Suddenly, a casual conversation turned into a hushed confession. Choking back tears, the person across from me struggled to squeeze any sense out of something gone so wrong.

Once the story spilled, a long silence was broken with a whisper, “I just can’t forgive myself.”

Familiar words to most of us. Each time they cross our lips, they carry a unique pain. Somehow what we have said or done is so far removed from how we see ourselves, we simply can’t reconcile our behavior.

On a deep level, what we have done is reprehensible to us. It’s categorically wrong. “Unforgivable!” we say to ourselves. Yet we long for even a drop of forgiveness to fall on this scorched area of our soul. 

All Too Common

Surprisingly, it’s a spiritual state nearly as common among Christians as non-Christians. Although Christ-followers generally seek God’s forgiveness and often believe they have it, the guilt still plagues them, and they end up quietly hating themselves. 

If you have ever prayed, even begged, for forgiveness…if you have cried out over and over, but find no relief, you understand the trapped feeling many people secretly carry. 

One of the single greatest problems in human life is the inability to feel forgiven for our sins and mistakes. 

Withholding Forgiveness

What keeps us from this deep sense of forgiveness? There are two culprits.

First, we withhold forgiveness from someone else.

There’s a vicious cycle that destroys authentic relationships. When we withhold forgiveness from someone, we allow an unforgiving spirit to take up residence in our heart. Surprisingly, that spirit reduces our capacity to receive forgiveness.

As our heart hardens from the bitterness of unforgiveness, our ability to forgive others constricts even more, which in turn further reduces our capacity to receive forgiveness from others, including ourselves.

Jesus understood this cycle intimately. He taught his disciples,

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Luke 6:37 (NIV)

Our Bodies Know

Often our bodies understand this truth before our minds do.

I recently heard about a woman who had abnormally high blood pressure. Her doctor was unable to find a cause and every treatment she tried was unsuccessful. Sometime later, her blood pressure returned to normal for no apparent reason.

Upon returning to her doctor, he asked, “Has anything significant happened in your life recently?”

Nothing came to mind. A few moments later she said, “Well, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to forgive my sister for something I’ve been holding against her for years. It was the funniest thing. Immediately, I sensed a deep relief. Is that what you mean?”

A spirit of unforgiveness binds both our physical and spiritual hearts. We may not feel forgiven because we’ve been unwilling to forgive others. 

Second, we withhold forgiveness from ourselves.

This is what most of us mean when we say, “I just can’t forgive myself.” What we are really saying is, “I choose not to accept the forgiveness God has offered. I have to pay for my wrongs myself.”

Landing in Court

When we don’t feel forgiven, our natural play is to try to reclaim our goodness through performance. Unknowingly, we may set up an internal court system where we are the judge and the jury as well as the prosecutor and defendant.

When we do something wrong, we judge ourselves as “bad” and proceed to punish ourselves with inner voices that say, “What’s the matter with you? You’ll never get it right. This is unforgivable. Why don’t you just give up?” These shame voices are mean, destructive lies, but we allow them because we think we deserve it.

The only way we can see out of this torture chamber is to do good works or achieve some excellent result and receive praise. Doing good things helps us feel better about ourselves, but it’s merely a parole, not a release. One bad thought or one bad behavior and we are right back in the slammer. Quite an elaborate system really.

There’s only one problem. God is totally cut out of this loop. The one true Judge is neither involved nor necessary to carry out this justice system. Small wonder we don’t feel forgiven on a deep level. We are too busy controlling the action.

Opt to Dismantle

How do we dismantle this crooked court? Here are three options.

  1. Let God be God

Our view of reality is limited at best. We can’t possibly know all the ins and outs of who did what, let alone the deeper motivations of those actions. But God does. That’s what makes God the only just Judge.

When we have committed some act we consider “unforgiveable,” instead putting ourselves in the place of God and meting out our own punishment, it’s far better to simply admit our wrongs and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. Ironically, it’s the only way to experience the true Lover of our soul.

  • Allow God’s love to go deeper

My spiritual director often talks about the two parts of God’s love.

Part I – God loves us when we act well and perform rightly. Part II – God loves us when we act badly and don’t deserve it.

It’s that second part that gives us trouble. In our heads we might believe we could be loved when we don’t deserve it, but it’s a lot tougher to feel it in our hearts. At some point, this underserved love we call grace needs to pierce the level of our emotions.

If it doesn’t, we will eventually jump back on the dreaded treadmill of performing, achieving and striving to rid ourselves of our guilt and pay off our debt.

The good news of Jesus is he already made the sacrifice for our guilt and sin. We don’t need to anymore.

  • Risk vulnerability

One of the surest ways to experience the undeserved love of God is through a deeply honest friendship. Find a safe person or a small group of safe people and share the real you, the good and not-so-good parts.

When someone with skin on can sit 18 inches from our face, hear the worst about us,  and say, “You are alright. I accept you for who you are. You are good.” we begin to realize that God can do that, too.

In real, gut-honest conversations over time, undeserved love breaks through to the level of our emotions, and we finally feel forgiven.  

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Roger Ross

A native of Cambridge, Illinois, Roger has served as a pastor in Texas, the British Channel Island of Guernsey, and Illinois. While in Illinois, he led teams that planted two new churches and served for 10 years as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Springfield. It was his privilege to serve as the Director of Congregational Excellence in the Missouri Conference before coming into his current role as an executive coach and specialist with Spiritual Leadership, Inc. (SLI). His passions include SCUBA diving in warm blue water, playing board games with family and friends, and teaching evangelism and church planting as an adjunct professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. He also has a weakness for golf. Roger is the author of three books, “Meet The Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith,” “Come Back: Returning to the Life You Were Made For,” and “Come Back Participant Guide,” all through Abingdon Press. Roger is married to Leanne Klein Ross, and they have two adult children, Zach and Jane (who’s married to Sam).