Puritan minister Richard Baxter warned about the emotional toll of carrying unnecessary guilt: “That sorrow, even for sin, may be overmuch. That overmuch sorrow swalloweth one up.”1 In his wonderful old English, Reverend Baxter captured the feelings of people who have not experienced forgiveness. Grief over past sins plunges them into a depth of sorrow. Guilt swallows them up, and they feel as if they are drowning.
As believers, many of us understand intellectually what it means to be forgiven. We know that Christ’s death atones for our sins. By placing our faith in Him, we are saved into an eternal relationship with our Lord that never changes. Even though we may still sin after becoming a Christian, we know that when we turn to the Lord with a repentant heart, confessing our sin to Him, He washes our sin away. First John tells us that when we confess our sin, God “is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Yet sometimes, people discover that they are unable to find that feeling of reconciliation with God. No matter how often they confess and after doing all that they can to make reparation for their sin, they still feel as if they cannot be forgiven. It may seem like their sins—things like divorce, abortion, or adultery—are beyond God’s forgiveness. They continue to carry the burden of their guilt along with them each day, weighed down by a feeling of permanent distance in their relationship with the Lord. Perhaps the waters of guilt have washed over you, and you feel like you are sinking in sorrow and regret. What could be preventing you from moving beyond your past and feeling forgiven?
I have observed five mistaken ways of thinking that are common among those who struggle with past sins. Crossing over these thought “barriers” is the first step on the road to feeling forgiven . . . and free.
Barrier #1: “What I have done is too bad. I know that God is forgiving, but I cannot be forgiven for this.”
This barrier ensnares many sincere believers because it gives such a strong appearance of sadness over sin. It feels like a righteous response; we don’t want to downplay the gravity of our sin.
Yet an honest look at the above statement shows that it is not really humble nor is it true. In effect, it implies that Christ's death was not enough to pay for all sin. It is as though we are saying, “Maybe His atonement covers the sins of the rest of the world. But Jesus’s death cannot cover this.” We have made our particular sin out to be uniquely bad and Christ’s payment to be inadequate.
What a far cry this is from the truth! If our sin is an exception to God’s forgiveness, then Scripture lies because it declares, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Acts 2:21). No exceptions!
The truth is that our sin is no worse (and no better) than the rest of humanity’s. All sin is evil in the Lord’s sight. Yet Christ’s death is sufficient (see Colossians 1:20-21; Hebrews 7:24-25). It is more than enough—many, many times over—to cover all the wrong we’ve ever done and will ever do. No sin is beyond God’s forgiveness.
Barrier #2: “I must punish myself for my sins in order to be forgiven.”
We have a natural desire to pay for our sins. Logically, we understand that wrong actions deserve punishment, and we may feel an odd sense of satisfaction in being punished (or punishing ourselves!) for our sins. Our feelings of guilt and rejection become the penance for our sin to win back God’s favor.
It is true that our sins deserve terrible punishment—which Christ endured for us. It is not true that we must add our own punishment to Christ’s. Personal pain adds no atoning value to Christ’s sacrifice. Our forgiveness came at a very high cost to our Lord, and this cost is quite sufficient to pay for what we have done. While we must still make reparation when we have wronged another person, we must not continually torture ourselves when the Lord has already forgiven us. Jesus has paid our penalty. We cannot add to Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Barrier #3: “I know that God has forgiven me, but that doesn't matter. I cannot forgive myself.”
Again, this seems like a very righteous response. It seems flippant to simply accept God’s forgiveness and “dismiss” our sin. Intellectually, we may know that Christ’s death is enough to pay for our sins, but that doesn’t matter. We know how wrong we were—too wrong to be let off the hook so easily.
Yet as we look closely at this thought barrier, we realize this response is not righteous. Just the opposite. By saying that we cannot forgive ourselves, we elevate our judgment above the Lord’s. We think that we know better than He does; He might be quick to forgive, but we are not so simple. Yet what right do we have to hang onto something that God released? Do we think He doesn’t know every sordid detail of every sin? Are we wiser than He? If He has forgotten it, why would we think that it is more honorable to hold on to it?
Seen in this light, the folly of this barrier is much clearer. Scripture never tells us to forgive ourselves. When we try to “forgive” ourselves, we are attempting the impossible. Forgiveness assumes an innocent party has been wronged, and it is the job of the person who has been wronged to forgive. The offending party is the one that receives forgiveness.
