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I can't forgive myself
by Don Beers
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I am both saddened and amazed when I hear these words spoken while mixed with sobs of crushing guilt. I am sad because no one should have to live like this. I am amazed by the power of this belief has over a person. Like an emotional warden it brings the person to the prison gates offering only a glimpse of freedom.

Another aspect of the idea that “I can’t forgive myself” which both troubles and confounds me is; I hear this from people who have in their very own possession the Word of Life, that is, the book which God has given by which He reveals our freedom. They have in their hands the “key” to the gates but never learned how to use it.

Still another perspective concerning this which is an equal source of consternation is the way these four words can be spoken. The “east to the west” of our sins is either spoken through tears when a person truly believes they must forgive themselves. While there are among us those who know “I can’t forgive myself.”

Said one way the belief that “I can’t forgive myself” brings with it the idea of “I won’t realize this until I have done that” or “I won’t have the feelings of ‘this’ until I have ‘worked through’ the feeling of ‘that’.”

One the one hand there is a brother or sister who honestly believes they must forgive themselves when what they really mean to say is “until I FEEL forgiven, I must not be” and on the other there are those brothers/sisters who say that “I am forgiven, regardless of how I feel about it.”

For some of us our forgiveness is simply accepted and our relationship with God the Father by and through the accepted sacrifice of Jesus Christ is more than sufficient reason to rejoice. If this is you, then you are certainly welcome to travel with me through this writing, but the reason(s) for it will not apply to you. The reminder, however, of our total forgiveness is more than enough reason for us to bow our knees and worship Him who is merciful.

For those of you who continue to believe with your whole heart that you must forgive yourself in order to know real forgiveness and while your heart longs and through tear-filled eyes you’re searching for that sense of being forgiven; these words are for you.

Let me begin by saying to you that I am sorry you have ever heard the words, however they were expressed, that implied you must forgive yourself. I’m sure you heard those words from a person you love and because of that great love; you trusted what they said and have applied it to yourself.

I’ll briefly remind you that Eve made a similar mistake when she added a few words of her own to God’s words and she also left some out. There is no doubt in my mind she was sincere and I’m sure whoever said you must forgive yourself said so in the utmost sincerity. Sincerity and truth are not always the best of friends.

None of us intentionally adopt a belief that promises sorrow, bondage, fear or despair. We have to be talked into it and it grieves me to know that such things happen in pulpit and pew on a regular basis. What I mean is that it breaks my heart when I consider that there was a day when you were in awe of the possibility of God not only forgiving but also forgetting the sins which kept you from Him. You “went forward” to receive that gift, but there was an “asterisk” in the agreement no one told you about when you signed up.

Somewhere along the road they introduced a teaching they sincerely believe and thinking to add to your joy they passed it on. From the pulpit, sitting in a pew next to a trusted brother or while having a burger at Mickey D’s. Like a serpent in the idyllic setting of Eden the thought that “you have to forgive yourself” crept into your own garden.

There is another facet of this dreadful gem that causes me grief. This belief, which you hope will eventually bring you freedom from guilt, is not one you feel you can talk about openly. The guilt for not being able to forgive yourself is so powerful that you feel like you are not only in prison, but in solitary confinement. You live it, but you mustn’t talk about it. You are only allowed to talk about joy, peace and blessings.

Now, what I am about to tell you will not only bring you a measure of joy but it will also bring with it a measure of fear. After all, you trusted one person when they told you about freedom in Christ and then gave you a burden that no one can bear and now you have another person, who seems to be sincere, telling you something altogether different.

By now you have spent enough time among Christians to have been given the impression that the life of the believer consists of Judge, jury and the accused. It goes without saying that Jesus Christ is the judge. Somehow you’ve also come to believe that the people you go to church with are a “jury of your peers.” You live as if you are forever on trial.

To make a bad situation worse, you are not just the accused; you are a member of the jury. In your heart and mind there has been sufficient evidence to convict you and although the “jury” maintains your forgiveness, they’ve also informed you that your forgiveness will be complete when you are able to forgive yourself. It’s a hamster wheel of confusion offering plenty of reasons to cry yourself to sleep at night. It’s certainly a painful reminder why you feel as if your prayers fall on deaf ears.

One of the reasons few of us talk freely about our condition is because we’ve been told that we are to “walk by faith, not by sight” and we take that to mean we are not supposed to feel the way we do. Instead we are to bury those emotions somewhere deep inside of us. Fear of rejection is a powerful prison guard. Longing for acceptance the way we all do will keep us bound to a “code of silence.”

But, look at Jesus, the one in whom we are to have faith and see him weeping over Jerusalem. Watch him as he again weeps at Lazarus tomb. Go to Gethsemane and see him “in agony, sweating as it were great drops of blood.”(Luke 22:44) Which of us would ever accuse Jesus of not being a man of faith because of his obvious display of emotion?

Again I need to briefly explain what I am talking about when I say we are to “walk by faith and not by sight” as opposed to being controlled by our feelings. Another teaching the church would do well to hear and undisciplined I could cover pages writing about it.

Suffice it to say that our redemption must be complete. Not only should “the spirit of our minds” be renewed according to Ephesians 4:23, our hearts be made new according to Ezekiel 11:19 (although there are many others), but there must come with all of this that “redeeming of emotions.” The whole man must be transformed.

