Sermon: How Can I Forgive Myself?

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Sermon: "How Can I Forgive Myself?"

2nd in the "Forgiveness: A Close Up" series.
Delivered June 13, 2010 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Sermon Text: Luke 22:54-62

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Well we're in the second week on a series on forgiveness now, and we got the idea for this series from a pastor named Nelson Searcy. We'll be using some of his ideas across this series, and we have his permission for that. Last week we looked at what forgiveness from God looked like. That's the absolute foundational part of our life as Christians. But the problem we're talking about today isn't forgiveness from God. The problem we're talking about today is how we have a hard time forgiving ourselves, and so I'd like to pray.

Lord, help us now to understand whatever we need to to be free in Christ to forgive ourselves as a foundational part of the things you're doing in us as we follow Jesus. We give you thanks for it, in Jesus' name, Amen.

Fact is we pick up all kinds of baggage in life. We know that. We have all kinds of emotional wounds, all kinds of emotional baggage that comes from just living. Now some of that comes from other people hurting us. We have to live with the impact of that, but there is a whole lot of baggage that we pick up that happens when we step outside of God's will.

In other words, God says, "My best will for you, what I want for you is this," and we say, "No God, uh-uh, I think I know something better. I choose to do this instead," and we walk away from God. That is what the Bible calls sin, and that experience separates us from God. The Bible also reminds us that there are always consequences to moving away from God like that.

The consequences of sin inside of us, the consequences inside of us of moving away and stepping away from God's will are familiar to all of us because we've all done it. Disappointment over missed opportunities. Regret over past mistakes. Lost dreams. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Self-loathing. The only solution for this is forgiveness, and that includes forgiving ourselves. Forgiveness is real when it comes from God, but it's not real to us. It doesn't become real in my own life until I learn how to forgive myself. So the question is how do I forgive myself?

Now when we go to Scripture, we don't find a particular scriptural passage that tells us to forgive ourselves. And certainly there is no passage that gives us a one, two, three on how to forgive yourself, but we do have all kinds of stories in the Bible of people who mess up their lives in a big way, and yet learn to move on in their lives with God. Peter was one of those people.

Peter was one of the most outspoken members of the disciples. His personal, physical self-confidence and his big mouth got him into all kinds of trouble with Jesus. The day before Jesus died, Jesus is having a meal with his disciples, and at that meal, Jesus tells his followers that he is going to be killed, and Peter then promises Jesus that he is going to be to the very end with him, even if it means dying.

And Jesus turns to Peter, mincing no words, "Peter, before the rooster crows in the morning, you will have denied that you even know me three times." Peter being the wonderful, repentant saint that he is, immediately listened to Jesus at that point and believed. No. Anybody who has read that passage knows that when Peter heard this, he says, "No! That will never happen. I'm going to go with you to the very end, and I would even die for you, Jesus."

Same night, Jesus is arrested and taken into custody, and Peter follows from a distance, and that's where today's passage begins. So I'd like us to read it together. It's in Luke, chapter 22, verses 54-62. You find that on page 963 of the Bibles underneath the seat in front of you. Luke 22.

"Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, 'This man was with him.' But he denied it. 'Woman, I don't know him,' he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, 'You also are one of them.' 'Man, I am not!' Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, 'Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.' Peter replied, 'Man, I don't know what you're talking about!' Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: 'Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.' And he went outside and wept bitterly."

During Jesus' desperate time of need, Peter denies even knowing him. He turns his back publically on the Son of God, and when he realizes what he has just done, he feels regret, and shame, and guilt. He runs outside, and he weeps bitterly. This is a spectacular moment of failure made all the worse by his self-confidence beforehand.

Now Peter's future is in doubt at this point. It wasn't an issue of whether God would forgive Peter. God would forgive Peter. In fact, Jesus made that clear even in advance because earlier when Jesus is praying for Peter, he says, "Peter, Satan wants to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you and after you return, strengthen your brothers." Jesus knows he is going to move away, and he has already prayed, and he says, "After you return, you have a future with me, Peter. You'll be forgiven." So it's not a question of whether God will forgive. The question became would Peter be able to forgive himself?

