FOUR STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO FORGIVE YOURSELF
From a talk given by Dr. James T. Stout:
If only I’d spent more time with my kids…
If only I’d not pushed so hard for the divorce…
If only I’d written him more letters before he died…
If only I hadn’t compromised my morals…
If only I hadn’t lost my temper so badly…
If only I hadn’t smoked that first marijuana joint…
If only I could forgive myself!
Are you bothered by an “if only?” Are you weighed down with guilt over something in your past? Does your conscience torment you? Can you identify with King David who centuries ago penned these wrenching words from the 51st Psalm, “my sin is ever before me”?
The writer of the 130th Psalm certainly could resonate with King David’s anguish. Listen
to his cry: “Out of the depths have I called to Thee, oh Lord; Lord Hear my cry. Let thy
ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.”
Maybe it was a great failure in his past. Maybe it was some horrible sin he’d committed. Perhaps it was just the build-up of repeated wrongs. Can you imagine the thoughts that might have ravaged his mind?
“How can I ever pick up the pieces again? At night I can’t sleep because of the echoes from my past. During the day I try to keep busy to avoid the awful regrets, the painful remorse. But the memories won’t fade. At times the regret of it all sweeps in and almost overwhelms me. I vacillate between aching remorse and utter self-hate. Tears bring no release. Can I ever erase these memories? Could I ever start my life over again, fresh?”
I suppose the psalmist grasped at almost anything that would salve his crippled conscience. Maybe at first he blamed others for his problem. Maybe he tried to rationalize that what he’d done really wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps he used his guilty feelings as an excuse to plunge into further sin and rebellion. If you’ve ever dieted, you know how that works. You slip and eat an extra roll. Then you say, “well, I’ve gone this far…might as well let out all the stops…pass the apple pie alá mode.” Probably there were many times when he almost gave up and kicked his life in neutral gear to drift into mental oblivion of his past. Or maybe during his darkest moments when he could see no hope for a new start his depression reached rock bottom. Perhaps in those lonely times he considered taking his life. Maybe you’re having great difficulty closing the door on your past. You can’t God’s forgiveness and you can’t forgive yourself. If that’s the case, then I believe the words of the 130th Psalm can be especially meaningful to you.
How did the psalmist find release from the guilt that tortured him? He took four specific steps to find freedom from the burden of his remorse.
I. HE CAME TO GOD ABOUT HIS FEELINGS OF GUILT
First, he came to God with his problem, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord: Lord hear my cry.” I have a friend in Miami who had a severe guilt problem. He went from one psychiatrist to another trying to find relief from his mental anguish. No luck. Finally, he turned to God. Got things “off his chest.” Aired his feelings. Squared things with Him. Today he’s a different person. I don’t care how “bad” you feel or how many times you’ve failed, come to God. Tell Him you’re “hurting.” He can handle your doubts, your feelings of failure, your loss of hope.
II. HE ADMITTED THAT BASICALLY HE’D DISOBEYED GOD
The second step the psalmist took was to assume personal responsibility for the cause of his guilty feelings. Catch what he says, “Let Thy ears be attentive to my plea for mercy. If Thou, Lord, shouldest keep account of sins, who, Lord, could hold up his head?” He was willing to admit, “Lord, underneath it all I’ve been wrong. My attitude toward difficult circumstances and toward others, and my actions were wrong. I’m to blame.” He doesn’t look for excuses. He takes the ultimate blame for his actions.
Dr. Hobart Mowrer, a noted research psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, has made some startling discoveries in the field of psychiatry. Mowrer believes that the majority of patients in mental hospitals are there not because they’re organically ill but because of their failure to cope with their guilt.
