There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
— Romans 8: 1–2
“The marks of a Christian should be freedom and joy.” Hud McWilliams preached these words at my church almost a decade ago, and they have stuck with me; I’ve referenced them before. However, carrying around guilt and shame for things we have done or for who we think we are can kill our freedom unlike almost anything else. This burden negates and wastes what was done for us on the cross, and it dulls our usefulness for the kingdom.
A few weeks ago our granddaughter, Josalin, who is 3 1/2 years old, told us that in Sunday School they talked about forgiveness. (Pretty lofty, but it’s important to start early.) I wondered if she understood what forgiveness meant, so I explained: “You know when you do something wrong, and you say you’re sorry? I say, ‘I forgive you,’ and it is over. It’s like it didn’t happen. We just move forward.”
That seemed to make sense to her. It’s actually pretty simple — so simple a 3-year-old can understand. It’s us adults that often struggle with the idea that, when we’re forgiven, it’s like it never happened. We often struggle to just move forward.
Why do we struggle? There are many reasons, of which two important ones follow: first, we have this idea that, in order to be forgiven, we must deserve it. If I may be so bold, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. If we could deserve forgiveness, we wouldn’t need it. The issue would have already been resolved by whatever we did to deserve forgiveness. We can probably relate to this in financial terms: If we pay our financial debt, that debt can no longer be forgiven. We don’t owe anything anymore. Forgiveness can only happen when we have a debt. By definition, forgiveness is never earned or deserved. Of course we don’t deserve it, so let’s put this idea aside.
A second problem is pride. Pride, you say? Yes. It would seem that a person who is beating themselves up about past mistakes and won’t let go of them is actually being humble, but they are, in fact, completely self-focused. They feel shame and humiliation about how bad they are, how undeserving they are, and they become the center of their own attention. Unfortunately, to whatever extent we are focused on ourselves, we are not focused on the things of God and are weakened for his service.
Accepting God’s forgiveness is one of the most humble things we can do. We agree that we don’t deserve it, and with gratitude say thank you to our God for this most astounding of gifts: our freedom from the debt of sin. Having let go of the burdens we carried, we can serve with joy, and we have a profound story to tell about the freedom we have and the difference our God has made in our lives.