By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHC, Bellevue Christian Counseling
It’s common for people to ask: “Why can’t I forgive myself?” Often the picture of the “crime” keeps jabbing them. They have feelings that they don’t like, but they don’t know what to do about them. In this article, I outline some of the possible reasons why people find it difficult to forgive themselves.
You Have Been Forgiven Through the Cross
The obvious reason, of course, is that they may be experiencing true guilt. Deceiving yourself is never a good idea—it doesn’t work anyway—and so you may need to genuinely change your mind about something. You may need to genuinely ask forgiveness of God and perhaps also of the others whom you have hurt.
After you’ve done that, and some people do it over and over, what do you do if the feelings still don’t go away? The second thing to check is whether you need to enlarge your idea of how effective and comprehensive the Cross is. The payment made by Jesus to secure your pardon is effective in the absolute and covers literally everything that might hinder your freedom in any way. Most people have to grow into these notions as they mature as Christians (2 Pet. 3:18). With experience, you become savvy to humanity’s natural avoidance of grace. Yet God’s program is for you to grow in receiving grace from Him and so you can expect a trajectory here. Ask yourself the question, “What is bigger, the Cross or my failure?” That ought to settle it.
Even if another person never forgives you, they don’t hold you hostage for even a moment. The Cross trumps everything. Jesus forgave people publicly who had committed sins that may have included crimes against other people who were looking on (see Mark 2:4 ff.). People objected that He couldn’t do that unless He was God or something ̶ and of course … He was. And He is. For you also, right now, today.
Your Heart Needs to Change
But what if you still have bad feelings? Often the problem is that we really don’t care all that much about righteousness, or being genuinely good, we just don’t want to feel bad. This is pretty typical in our feel-good culture. If this describes your situation then, you need to spend some time really admiring simple goodness, virtue, generosity, and kindness.
To put it another way, we typically want the feelings to go away, but we don’t want our hearts to change. Our heart is our “wanter.” To genuinely repent, or change your mind, you need to change that part of your mind that is your wanter – your heart. Yes, God does change hearts, but it may feel as if you are doing all the work. You need to intentionally set your desire upon and relish that which is good, admirable, noble, and laudable ̶ and reject, eschew, jettison, and be repulsed by that which is wrong, disgusting, immoral, destructive, and whatever other categories of “bad” you think apply.
Your Idealized View of Self
Are your feelings still bugging you? It is also typical in this culture to fall short of an idealization that we have of ourselves. But this is really idolatry. We are to love Lord our God with all our heart (Deut. 6:5). Anything we love aside from Him is an idolatry. In this case, we have a view of ourselves that we love separately from our love of the Lord. The feeling we wish would go away is really disappointment at realizing that our idol has a flaw. This Christian thing and grace notwithstanding, we were really hoping that our natural talent, superior DNA, and being smarter than the average bear would give us a bit of an edge in the final analysis. But the good news is that you get to lose all that nonsense.
Why Do You Apologize?
Christian culture has created habits of apologizing just for the sake of apologizing and keeping the peace. Check yourself. If you find yourself apologizing often, ask yourself: Am I apologizing in the other’s best interest ̶ to acknowledge another’s rights and contribute to their welfare? Or I am being self-serving in trying to get my unwanted feelings to go away? If you’re doing the latter, you are probably being annoying, or, worse, creating emotional dependence. Stop apologizing and just start doing the right thing.
A Christian Counselor Can Help You in Your Struggle to Forgive Yourself
Trying to “feel” forgiven can be like chasing your tail. If you recognize any of the factors described in this article in your life, then the likelihood is that they are creating difficulties for you. Christian counseling can be helpful ̶ it provides a safe place in which to unburden your cares and a safe face that looks for how to apply God’s grace in your situation.
“Sitting on the Grass,” http://mrg.bz/u2K5JZ, by Darnok, MorgueFile.com; “Waiting for Good News Cropped,” courtesy of Meg Willis, https://flic.kr/p/5TCmND, Flickr Creative Commons, (CC BY 2.0)