One illustration will have to do for now. If compassion is not a feeling, a redeemed emotion, then what is it? Before we knew Jesus Christ we shed tears for ourselves. Now that we have been allowed to know Him, we weep for others. The redeemed heart grieves for the unredeemed world. It begins in faith and may be expressed in tears.

I’ve gone to this extreme and I realize it appears my writing has strayed from the path of “I can’t forgive myself”, but I have no idea where you are. The best I can do is list as many possibilities as I can think of in hopes of “meeting you right where you are.”

At some time in your life you’ve heard a teaching. Those words branded an idea on your mind and try as you might, you just can’t free yourself from its merciless grip. “How can I know this ‘joy’ I hear so much about? Guilt gives no wings to my soul. I must forgive myself or I’ll never ascend to the heights of jubilation I see in others.” What a sad state of affairs. That is most certainly not the freedom you heard tell of when you first joined our ranks.

Although most of us didn’t realize it, when any of us came to Jesus Christ, we came to Him as one subpoenaed. A document was presented which ordered that we stand trial for crimes against the Kingdom of God and against God Himself.

You’ve been with us long enough and you are familiar with a lot of Christian terminology. We’ve all heard teachings on “the law”, guilt, condemnation, judgment, conviction, execution, testimony, witness, justice, forgiveness and mercy. These are just a few of the words we all use.

But, few of us take the time to realize that all of those words are legal terms. Every one of us, in the beginning has come to God the Father in a judicial setting. That is unless we heard the gospel presented as God being a merciful Father only. He is certainly that, but “mercy” is a legal term and can only be said of one who has the authority to judge, convict, condemn and execute the guilty.

His love will never allow that His justice be overlooked. His love and His holiness are intrinsic; one will not allow the other satisfaction at its own expense. Exercising one characteristic at the expense of another would make Him incomplete; meaning, He would violate His own nature. He would be powerful, but He would not be God.

Humanly speaking, if someone stole my computer, you could not be merciful to them in my place. You could, but it would not absolve them of guilt. I am the only one who can be merciful. I am the one against whom the crime has been committed.

I could go on, and perhaps I should write more on this, but for now I’ll end here with some closing words for you to consider and allow myself some time to consider if I might say more about this later. You’ve read this far and that serves to tell me that you wholeheartedly need an answer to the question/statement “I can’t forgive myself.”

Let me trade places with you for a moment. I’ll take the place of those of you who believe we must forgive ourselves in concert with God’s forgiveness in order for it to be real in our lives.

If I am to continue to believe that I must forgive myself there is one thing that has to happen for me to succeed. I must remove the presiding judge and render a verdict against myself. I must dethrone the one who’s seated there.

More than that, even if He were to render a verdict against me of “guilty, but forgiven” but I add a conditional “that’s good news, but I must also forgive myself” then what I’ve really said is that His words are insufficient. I’ve essentially called the presiding Judge a liar.

To make my sad case even sadder is that now I’ve said that the One who took the wages of sin on Himself died for nothing. His death was powerless to free me from guilt. The crucified Judge’s self imposed sentence in my place was in vain.

If I am to continue to believe that I must forgive myself I have become the accused one who is equal to the Judge. If I insist on granting my own forgiveness, what I am really saying is “I am God.”

Now that we’ve broken it down to its simplest parts there are some of you shaking your heads in a mixture of shame and amazement. “I’m amazed I could even believe such a thing and I’m ashamed that I’ve haven’t taken Him at His word.” Don’t despair; you’re in very good company.

Standing right beside you are many of us who used to believe the same thing. Many of us have known the fear that comes from letting go of a burdensome teaching. Some of us didn’t let go of it easily either; it took some Spirit breathed persuasion. There are many around you, who were adrift in a sea of sin when another tethered us to a life boat, but they used a snake for a rope; we preferred being bitten to drowning, so we held on.

You’ve been with us long enough and you are familiar with a lot of Christian terminology. We’ve all heard teachings on “the law”, guilt, condemnation, judgment, conviction, execution, testimony, witness, justice, forgiveness and mercy. These are just a few of the words we all use.

This previously read paragraph bears repeating, perhaps for many reasons, but there is one other thought I want to share with you before we go our way.

All of these biblical terms are legal terms and have to do with legal proceedings, but pay attention to the one courtroom setting word we use that is never mentioned in scripture. “Jury” There is no jury, although your peers insist you forgive yourself, they are saying something the Judge will never say; their testimony is perjury against the court of Heaven.

We are not the Judge. We are not Witnesses. We are not attorneys for the Prosecution (that’s Satan’s job) and if we are wise we will resign as the defense attorney. May we only and always be those who stand accused at the Judgment Seat of Christ and accept the “guilty” verdict against us. Nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.

Joy that comes any other way other than total forgiveness is not joy, although it’s a persuasive imitation. Joy, by God’s reckoning can only come one way and Jesus said “I am the way.” Forgiving ourselves may bring a temporary feeling of relief but it will never do a thing for our hearts, that place within where the One who was accused, tried and condemned lives.

Should these few words find their way into your heart, watch the way your emotions begin to change. Day by day, more and more of the whole man will be being redeemed. Watch the way you no longer “worship to be saved” but you truly begin to “worship because you are forgiven.” Worship without forgiveness is lip service.

When Jesus said “it is finished” he was saying to you and me that all of the legal requirements of a Holy God were satisfied on Calvary. For us to continue to believe we must forgive ourselves we have no choice but to take Him down from the tree, put make-up over His wounds, wipe every Gethsemane tear from His eyes and say “thanks, I know you tried.”

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