolve to live virtuously in the days ahead as we practice cooperating with the Holy Spirit, and to grant ourselves mercy if we fail.
You are broken yet redeemed, fallen yet loved. Worthington expresses it this way: “The hardest struggle—beyond self-forgiveness— is accepting yourself as a flawed individual, (we all are) yet being convinced that you are precious to the Lord. You are valued more highly than you can imagine.” It feels like such a contradiction, but accepting this paradox is life-affirming.
You are forgiven. This is the scriptural truth of 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We may not always be able to see it, feel it or embrace it, but this is true, straight from the word of God. John explains in 1 John 3:19- 20: “By this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.”
Writing in The Healing Path, Dan Allender provides us with a final word of counsel. “Repentance and forgiveness are the pinnacles of the journey, but a weary traveler cannot continue without a cup of cold water.” God bestows forgiveness in an instant, but it may take a lifetime to accept the enormity of that grace. Don’t give up! Claim the promise of Scripture. Accept the consequences of your actions. Make amends. Reach out to a trusted friend or counselor. Receive a cup of water in the name of Jesus and drink of its mercy. Trust God’s heart for you.
By Major Joann Shade