What's in your life right now for which you have trouble forgiving yourself? There are all kinds of things. There are some of you here today that have been carrying around emotional baggage for a long time, and haven't been able to put it down because you've been unwilling or unable to forgive yourself. Today is the day that maybe you can make that step because today we're going to look at three necessary requirements for forgiving ourselves, and here is the requirement number one.

The first requirement for forgiving ourselves is coming to God for forgiveness. That's the first requirement. No matter what you've done, no matter how far you've moved from God, it's never too late to come back to God and receive forgiveness from him. It's complete. It's unconditional. All we have to do is turn to God and ask. That's why Jesus came. And God's forgiveness then not only overcomes the separation we have in our relationship, but that forgiveness ensures us a future with God in this life and in eternity. And it also gives us the foundation that enables us to forgive ourselves.

So Peter had really messed up. He denied knowing Jesus at a crucial time, and before being able to forgive himself, he had to be able to receive forgiveness from God. Do you think God forgave Peter? Do you think God still had a plan for Peter's life? Well Jesus promised that he did, but then we see it again in various places in Scripture, but we see it one time in Mark 16, verses 6-7.

"Don't be alarmed." This is an angel speaking. "'You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'"

"Go tell his disciples and Peter." It's underlined for us. You might want to underline that in your own Bible, not in the church Bible, okay? In your own Bible. There is a future with God in God's purposes for Peter despite what has happened, and we see it in other passages. We need to know that God forgives us. That's a big first step so that we can receive that forgiveness and forgives ourselves the same way God forgives us.

So there are certain things about the way God forgives us that we need to be reminded about as we think about this issue of forgiving ourselves. The first characteristic of God's forgiveness for us is that it's specific. He doesn't forgive us in general, he forgives us for that specific thing we did that was so selfish yesterday.

His forgiveness is instant. He doesn't put us through some kind of trial period to make sure we're sincere, so we don't have to put ourselves through a trial period before we forgive ourselves.

God's forgiveness is complete. He doesn't forgive us just enough not to punish us, but then keep us at arm's distance. His forgiveness draws us in close. There is no vestige.

His forgiveness is repeated. He doesn't give us a coupon book with just 10 free passes, and then after that we're on our own.

And his forgiveness is free. We don't have to offer up any sacrifice in our lives for it. We don't have to offer any obedience in advance in order to get forgiveness from God because it's too valuable. There is nothing we could ever do to earn it. And only God can offer forgiveness like that, and we can't ever offer ourselves forgiveness like that until we experience the real thing, but it's not an easy struggle.

I want you to watch a video with me for a minute to see just how important this is.


Woman speaking: When I was 19 years old, I chose to have an abortion. For years after the abortion, I carried around a really crushing sense of grief, guilt, and shame. So when a friend invited me to go to her college fellowship group at Central, I was willing to try anything, even church, to feel better. For the first time, I heard that God loved me, and that Jesus died for my sins and that if I became a Christian, God would forgive me and give me a new life. I eagerly reached out for this amazing gift and gave my life to Jesus.

So the guilt lifted, right? No, not immediately. I was still plagued with feelings of shame and remorse. How could I have taken my own child's life? Back then I believed these feelings expressed my deep love for God and sorrow for what I had done. "I know God has forgiven me," I would say, "but I'm having a hard time forgiving myself."

A few years after coming to Christ, my husband and I found out I was pregnant with a little girl. Though I was thrilled with the news, I also grew very afraid that something terrible would happen to her. The more I thought about my fear, I realized that deep down I didn't believe I deserved to be a mother because I had killed my first child.

Then I came across 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Something inside me finally woke up. Could it be that my problem was not my inability to forgive myself, but could it be that I didn't believe God had forgiven me for having that abortion so long ago? Was Jesus' death on the cross not good enough for my specific sin? Did I believe instead that I had to suffer for my sin, and endure a lifetime of penance and hope that I could somehow be forgiven?

