Do you have regrets from your past – something you said or did that you wish you could change? Do you have an incident of failure or sin that you would like to erase from your memory? A situation where you caused harm or hurt to others? Although the past cannot be changed, your hope is in a God who gave His only Son, Jesus Christ to take your sin away forever. He died on the cross to wipe your slate clean and make you righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Many counselees believe that God has forgiven past transgressions, but they haven’t forgiven (or “can’t forgive”) themselves. As counselors, we must confront this unrighteous thinking that they must forgive themselves since it hinders counselees from experiencing the forgiveness and cleansing that God has promised.
Here are a few manifestations of false theology in regard to forgiveness:
1.Guilt and Shame – Guilt is the result of not yielding to the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin. Guilt can become so intense even for believers, that counselees no longer believe they have merely done something wrong, but rather that they have jeopardized their status before God. The devil wants to bring shame upon people; therefore, he repeatedly screams lies into their minds—they are losers, failures, disappointments—in order to deter them from focusing on God’s truth—they are chosen, redeemed, forgiven, and loved (Ephesians 1:4-6).
2. Doubt – Even after confession of sins, counselees may not feel the burden of guilt lifted, deceiving them into thinking that they are not fully forgiven. Doubts emerge when feelings are not congruent with Truth. The Bible, our source of absolute Truth, tells us to trust the Lord—not our feelings (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
3. Pride – Despite confession of sins, believing the sincerity of God’s forgiveness can be difficult. Some may not accept the simplicity of putting their trust in God in order to be saved. They may either embrace an unbiblical works-based system by trying to be “good” in order to receive God’s favor, and/or they may offer a penance of self-atonement in exchange for complete forgiveness. They must be careful not to exalt their own knowledge and judgment above God’s wisdom and sovereign rule (2 Corinthians 10:5).
4. Hindered Salvation – If counselees will not forgive themselves for their own sins due to guilt and shame then they may also reason that God is unable to forgive them. This makes salvation seem impossible. Emotions will insist that counselees are unlovable, and doubt will deem them unusable. All of these elements can either cause them to wonder if they have lost their salvation, or to doubt if they were ever saved at all. But the Bible teaches that a born-again believer’s sin is forgiven and will not be held against them (Psalm 103:1-2, 8-11). Scripture further confirms that nothing can separate them from their heavenly Father (John 10:28).
A few biblical concepts of forgiveness will help dispel the lie that we need to forgive ourselves.
- All sin is against God. All transgression is committed against a holy God (Romans 3:23, Psalm 51:4). Sin hurts others and causes pain and suffering to oneself. But all iniquity is a violation of God’s law. Sin breaks fellowship with God, and that primary relationship needs to be made right before any other relationship can be reconciled (Isaiah 59:1-2; Psalm 32:1-5). After that, counselees may need to seek forgiveness from those who have been offended and hurt by their sin.
- God’s grace is not just for salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8), and so is walking by faith and living a life of obedience to the Savior (Psalm 84:11). The grace that God extends through forgiveness is the same grace necessary to forgive others. One must first be a recipient of God’s forgiveness in order to grant forgiveness.
- God’s forgiveness is relational. God loved each person first, and that is why He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). God’s love is everlasting, and nothing can separate believers from His love (Romans 8:35-39). Asking for forgiveness of sins is not an impersonal business transaction, but rather an intimate act of love, mercy, and grace which God extends to His own. Insisting on “forgiving oneself” for sin tarnishes the personal nature of each man’s relationship with the Lord.
When a counselee is trying desperately to forgive himself, it is sometimes because he wants to remove those powerful, uncomfortable feelings of remorse and regret. His sins do hurt those around him, and the consequences can be unpleasant and difficult to handle. But the answer is not found in a prideful desire to remove the feelings and consequences by learning to forgive oneself; it is by following the principles God has clearly communicated in His Word.
1. Humble yourself. – in humility, receive God’s grace (James 4:6).
2. Confess your sin to God and repent. – Confession means to agree with the charges brought against you. Repentance is to turn away from sin unto God. Ask God to reveal sin—present and past—and then acknowledge that sin and be specific (Psalm 51:3).
3. Ask others for forgiveness. – Lingering guilt after the confession of sin to God could be an indication of a need to seek forgiveness from others. (Matthew 5:23-24).
4. Trust in God’s Word. – Being forgiven is not a feeling; it is a choice to believe that God’s inerrant Word is true and trustworthy. If He says you are forgiven, then you are forgiven (1 John 1:9).
5. Make changes and move forward. – Guilt will continue if there is no fruit of repentance of one’s sin. God’s Word gives instruction on how to make these changes by confessing and forsaking one’s old ways, changing one’s perspective to conform to God’s ways, and then building new godly habits and behaviors (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:22-24).
6. Guard your heart. – Watch for the enemy’s attacks. Satan’s schemes distract and deter Christians from serving the Lord. Jesus warned His disciples to watch and pray (Mark 26:41). Satan is a relentless deceiver, tempter, and accuser (1 Peter 5:8).
7. Discipline your thoughts. – Do not dwell on past sin. Shame and regret are rooted in “if only” thinking. Pivot your thinking back to the truth of God as revealed in Scripture. Paul admonishes the saints to not look back, but rather to move forward in spiritual growth (Philippians 3:13-14), and then keep the peaceful spirit that God freely gives by laying burdens down in prayer and by disciplining thoughts. (Philippians 4:6-8).
8. Walk in God’s Grace. – Live according to the abundant grace God has provided. His grace is what enables trust and obedience to His Word. He has given you all that you need. (2 Corinthians 9:8; 2 Peter 1:3).
A secular model of counseling will support and promote the concept of “forgiving yourself,” but God’s Word does not. This harmful thinking displaces God as Judge and ultimately negates the purpose of the cross. It is not by the works of the believer that their sins are forgiven, it is through the blood of Christ. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace; (Ephesians 1:7)