Guilt. It is a joy sapping, energy draining and hope crushing feeling. Guilt can imprison you in the past and make you unable to move forward. It will make you doubt yourself and even write yourself off. I know this because I have been guilty. Or rather, I have felt guilty. To BE guilty is a statement of fact. One can be guilty without even knowing it, let alone feeling it. On the other hand, one can FEEL guilty without actually being guilty. But today, I am talking about the feeling of guilt that is rooted in actual guilt.
You lied, cheated, stole something. You ignored a friend in need, spread false rumors about a colleague, and now you are feeling guilty. You should feel guilty. We all need a healthy dose of guilt. Guilt helps us to confront the monster inside us for who he or she really is. Guilt helps us acknowledge our inadequacies at pursuing perfection. Guilt is good, but guilt can also be bad.
You see, if you know Jesus, if you believe in and follow Jesus, then guilt should only be a stop-over in your journey. It should not be a destination. Even worse, it should not be your home, because Jesus came to save us from the sins we committed, the wrongs we did which left us feeling guilty. Like a guilty criminal in court, Jesus came and offered to bail us out. But some of us refuse to acknowledge this bailout. Many of us plead guilty and choose the prison of self-condemnation.
Jesus comes and tells you “Hey, you are free. I am not asking you to pretend that you didn’t do wrong. You did wrong. I am asking you to accept that, while you did wrong, I made it right. I paid the price.”
Self-condemning guilt reveals a failure to appreciate what Jesus did for you. He died for this. For what you are beating yourself about. He died to tell you, yes, I know what you did. I understand the gravity of your failure. In fact, it is worse than you think, and I love you anyway. I am merciful, I choose to forgive you. I paid the price, will you give me your guilt and accept my forgiveness?
Jesus asks us to learn from our guilt and then run from it. He asks us to face our guilt and then see through it to the mercy he offers us. To wallow in guilt and self-condemnation is to slap away the hand of God. It is to look at the cross and walk away unchanged. To live in guilt is to tell God “I know you have forgiven me and paid for my sins, but I am much better feeling bad about what I did. Let me wallow in self-pity and self-condemnation for a little while. I deserve this”
Oftentimes, when we have done wrong and are feeling guilty and beating ourselves up about it, a well meaning friend might approach us and say something like: “You need to forgive yourself.”
This is often after you have sought forgiveness from the person you wronged, but you are still finding it hard to move on. It is after the victim of your sin has told you “I forgive you, go and sin no more,” but you still insist on sulking and mopping and feeling really sorry for yourself. You need to forgive yourself.
What does that mean? “You need to forgive yourself” What do our friends mean when they tell us that? What do we mean when we tell others that? Some of us mean, “you need to let it go”. Other mean, “you need to move on from this because it is doing nothing but holding you back.” But I doubt there is any person, when they tell you “forgive yourself” actually mean, “You are God. You have the supreme power to forgive your sins. So go ahead and do it and redeem yourself from this bondage of guilt.” I doubt anyone actually means that when they say “forgive yourself”.
Of course there are some who come from the worldview that teaches “you are your own master and nothing but what you allow will control you.” Such people, when they tell you to forgive yourself, often mean “will yourself into joy,” “think positively”. They often offer advise that is not rooted in anything solid. But sometimes it is our fellow followers of Christ, sincere seekers of holiness, who tell us to “forgive ourselves.” I submit that some of these people do not fully understand what they mean by those words. They have simply blindly played into the prevailing “positive” thinking rhetoric of the day.
But the reality is that to live in guilt is to live in pride. It is to write off what you didn’t contribute in creating – YOU. To live in guilt over forgiven sin is to say God was a fool to forgive you. It is to say Jesus wasted his life dying for you. To continue in guilt after repenting and after forgiveness has been extended is to say you are master of your life, and you don’t need any help beating yourself up.
So, yes, you need to “forgive yourself”. But, in the “biblically correct” view of things, what you need to do is REALISE that you have already been forgiven, Jesus has already given his life for your sin, you ARE no longer guilty. It is to believe that you are worthy of God’s mercy and grace.
To TRULY forgive yourself is to live forgiven. And while you’re at it, you need to repent of your failure to acknowledge God’s forgiveness.