As I dealt honestly with these questions for the first time, I saw the truth. I needed to humbly and gratefully accept God's mercy before I would experience true and lasting peace. So I started over. What did I need forgiveness for? Had I been completely honest with myself and him about my sin? Well, I realized that not only had I taken the life of my child, but in doing so, I had been selfish and stubborn while making that decision. I cried and I cried, and then I asked God to forgive me for my selfishness, my pride, and neglecting my unborn child. And even though my child was already with God, I knew for my sake that I needed to ask her forgiveness as well for choosing my own comforts over loving and protecting her.

At the same time, I wrote down God's thoughts on forgiveness. I used them to counter and replace my self-condemning thoughts like, "What makes you think God will bring good to you after what you've done," with verses like, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ." Or when guilt over the abortion or anything else I'd already dealt with bombarded me again, I'd find a verse like, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more." Then I made sure I thanked God for forgiving me for these specific sins.

Finally, his truth took hold, and I began to believe him. I can honestly say that now I am a woman who experiences deep joy and consistent peace. I truly believe that I am forgiven, and I love the Lord so much for this gift I've learned to embrace.

[End of video]

You see what a struggle it was for her to really understand the forgiveness of God in the first place, and then to be able to take that understanding of God's forgiveness and see it applied into her own life. That is the first and most fundamental step in forgiving ourselves, is being able to work through to the point that we really know and understand and believe God's forgiveness.

But there is something else hidden in that testimony that is also a requirement for forgiving ourselves. Forgiving ourselves, forgiving myself requires changing my pattern in life, and that woman did that.

When I was a missionary, I made embarrassing linguistic and cultural mistakes constantly for 10 years. I can't tell you what an impact that does on your psyche. I had dreams about two-year-olds helping me with the telephone and stuff like that because I had so little capability. The thing is they were prophetic. They were real. I mean I did need the help of two-year-olds.

Without meaning it, I said things that were rude. I gave the wrong kind of gifts to people. I didn't say thank you properly. I called God by the wrong name, and all these feelings of embarrassment and failure would just keep piling up. And I wouldn't have been able to survive that humiliation if I hadn't learned a tip in my training as a missionary. The tip was this, "It's not what you've done, but what you do next." I can't tell you how liberating that was because there was always something I had just done that was a mess.

The point is we can't change the past, but we do have an opportunity to do things differently next time. We have a chance to rebuild trust step by step in relationships. We can apologize. We can make restoration. We can pay our fines. That's what the Scripture calls repentance, when we decide to do it differently next time. We can't change the past, but we do have the capacity to do it differently in the future, or at least try.

Peter makes some significant changes in his life after receiving God's forgiveness. Just seven weeks later, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see Peter proclaiming Jesus Christ boldly in front of thousands of people, endanger himself by doing it. He is ready to do it. And one of the critical things that's in that story is that the Holy Spirit came to help Peter live this new way, and so when we make this decision to turn and go in a new direction, God is there through the Holy Spirit to help us with that.

Later at the end of his life, Peter did die for Jesus, so Peter even makes good on that rash promise that he made, "Lord, I will even die for you." You may be thinking to yourself though at a time like this, "In order to be able to forgive myself, are you saying that I have to change immediately and as radically as Peter did? If you're saying that, I can't do it." What I want to encourage you right now is don't think right now about the speed or the size of the change. Deal with the internal reality of whether you want to turn and change.

Some things will change quickly. Some will be struggles for the rest of your life. But are you willing to start that journey or continue it? Because unless you decide to change some of those things, some of those destructive patterns, you'll always keep picking up the same baggage over and over. You'll be picking up again and again the source of guilt and shame in your life, and you'll never be able to forgive yourself completely. You have to turn. Change those patterns.

So the first requirement is coming to God and receiving forgiveness. The second requirement is changing some of those destructive patterns in my life. Finally, forgiving myself requires stepping into God's purposes for me. The essence of sin is insisting upon our own way of life. Sin is what loads us up with baggage, and we'll never stop loading ourselves up with this guilt and this baggage until we embrace God's purpose for our life, and that's what discipleship is.

Fundamentally, discipleship is embracing God's purpose for your life. Jesus tells Peter long before Peter denies him, "I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I'll build my church and all the powers of hell will not conquer it." Jesus said this knowing Peter's fault. Jesus said this knowing that Peter was going to deny him. He knew what Peter was going to do, and yet he still chose Peter because of grace.