Psychoanalysis, as helpful as it is in understanding oneself, does not eliminate guilt. It shifts it. Often classic psychiatry seeks to delve into one’s past to pin the blame on parents, grand-parents, school, church or adverse circumstances…instead of the individual himself. Mowrer says: “a patient’s problems are moral, not medical. He suffers from real guilt, not guilt feelings (false guilt). He is not a victim of his conscience but a violator of it. He must stop blaming others and accept responsibility for his own poor behavior. Problems will be solved, not be ventilation of feelings but rather by confession of sin.”
Mowrer has backed his theories up with solid proof. In two Illinois state mental hospitals, he put his ideas into action. He dealt with patients who’d been hospitalized for years and had undergone extensive psychoanalysis. These people were classified as “sick” with some form of psychosis or another. Many were considered “incurable.” In a matter of weeks, Mowrer found that the patients’ problems were basically due to their own making, their own bad attitudes or actions. Their guilts surfaced in many ways, manifesting numerous “deep psychological problems.” Some had been involved in immoral activities or ethical compromises.
But once patients were confronted with this and were willing to assume personal responsibility for their actions, dramatic healing and restoration occurred that was unparalleled in either institution.
Dr. Karl Meninger, founder of the “Meninger Clinic” in Topeka, Kansas, authored the bestseller, “Whatever Became of Sin.” The point of his book? Simply that we’ve got to realize we can’t shift the blame for our guilt onto others for our wrong actions. We have a free will. We must come to grips with our own culpability. We must be willing to say “I was wrong. Underneath it all, I’m responsible. Basically, I’ve rebelled against God’s will for my life. I’m to blame.”
To be freed from your guilt feelings, you must face up to your part in causing your problem.
III. HE REPENTED
The third step the psalmist took was to repent, “If Thou, oh Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand. But there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.”
The writer of Proverbs put it this way, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper but he who confesses them and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
Janet Dyer is a friend of mine. She’s a Christian. An alcoholic, working her way to being an ex-alcoholic. She’s struggled with her drinking problem for years. Recently she faced the fact that her habit was not a direct result of the influences of her alcoholic father. She came to grips that her excessive indulgence was also caused by her own decisions to drown her frustrations with alcohol. Her decisions.
What did she do? She repented. She made a U-turn. An about-face. She was willing to re-structure her life. She dropped some friends that were negative influences on her. She stopped visiting the lounges she’d formerly frequented. She began spending time with several other Christian women who could help her when she was in a vulnerable moment. Today’s she’s found freedom. She’s a different person. But it started with her being willing to make a mental U-turn, surrender her life and problem to God and get involved with positive, safe people whom He sent her way.
If you want to find freedom from your guilt, you’ve got to repent, make a clean break with your wrong past actions and attitudes, and turn to God and safe people for comfort, guidance and instruction.
You say, “I’ve tried those things. I’ve come to God dozens of times. I’ve told him how sorry I was. I’ve admitted I was wrong. I’ve tried to change. But I still feel guilty. I can’t stop hating myself. What can I do? If you’re a Christian and can’t seem to forgive yourself, there may be some valid reasons for
If you’ve confessed and repented of your sin and still are unable to experience God’s peace, then maybe you’re listening to some lies of Satan. The Book of Revelation calls Satan “the accuser of the brethren.” It is he who will put thoughts in your mind like: “You don’t think God could forgive you after what you’ve done? You can’t make a new start. You’ve been too bad for God to forgive you.”
Maybe you can’t pardon yourself because you’re living by your feelings instead of what God says in His Word. Self-hate. Self-condemnation. A relentless desire to punish yourself for having failed.
You say, “How can I learn to accept myself again?” Do what the psalmist did.
Step 1–Tell God how you feel. Tell Him you want to accept his forgiveness and forgive yourself.
Step 2–Admit you’ve been the cause of your guilty feelings.
Step 3–Be willing to make the necessary changes in your life that His Spirit points out.
Step 4–Trust what God says instead of your own guilty feelings.
IV. HE TRUSTED GOD’S WORD OF FORGIVENESS RATHER THAN HIS OWN
FEELINGS OF GUILT
The psalmist wrote, “I wait for the Lord. My soul waits and in His Word I hope.”
