(This is the ninth entry of a series on forgiveness.)
“Do you dare release the person you are today from the shadow of the wrong you did yesterday? “Do you dare forgive yourself? “To forgive yourself takes high courage. Who are you, after all, to shake yourself free from the undeniable sins of your private history–as if what you once did has no bearing on who you are now? “Where do you get the right–let alone the cheek–to forgive yourself when other people would want you to crawl in shame if they really knew? How dare you? “The answer is that you get the right to forgive yourself only from the entitlements of love. And you dare forgive yourself only with the courage of love. Love is the ultimate source of both your right and your courage to ignore the indictment you level at yourself. When you live as if yesterday’s wrong is irrelevant to how you feel about yourself today, you are gambling on a love that frees you even from self-condemnation.”1
The love which gives us the courage to forgive ourselves is the love of God in Jesus Christ. “Love comes from God….This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins….There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment…” “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”2
Peter was emphatic. Though all others forsake Jesus, Peter was never going to forsake his Lord. “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Jesus told Peter, “This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” Boldly Peter answered, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”3 Later that evening Peter showed his courage and his determination to never forsake Jesus even to the point of death. That evening Peter also lost his courage and determination and denied even knowing Jesus.
Soldiers and others came armed to arrest Jesus the fateful night in the garden. Peter drew a sword and began to defend his Lord. He was willing to go to prison or to die for Jesus. Jesus stopped Peter and told him to put away the sword. Then Jesus willingly surrendered. Peter was confused. With sword in hand he was willing to stand up for Jesus, to remain loyal to Christ even if it cost him his life.4 Without a sword, passively watching as Jesus willingly allowed himself to be arrested, Peter didn’t know what to do.
Peter followed as Jesus was led away. Close enough to see what was going to happen. Far enough behind so as not to be noticed. Jesus was taken to the home of the high priest. Peter went into the courtyard where other onlookers were gathered. He could see Jesus and the authorities interrogating him. False witnesses were brought to testify against Jesus. False accusations were hurled at Jesus. Peter watched as he stood by a fire. He quietly watched, no effort to defend Jesus now. Then three different people thought they recognized Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Three times Peter denied being a follower of Jesus, denied knowing Jesus. “Woman, I don’t know him.” “Man, I am not!” “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”5 Notice Mark’s account of the third denial. “Peter began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’”6 Then, as Jesus had said, a rooster crowed.
What follows is one of those poignant moments in Scripture. “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”7 Jesus’ eyes met the eyes of Peter, a penetrating look, heart meeting heart. The eyes of Jesus pierced the heart of Peter as Peter’s guilt penetrated his soul. The boast of loyalty even to the point of death was empty, meaningless. He denied Jesus, three times. I can see Peter beating up himself, hating himself. Hear Peter berating himself, “How could I? Why did I? How can God ever forgive me? How can I forgive myself? I’m a coward. I am not worthy of forgiveness.”
Judas was so overwhelmed with guilt and unable to forgive himself. He hung himself.8 Could Peter possibly forgive himself?
More than once the risen Jesus appeared to Peter alone, and to Peter and the other apostles. One of those appearances is recorded in John 21. Two times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you truly love me?” A third time Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Three times, certainly Peter’s mind went back to those three times he denied Christ. Peter made no bold statements. Humbly he answered, “Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time Jesus asks Peter to care for those who would follow Jesus. Jesus was assuring Peter of his love for Peter. He was giving Peter the opportunity do face his own guilt. Jesus was assuring Peter of his forgiveness of Peter and his confidence in Peter. Peter was also being helped by Jesus to forgive himself.
Peter never forgot what he did. The remembrance at times certainly pricked his heart. Yet Peter was able to forgive himself. He could not have preached the gospel he preached without forgiving himself. His words describing the grace of God in Jesus Christ, his understanding of the gospel, reveal a man who knew forgiveness. Peter wrote, “In his great mercy God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”9 Peter’s guilt, any thought he had of unworthiness of God’s forgiveness and of his own forgiveness, was overcome by the love of the resurrected Christ.
