Moving On: Getting Past a Life Filled with Guilt and Unforgiveness
“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And He invites us all to forgive each other.
Forgiving does not usually happen at once. It is a process, sometimes a long one, especially when it comes to wounds gouged deep. And we must expect some lapses…some people seem to manage to finish off forgiving in one swoop of the heart. But when they do, you can bet they are forgiving flesh wounds. Deeper cuts take more time and can use a second coat.”
-Lewis B. Smedes
Ever since I was a young man I’ve dealt with guilt and shame. I have what I would call a delicate conscience, and in a lot of ways, this can be very good. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, of course, and having such a soft conscience has and hopefully continues to bring me toward repentance pretty quickly…at least that’s the idea. This is all well and good if you take it to heart and deal with your sin in a godly fashion.
What do I mean by dealing with your sin in a godly fashion? When I sin, I confess my sin to the Lord; that it was against Him (Ps. 51:4) and believe that He has taken my sin away (Ps. 103:9-13). My responsibility, then, is to repent and completely turn away from that sin accepting God’s grace and forgiveness, and choosing to live more Christlike. The difficult questions are, “What if you are sometimes not able to accept/receive God’s forgiving grace? What if you have a hard time with this forgiveness concept? What if you don’t feel worthy of His forgiveness and therefore can’t get passed the sin and guilt you feel? What if you don’t believe the worldly mantra of ‘You just have to forgive yourself’ when you know that this concept is a foolish one because you are powerless to forgive yourself? What if you know it is only God Himself that will forgive you, but you still struggle with so much guilt that, at times, you can’t accept the fact that God truly does forgive ALL your sin…past, present, and future?
I’m sort of preaching to myself here a bit, but I think there are an awful lot of us that deal with this and there’s a great deal at stake here. How do we believe and know that we know that we know that the Lord has taken away all our guilt, fear, shame, and sin? For me, it’s going back to first things. I have to get back to the basic tenants of the beauty and simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My sin is taken away not by what I have or haven’t done, it’s by what Christ has done on my behalf. I don’t have to fear that guilt will swallow me up because my Redeemer lives and is oh so patient with me. I believe this not by seeing all the good I’ve been able to do in this life. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed my transgressions from me (Ps. 103:12). God’s limitless grace helps me faithfully live out my Christian journey by continually reminding me that it’s not by merit of my own making that makes me free. Instead, God’s love for me, His interceding for me, His fighting for truth for me, rids me time and time again of my past sins and failures.
You see, the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting me of my own selfishness and sinful heart can sometimes be the “easier” sin to repent of. This is quite often holy guilt that leads us to the cross of Christ with a grateful heart that longs to obey. This cross-centered gratefulness, then, leads to obedience born out of love, because Christ first loved us! However, false guilt or dealing with the pain of other’s sin against me can be more damaging still.
What happens when the guilt and shame doesn’t come from your own sin, but from someone else hurting you? Or even having an unfortunate experience at a church which left you hurt, dejected, and riddled with disillusion and false guilt. Let me tell you, if you struggle with God’s forgiveness for you, it will be increasingly more difficult (not impossible) to be able to forgive others. Unless, by God’s grace you can separate the two, you will unfortunately focus on the speck in your neighbor’s eye more than the plank in your own.
It’s not within our fleshly nature to immediately want to forgive someone for wronging us. That’s why movies like Taken with Liam Neeson are so popular. We like seeing the “bad guy” get what’s coming to him. And, to be honest, I think that many of us have spent years of our lives seething in anger and having an unforgiving, vengeful spirit toward God or others due to feeling like we’ve been wronged or sinned against in some way.
The question then becomes, “Does an unforgiving spirit stunt our growth in Christlikeness, keeping us fixated on the past rather than moving forward in the grace of the Lord?” The answer is a resounding YES! The more time and energy spent on a particular set of circumstances or event from the past, the more we get fixated on it. The more fixated we are on the event itself, the more we allow emotions to dictate what we even remember about such an event. When emotions like anger, resentment, or even sorrow take hold, they relay powerful feelings to the brain and to our thoughts as well. It’s very easy to misinterpret a situation from the past when strong feelings are attached to it. Have you ever told a story from the past and as you’re telling it, your spouse or someone else that was there at the time the story was happening in real time says, ”Ugh, you’re not telling the story right AT ALL!” When strong feelings are attached to a situation, facts can get jumbled pretty quickly.
This is why Jesus said in Matthew 5, “So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23-24).”
I believe there’s a sense of immediacy here in these verses. If you know your brother has something against you or vice versa, do the work to reconcile with him or your offerings to the Lord will be hindered. We must be a people who forgive as the Lord forgave us. The more I understand just how much I’ve been forgiven, the more I’m able to forgive…and forgive deeply from the heart.
“For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your Heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing (Matt. 6:14-15).”
This is a pretty bold and literal statement/command by Jesus. We are to forgive and even carry a spirit of forgiveness with us if we’ve been hurt by someone who hasn’t come to ask for our forgiveness yet. The Lord truly unburdens our spirit when we seek and grant forgiveness. Our past sins and bad experiences are never determinative but can serve as our best ally for how we handle things in the future. We no longer have to dwell so heavily and harshly on our past when we have a Savior who has redeemed us and calls us to repent and believe in His Name.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank You so much for the incredible gift of Your forgiving grace. Please help me focus on that rather than on my own guilt and sin. I ask now that You help me be forgiving toward all the other people in my life. I pray that You would reveal to me any event from the past that has been left unforgiven; whether in my own personal life or with someone else. May You give me the strength to forgive as You forgive me, and may I believe Your forgiveness in my own life. In the strong and mighty name of Jesus, Amen!
Clayton J. Elliott
Director of Pastoral Ministries and Prayer, KMUSA