We are the offender; God is the one who has been wronged, since our sin is rebellion against Him. By focusing on forgiving ourselves, we have taken the spotlight off of God and pointed it at us—making it doubly difficult to let go of our sin! He has forgiven us. We must simply receive that forgiveness and rest in it. That means releasing those sins we want to hold on to, refusing to revisit them in our minds, and allowing the truth of our forgiveness to cover us with His peace. Absolution from the Lord is far more powerful than absolution from oneself.
Barrier #4: “Because I am still suffering the effects from my sin, God must not have forgiven me yet.”
It is easy to confuse natural consequences with God’s punishment; however, they are different. If you jump from a lofty ledge, you may sprain your ankle. God did not cause your ankle to twist to punish you. Gravity drew you back to the earth’s surface (and quickly!). Your pain was simply a consequence of your action.
In the same way, sins for which we have been forgiven long ago may still have consequences in our lives. An ex-spouse may be difficult to get along with. We may grieve on the due date of the baby that was aborted. We may suffer injuries from the accident that occurred while we were drinking. Yet none of these troubles represents God’s punishment. According to Romans 5:9-10, God saves us from His wrath:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (NIV)
Our punishment has been paid in Christ. As believers, we are forgiven for our actions and precious to the Lord, even when consequences from those actions remain in our lives.
Barrier #5: “God has allowed too much suffering into my life; I cannot forgive God for what He has done.”
The person struggling with this last barrier has usually suffered greatly. The pain from life’s losses can feel overwhelming, and the instinctive response may be to lash out at the Sovereign One for not stopping it.
Yet when we are angry with the Lord, we cut ourselves off from the One who can truly heal our wounds. The psalmist has said, “But our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). The Lord has the right to allow difficult things into our lives. In His wisdom He has chosen to wait before blotting out all pain from the earth. As a result we still suffer from the consequences of living in a fallen world, from the sins of others, and from our own sin. Ultimately we know that God’s justice will prevail. In the meantime, we may experience suffering.
Some well-meaning counselors may say that you need to “forgive God” for the things you have endured. Yet never in Scripture are we asked to forgive God. God has not wronged us. God is ultimately the only truly wronged party, as He is the only One who is truly innocent. It is we who have sinned against Him. In His graciousness, He has chosen to pay the penalty for our sins Himself and save us. If you are holding on to anger against the Lord, let His grace melt your bitterness. Only in submission to Him will you find peace.
So what do we do with guilt?
After we move past these thought barriers, the next step is to understand guilt from God’s perspective. What is supposed to happen when we sin?
When we do something wrong, we should feel badly! That’s the purpose of our God-given conscience. Yet Scripture talks about two kinds of guilt or sorrow over sin, one we should pursue, and one we must avoid.
For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. The first one leads to life, but the latter shoves us into a spiritual grave. Worldly sorrow only bemoans getting caught or weeps for what was lost. It never grieves for the wrong committed. Godly sorrow produces different results. When we experience godly sorrow, we are deeply grieved for the wrong we committed. We desire to ask forgiveness, to repair the damage, to make reparation for the harm done; not merely to protect ourselves from pain or regain what we didn’t want to give up. In a word, we repent.
Repentance is turning away from sin and turning back to God. True guilt gets us up on our feet and motivates us to do the right thing. But notice the middle part of the passage above, because it’s easy to miss. Godly sorrow . . . leaves no regret. We are not to be like broken records, skipping back to an old sin over and over again, but we are to move forward with the Lord. Imagine if Paul had continually relived his terrible past—he pursued and imprisoned Christians! If he had hung on to his sins, he certainly wouldn’t have been the powerful minister we find in Scripture (see 1 Timothy 1:12-16).
In trusting and repentance, there is rest.
In our struggle through the hurts and pains of life, we must cling with all our heart to Scripture's teachings on forgiveness. Real forgiveness is available to all people—a forgiveness that satisfies our deepest longing to be cleansed inside and out. Through Christ, all of our sins have been paid for. God’s plan is that our sorrow—or guilt—over our sin would return our heart to Him. He desires that we turn from that sin, ask forgiveness—both from Him and from those we hurt—make reparation when possible, and then walk on with Him. We must let go of that sin, leaving no regret behind as we continue on with our Lord.
May you find the strength and the peace of the Lord today through both the reality of and the experience of His forgiveness.