Remember Saul of Tarsus, better known as the apostle Paul. He described his pre-Christian self as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man.10 He violently opposed the followers of Jesus, arresting, jailing, and sending them to their deaths.11 Yet Christ showed him mercy. Forgave him. Called him and trusted him to be His apostle to the ancient Roman Gentile world. Paul remembered, how could he not remember what he had done when he persecuted Christians. Often he shared his story, how he persecuted Christians and how Christ called him to salvation and ministry.12 On one occasion he wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”13 He remembered but not with guilt. As you study the writings of Paul it becomes obvious he forgave himself. What enabled him to do so was the love of God and of Jesus Christ. Christ loved him, died on the cross for even him, accepted him, and called him to live for Christ. With that memory he was able to forgive, to accept, and to live with, himself. Paul rejoiced, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”14 The following words of Paul were written by a heart filled with love and forgiveness, not with guilt, “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.”15
Jesus was guest for dinner at the home of a Pharisee by the name of Simon. A woman, uninvited, came in behind Jesus. She bowed down at Jesus’ feet, weeping. She had a reputation as a loose and sinful woman. Her tears fell on Jesus’ feet. She wiped them with her hair. Simon said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” You can read the exchange between Jesus and Simon concerning this woman. Jesus knew the woman’s sinful and broken life and knew her heart. Simon judged her unforgivable. Jesus reached out to her in compassion, mercy, grace, and love. He said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”16
How often do people carry the burden of past sins and guilt? Even when they have repented, sought forgiveness, and received forgiveness, they still carry the shame and guilt in their hearts. Not forgiving themselves they carry the heavy weight of unresolved guilt, self-blame, self-conviction, and self-condemnation. “How could I? Why did I? How can God ever forgive me? Even if he did, how can I forgive myself? I’m not worthy of forgiveness. She says she forgives me, but that can’t be true. How can she forgive me?”
What a burden to bear! Not forgiving oneself hinders relationships, keeps a person from experiencing the blessing of the gift of forgiveness from God and others and the blessings of reconciliation. Not forgiving oneself hinders efforts to change behavior. After all when a person is unforgivable what’s the use?
Peter, Paul, and the unnamed woman reveal the love, mercy, and grace of God and of Christ. The point of the grace of God is that he knows us. With full knowledge of our weakness and sins, God forgives and accepts us in Jesus Christ. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”17 Consider Paul’s pre-Christian life. His unbelief, blasphemy, violence, yet Christ forgave him. Note Paul’s explanation in 1 Timothy 1:15-16. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” “If Christ forgave me, and he did,” Paul is telling us, “Christ can and will forgive you.”
When we honestly approach God in repentance and ask forgiveness in Jesus Christ, God forgives us and accepts us. Who are we to deny forgiving ourselves? Do we know ourselves better than God? Is God’s love not greater and more honest than our lack of love for ourselves?
God forgives us. Does that not reveal to us that we are forgivable?
Forgiveness of yourself, living with yourself (with your past failures), you need to go to God and to the person you wronged. Go with confession and honesty, with repentance. Do not make excuses or duck blame. Go in the reality of what you have done. With regret and sorrow, accepting responsibility, ready to do whatever might be required of you, in humility ask for forgiveness. Trust God’s promise of forgiveness. Accept God’s forgiveness and forgive yourself. When you receive the gift of grace and forgiveness from the person you wronged, you receive permission to forgive yourself.
What if the hurt is so deep the person you wronged refuses to forgive you? What if you waited too long and the person is no longer in your life? Trust and accept God’s forgiveness of you. In God’s grace forgive yourself. Live kindly and patiently toward the person you wronged. You cannot force or manipulate him or her into forgiving you. Accept his refusal to forgive you a consequence of what you did. As far as it is within you live with a repentant heart and life. As far as it is within you live in peace toward the one refusing to forgive you.
Christ came into this world, lived, died on the cross, and is now at the right hand of God, all to save sinners. Remembering the love of God in Christ enables us to forgive ourselves and to accept ourselves as Christ forgives and accepts us. Forgiving ourselves and learning to love ourselves as Christ loves us helps us to learn how to give grace to others and to forgive others.
“Do you dare release the person you are today from the shadow of the wrong you did yesterday? “Do you dare forgive yourself? “To forgive yourself takes high courage. Who are you, after all, to shake yourself free from the undeniable sins of your private history–as if what you once did has no bearing on who you are now? “Where do you get the right–let alone the cheek–to forgive yourself when other people would want you to crawl in shame if they really knew? How dare you? “The answer is that you get the right to forgive yourself only from the entitlements of” the love of God in Jesus Christ. “And you dare forgive yourself only with the courage of” God’s love and grace freely given to you. The love of God in Christ “is the ultimate source of both your right and your courage to ignore the indictment you level at yourself. When you live as if yesterday’s wrong is irrelevant to how you feel about yourself today,” you are trusting in the love of God and the love of Christ “that frees you even from self-condemnation.”18
___________________ 1Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive & Forget, Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperOne, 1984, 1996), 71. 21 John 4:7, 9-10, 18; 1:9 3Matthew 26:33-35; Luke 22:33 4Matthew 26: Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18 5Luke 22:57, 58, 60 6Mark 14:71 7Luke 22:61-62 8Matthew 27:1-5 91 Peter 1:3; 2:24 101 Timothy 1:13 11Acts 8:57-8:3; 9:1-2; 22:1-5; 26:9-11 12Acts 22; 26 131 Timothy 1:15 141 Timothy 1:14 15Ephesians 2:4-5 16Luke 7:36-50 17Romans 5:8 18Smedes with some changes by DQF.