The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him
— Psalm 103:8–13
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
— Isaiah 55:7
While the Bible doesn’t speak directly about forgiving ourselves, we know this is a common struggle for many of us, perhaps even you. Although you’ve decided to forgive others (even those who have wronged you deeply), and you’ve experienced the freedom that comes with letting go of bitterness and anger, there’s one person you just can’t seem to let off the hook: yourself.
To understand how to navigate this, let’s return to Jesus’ story of the unmerciful servant and again put ourselves in his most fortunate shoes. We’ve just been forgiven an enormous debt, and now we have the ability to extend this same grace to others. What will we do? Will we choose to withhold mercy when we have been so mercifully pardoned? The servant in Jesus’ story made an unwise choice. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to choose differently.
So the question is, based on his master’s unbelievably kind gesture of forgiveness, would there be anyone he could justify not forgiving? No, because once again, the servant’s ability (and responsibility) to forgive was not based on what had been done to him but on what had been done for him. This settles the question before he even leaves the master’s presence. He walks away completely forgiven, with the implicit expectation that he will extend that same forgiveness to others. Or to ourselves, as the case may be.
As it turns out, we’re in no position to judge ourselves in the first place. Perhaps this is another point we should take a lesson from Paul. In speaking of his role as an apostle, Paul talks about how he is unconcerned with how people judge him and that he does not even judge himself. Why is this? He tells us immediately afterward: the Lord judges him. All that he does is for the Lord and before the Lord.
Think of it this way: If you were on trial, convicted of a crime that you knew you were guilty of, and the judge completely pardoned you, how would you feel? Relieved and grateful, right? Then suppose, on the way out of the courtroom, one of the observers shouts, “He’s guilty!” Would that person be right? Yes, you are guilty, but you do not have to pay the penalty for your guilt. The judge has pardoned you. The spectator’s statement, though accurate, no longer carries any weight.
So much of the time, we are that not-so-silent observer, standing up to accuse ourselves, even after the judge has declared us forgiven. Sometimes we even go so far as to lock ourselves in a prison of shame and guilt that we can never pay our way out of. We wait in that prison for weeks, months, or even years, hoping for the day when we can somehow be released from our bondage – or hopeless that it will ever come.
Or maybe it’s a different voice we’re hearing. The Bible refers to the devil as our accuser. He would love nothing more than to take our focus off God and His grace and steer our minds toward our faults and guilt. He convinces us that we don’t deserve freedom; we deserve prison (literally or figuratively). And he is happy to lead us there if we will only follow him down that dark road of guilt and shame. He doesn’t have the power to keep us there, but he’ll do everything he can to convince us to stay.
What is the best defense against languishing in this inhumane place? Grace and truth.
First, we must understand and confront the truth – the pleasant and painful parts. Truth is painful because it exposes our faults and shortcomings, bringing them to the light and causing us to own up to them and confess them. When we do, the much-needed grace of God’s forgiveness comes pouring in like light into a dark room, bathing us in its warm glow and casting the demons of shame and guilt away from our consciousness.
If we are both completely honest about our sins and our faults, and if we are completely receptive to the grace of God to forgive us of those sins, shame and guilt will find it difficult to take root in a soil where that kind of love and forgiveness has saturated.
In light of something so wonderful, so incredible, so life-giving as the love and forgiveness of our Heavenly Father, it seems like nothing would get in the way of us receiving and embracing it and living our lives according to it.
We’d be wrong.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about a barrier that has the potential to keep even the most desperately needed forgiveness at arm’s length – and an eternity away.