The Bible is called the Word of God because it is His written Word to his people. Hundreds of times checkered throughout the Old and New Testaments, God promises his never – ending, love and mercy. Here are some of the Old Testament promises that the psalmist may have leaned on as he penned the 130th Psalm:
“As far as the east is from the west so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103:12)
“Come now let us reason together saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. Though they be red like crimson they shall be as wool.” (Is.1:18)
“I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:34)
“I even I am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake and will not remember thy sins.”(Is. 43.25)
The New Testament’s also loaded with God’s promises of forgiveness:
“If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9)
All these promises of God’s love and forgiveness were fleshed out when God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ went to his death on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins and mine.
The Cross was God’s way of saying “I’m willing to go this far to prove my love for you…to restore you to Myself…there’s nothing more you can do to earn my love, my forgiveness.” That’s why Jesus cried from the Cross, “It is finished.” There’s nothing more you can do to earn God’s forgiveness of your sins. Christ shed His precious blood so that God could forgive you. That’s why John the Baptist said of Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.”
When I was student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, one of my professors had a leather bullwhip hung on the corner wall of his office. Sometimes students would seek out this professor when they were discouraged. He’d say “What’s the matter?” “Well, ‘prof,’ I’ve just had a bad fight with my wife. It was my fault. I just can’t forgive myself. I feel terrible inside.” The wise scholar would ask, “Have you confessed it to God?” “Yes.” “And you’ve still found no relief for your feelings?” “That’s right…I still can’t forgive myself. I believe that God’s forgiven me, but I still hate myself.” The professor would say, “Let’s look at what God says about this in the Bible.” He’d turn to some verses of forgiveness. Then he’d say, “God says if you’ve confessed your sins and repented of them, he promises to forgive you, doesn’t he?” “Yes.” “And yet you still can’t forgive yourself?” “Right.”
Then I suggest that you’ve got one or two choices to make.
“Either you can believe what God says about His forgiveness…or you don’t. Simple as that. You can walk out of my office believing God’s forgiven you…and start loving yourself,… or you can leave here bogged down in self-hate again. If you decide not to take God at His Word, why not physically beat yourself. It’ll work better than mentally torturing yourself!” Then he’d take the leather whip down from the wall, “Here, use this…flagellate yourself! It’ll make you feel even worse!”
The psalmist had to trust what God said. Instead of his own feelings of unworthiness. If he let them influence him, he’d sink under the weight of his overburdened conscience.
The Harvard psychologist, William James, devised a sound psychological method: the James–Lange Theory. If you act as if something is true about yourself, you’ll soon feel that way and actually become that way. If you’re a coward and want to be brave, act as if you are brave. Soon you’ll begin to feel brave and be brave.
The same principle holds true in areas of human guilt. If you’ve confessed and repented of your past yet still find it hard to forgive yourself, act as if you’ve been forgiven…take God’s promises of forgiveness literally and act as if they’re true. This is faith in action. It takes practice. And it works. When your feelings of guilt start to surface, claim God’s promises. Act as if you are forgiven.
It doesn’t’ matter how badly you’ve messed up your life. Or how many times you’ve sinned. Or how awful your sin. God’s in the business of re-cycling lives. The Bible says that there’s only one sin that God will not forgive; “the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” In essence, this is one’s final rejection of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
God loves you. He wants to forgive you. He wants to give you a new start.
If you’re having a hard time forgiving yourself you’ve got one of several choices to make. You can continue blaming the circumstances that “caused you to sin.” You can try to rationalize that what you’ve done really isn’t “that bad” and try to forget by shoving it under the carpet of your mind.
Or you can follow the four steps that the psalmist did. You can come to God. Admit your wrongdoing. Be willing to make a U-turn. Take God at his Word that He really will forgive you.
How about it? How are you going to handle your guilt problem? The choice is yours.