Q: I’ve done something I swore I would never do. I’ve been a Christian a long time, and I knew better. But I did it, and then my relationship with Christ began to spiral downward. It’s hard to comprehend why I—the girl who wanted to give her all to Jesus— would do something like that. I have asked God for forgiveness, but the weight is still so heavy because I can’t forgive myself. How can I forgive myself for doing something I knew I shouldn’t have done and that has now caused me so much pain?
Aw, sis—I know that ache so much! I am one of the “knew better” girls too. It’s hard to say exactly why we give into what we know is wrong, when we felt so passionately about holiness and giving our all to God. But sin is enticing, and manipulative, and we are humans with souls bent toward sin. Anyone who thinks they aren’t in danger of being tempted is in for a rude awakening! Even the “good girls.” Yes, we have God’s Spirit in us as believers (Romans 8:5, 1 Corinthians 6:19), and yes, there is always a way out of temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), but there’s also a war going on inside of us between what we know we should (or shouldn’t) do and the sugary-sweet pull of sin (Romans 7:21-25).
So what do you do when—despite knowing better—you give in to sexual sin, or get drunk, or self-harm, or purge yet another meal, or any other number of ways we can blow it? You’re right about the first step: We have to ask God’s forgiveness and turn 180 degrees from our sin (1 John 1:9). I know that sometimes it feels like there’s no way God should or would forgive us for the stupid stuff we do, but that’s what makes Him God! (If you’re wondering if God can or will wipe your slate clean again, check out my post “Will God Really Forgive Me?”)
After we ask for and accept God’s genuine, no-hidden-agenda forgiveness, the second step is forgiving ourselves, and as you’ve already discovered, the latter can actually be the harder of the two.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was stand in front of a mirror and say to our beautiful selves, “Self, I forgive you!” and all the shame and regret would magically disappear? But here in the real world, sometimes we need a drastic overhaul in our heart and mind before we can stand in front of the mirror and accept the person we see looking back at us.
Here’s the secret: Forgiving ourselves is much less about our own strength in forgiving, and so much more about our faith in God’s strength in forgiving. If you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, you are a beautiful temple of the Living God, and He within you can bring about the power of “self” forgiveness. If you have faith in His power and His forgiveness, then rest in that faith and let His forgiveness sustain you in those moments when the sins of the past haunt and distress you. Don’t look in a mirror uttering, “I forgive myself;” rather, look to the Father in faith, and trust that His forgiveness covers you. I mean, c’mon now—what’s more valuable and lasting? Me saying “I forgive you” to myself, or the God of the universe saying, “I forgive you, my beloved daughter” to me?
My husband is going to take our youngest daughter backpacking for the first time this summer. They’ll need a tent, food, clothing, sleeping bags, and a bunch of other stuff. I know he’ll make her feel like she’s carrying her share of the load in her cute little junior backpack, but the truth is, he’ll carry most everything they’ll need to survive. Forgiving yourself is kind of like that, isn’t it? God has done all the heavy lifting—sending His own Son to die in atonement for our sins! It would be downright silly and petty for us to refuse to take on the small responsibility of accepting His forgiveness when He’s sacrificed so much to offer it.
I love Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20:
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
You know, when I think about the sins in my life that were most difficult to forgive myself for, I see a scary truth. The root of my unforgiving attitude toward myself was actually pride. I had such a high opinion of myself that I thought something like: I of all people shouldn’t have fallen to sin. As if I’m somehow better than all the other billions of people who have lived throughout history! But the Bible tells me that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard and make many mistakes (Romans 3:23, James 3:2). It’s only when I take an attitude of humility—recognizing that I’m no better, stronger, or more able to resist temptation than the rest of my fellow Christians—that I can fall on my face before Jesus and accept His forgiveness down to my core.
Forgiving ourselves is really just believing that God’s forgiveness is enough. We might always kick ourselves a little, wishing that we had made better choices, but we can’t let ourselves wallow in self-pity because that just dishonors the very sacrifice Jesus made for us. Instead of thinking, I’m such an idiot for what I did, practice thinking thoughts like, I am whole and forgiven, and God’s grace covers me. Then let that sorrow you feel over your sin fire you up to make things right and stand even stronger next time (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).