Here’s one that’s sitting on the edge of Cliché-ville…
“Do you believe God has forgiven you?”
“Have the people involved forgiven you?”
“I think so, yes.”
(Pregnant pause…) “But have you forgiven yourself… (more pregnant pause)?
I don’t mean to poke too hard at this – it’s a valid concern. I know plenty of people, myself included, who have become experts at beating themselves up for past failures. I have some vivid memories dating back many years that I can re-live with detailed emotional horror, usually followed by the out-loud words, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I sure haven’t forgotten those things. Does that mean I haven’t forgiven myself?
What about the person who isolates from others in the name of solitude, or who lives like Mister Achievement, as if he’s making up for lost time or in some kind of race? Is that what self-forgiveness looks like?
It sounds good to ask the soul-piercing question. But how in the world is somebody supposed to know in truth that they’ve actually forgiven themselves?
A Model in Self-Forgiveness
I don’t know how you get answers to your questions, but it helps me to look for examples, either in life or in literature. Who could we possibly point to as an example of a big league failure who moved past the mistakes without beating themselves to death over it?
I think one of the greatest examples ever is a man in the Bible named Simon Peter. What an extraordinary life! Peter sometimes gets a bum rap for a series of repeated goofball mistakes he made during Jesus’ lifetime. He often was guilty of thinking – stupidly – out loud. He did that crazy walk-on-water thing until he began to sink into the drink. He passionately vowed that he would never deny Christ, then did it. And yet, in spite of his many mistakes, I never see Peter wallowing in guilt or self-pity. Yes, he failed greatly. But he moved on quickly. And in his responses I see three signs of self-forgiveness.
1. When you continue to pursue your mission.
Peter had one simple, clear mandate. “Follow Me,” Jesus said. That was it. But sometimes in his haste Peter would try to anticipate where the Lord was going and suggest a shortcut to get there.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, God the Father thundered from a cloud, in response to Peter’s non-helpful suggestions: “This is My Beloved Son – hear Him!” Translation: Peter, shut up and listen!
But to his credit, when Peter flubbed up, he simply resumed his simple, clear mission. He just picked up where he left off. Or he got new directions from the Lord and moved ahead accordingly.
Did he feel awkward or stupid? I have no idea – what I do know is that he didn’t allow any shame or embarrassment to stop him from doing the next right thing.
2. When you describe your failures as detours, not highways.
You may not know that the gospel of Mark was heavily influenced by Peter because John Mark, the author, was a disciple of his. And Peter, through Mark, dutifully describes the apostle at his worst moment – that night that he denied Christ three times.
It was what it was – an event, predicted by Jesus, after which Peter remembered His words and went out and wept bitterly. But Peter didn’t make it more than it was. He didn’t follow up his failure with a shrine to his failure – a lesson many Christians could learn from.
We often forget that when the word went out that Jesus had risen from the dead, Peter was one of two who first raced to the tomb. There was no hiding out in shame, no nursing of his ego wounds, no fear that he might actually run into Christ along the way.
Peter had run into a moral detour, but soon was back pursuing God’s purpose for his life. Did he learn his lesson? Absolutely. Was he too ashamed ever to speak of it again? No. He called it what it was and moved on.
3. When you define your life in terms of your identity, not your failures.
Peter wrote a couple of letters that are included in the New Testament. It was their custom in that day to start with who was doing the writing. I love the fact that Peter simply identifies himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” and “Simon Peter, an apostle and slave of Jesus Christ.”
That’s it. Not “Peter, the broke-down homeboy that couldn’t keep his mouth shut” or “Peter, the fisherman who needed his rabbi to tell him where the fish were.”
When any person comes to follow Christ, they receive a new identity, not based on their performance but based on the finished work of Christ Himself. And your failure doesn’t change that. That said, one of the challenges of any Christian who has failed greatly is to learn to live as someone who is forgiven.
The Grace is in the Gaze
So how do I make that happen? How do you? Let’s say we’ve face-planted yet again, with no one to blame but ourselves. How do we avoid falling into the trap of self-pity and self-blame? What was Peter’s secret?
Go back out to that stormy night on the water when Peter, asking for proof that it was Jesus walking on the water and not a ghost (I still laugh at that), hollered, “Lord, if that’s really you, then call me out to walk on the water with you!”
“Come on,” Jesus said, and the adventure was on. But it didn’t last long. The fisherman took his eyes off of Jesus long enough to get a mouthful of uh-oh. “Lord, save me!” he cried, and Jesus did. And therein lies the secret. Peter didn’t beat himself up because he wasn’t gazing at himself. He was gazing with wonder at the One who could command the wind and the waves!
Look. At the end of the day, forgiving yourself isn’t about yourself at all. It’s about gazing into the heart of the One from whom all forgiveness flows – the Lord Jesus. Forgiving myself starts with accepting by faith His forgiveness of me. Then when we look back on our mistakes (and we will), we continue to accept His forgiveness by gazing at the failures through the lens of His grace.
If you find yourself all alone in the beat-you-up-for-screwing-up club, maybe it’s time to disband the club. If Christ has forgiven your failures, who are you not to?
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