To forgive ourselves is to step in to God’s reality . . . to relax in to God’s grace . . . to know ourselves to be forgiven by God Almighty and to accept that truth in every aspect of our lives.
That said, how do we forgive ourselves? Or allow ourselves to be forgiven?
1. Take a good hard look at ourselves. 1 John 3.19-21 (The Message): My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! If we’re carrying guilt, we need to take the time to face head on where the guilt is coming from – is it because we haven’t taken care of something we need to take care of?
2. Acknowledge that we are in need of forgiveness – this is confession – the admission that we have fallen short. Leviticus 5.5 (NRSV) When you realize your guilt, you shall confess the sin that you have committed. To whom? 12-step programs recommend that we admit our specific failings to (a) God; (b) ourselves; and ( c ) another human being. The point is to get honest – honest with God, honest with ourselves and lest we hold back with God or ourselves, that we lay it all before another trusted human being – someone who will hold us accountable in love
3. Open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness. 2 Corinthians 5.17 (ESV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Our job is to open ourselves to receive this truth and having received it, to live it, by not holding ourselves captive to the things we have done and by opening ourselves to a new way of living.
4. Expiation – the act of making amends for the wrongs we have done. Numbers 5.6 (NRSV) Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt . . . Biblically understood, guilt is that which requires payment to satisfy the wrong. What does expiation or an amend look like? It depends. Sometimes it’s repayment. This is the eye-for-eye mode of justice. In day-to-day life, however, we are not often in the land of offering up our eyes. But neither are we in the land of pretending nothing ever happened. Our wrongs require our effort to restore to the other what was lost. The most genuine amend is the evidence of change – of not doing the thing again. Thus restorative justice has two parts: (1) as to the past, we restore to the other person what was lost, by apology, by returning to the extent we can what was taken, and so on; and (2) as to the future, we commit to a new way of being so the thing is not done again. [A side note: making amends always requires that we do no more harm than we already have.]
Expiation is the means by which we enter in to God’s redeeming grace in the day-to-day – not to earn our way into God’s good graces – we’re already there. We really are already forgiven. No – we expiate our sins, that is, we make amends for them, in order that we may become that new thing God created us to be. Expiation is our co-work with Christ – Christ made us new from the cross; by daily making amends when we fall short, we live out the reality of our new-ness.
Guilt is a healthy thing – it is the immediate price we pay for having wronged others. But it is not a penalty. Rather, our feelings of guilt exist in order to prompt us to change – to redress the wrongs we have done and to foreswear doing them again. Guilt has a purpose. Once the purpose has been met, the guilt goes away – when we are healthy. When we cling to unhealth, we hold on to guilt long past the time when it serves its purpose.
To forgive ourselves or to fully embrace our God-given forgivenness, we have work to do – not to earn the forgiveness. Rather, we atone, we make amends, precisely because we already were forgiven. It is an act of ultimate gratitude, of thankfulness to God, that we can enter in to God’s grace that we would seek to make right that which we have done wrong.
How do we forgive ourselves? How do we enter fully in to God’s forgiveness? We do the work – we take a good, long, hard look at ourselves . . . we admit where we’ve fallen short – we admit it to God, we admit it to ourselves and to keep us honest and accountable, we admit it to another human being. Then we make amends as and where we can, doing no harm to anyone else in the process. And we surrender our guilt to God having done the very best we could, in thankfulness for Jesus’ own sacrifice that makes it possible for us to be forgiven in the first place.