God has plans for you. God knows your potential in Christ. God knows how powerful his grace is, and so you might be thinking, "Okay, yeah, maybe so, but you don't know how badly I've messed up. I've messed up in my sexual life. I've ruined a lot of relationships. I've really messed up this career opportunity. You don't understand. I've run so far from God there is no way God is going to be able to bring me back and use me." If any vestige of that is in your head, I want to tell you right now it's not true. It's not true. You're believing a lie, and you don't want to do that with your life.

God has a purpose for you. He has given you specific gifts for a reason, and God's plan for you is to receive his forgiveness into your life, to then escape the destructive habits that have been ruining things inside of you, to replace them with healthy ones, and then to open your eyes to the incredible possibilities and future that he has for you. And God will not only forgive your past, he has a purpose for your past. He has a purpose for those scars.

God's intention is to heal our past wounds, but he doesn't erase them. He allows the scars. He allows the weaknesses and their shadows to remain so he can use us as wounded healers. Do you have some baggage from the past? We all do. Don't look right now, but sometime later, look around at the other people here. They all have baggage. We all do. Don't be ashamed of it. God wants to use it.

Look at Paul, a famously scarred individual. He writes in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 9. He says, "But he [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." Are you wondering how God is going to use you or could use you? Take a second and look at the baggage in your life, the things that have hurt you the most. God wants to use those.

God wants to turn your most... He wants to turn your past hurts into some powerful ministry. Some of the best ministries in our church come out of weakness. The Regeneration ministry that deals with the issues of sexuality and sexual purity grows out of struggle. Divorce Care grows out of the experience of divorce and the ways we've been wounded and have wounded others. Road to Victory, dealing with addictions and engrained habits. These are people who know what that struggle is all about. Financial Peace University, the people who are there are people who needed help in getting their finances and debt under control. And just as they learn a little bit, they share it with others.

And two studies, Bible studies that I'm aware of that deal with abortion, one for women called Forgiven and Set Free, another for men called Healing a Father's Heart. These too come from weakness. All these books, all these ministries, all these leaders come out of weakness, and they are there for you, and you can be part of that.

In the end, there are two roads we can take when dealing with this issue of unforgiveness in our lives. The first is the road we just traveled, the one that Peter traveled. It's coming to God for forgiveness, and then with God's help, changing our patterns and then stepping into the unlimited future that God has for us. And then in that future, God will use our past experiences to be part of the very thing we have un order to heal and help others.

Unfortunately it's the other road that's more traveled. It's the road of carrying our baggage around with us for the rest of our lives, living unforgiven not because God won't forgive us, but because we're unwilling or unable to forgive ourselves. Don't let that happen to you. Don't let it. Start the journey of self-forgiveness, and you'll be in a big crowd. Just about everybody that God has ever used has made big mistakes in their lives.

Jacob was a liar and a cheater. Moses had an anger problem and was a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute. David was an adulterer and a murderer. Jonah ran away from God. Paul persecuted and murdered Christians, and Peter denied Jesus. But wouldn't you want your name up there with theirs?

I am so excited every time I realize that this list of biblical heroes, if you want to call them that, isn't angels. They're people like me. They made their mistakes, and God's grace was bigger, not only big enough to somehow bring about a forgiveness, but a grace that was big enough that forgiveness could overflow into their own understanding of who they are, and could overflow in a life that would impact the world around them for God, for eternity.

You could be the next person on that list. You could be part of God's list of heroes by grace. All you have to do is receive God's forgiveness, to forgive yourself, and open yourself up to his potential in your life.

Now there are a number of ways we can respond to a message like this. One way is we just respond in our normal way of worship where we give an offering and it is part of our worship, and we're going to be doing that in a moment. We'll just be taking the offering. But there are two special things I want to point to as we take that offering. The first is on this card there is a sermon response that if you want more information that centers around the issue of abortion, there are ways. You can check that off and put that in the offering plate when it comes by.

But also while that is going on there is another response you might chose to do. We have here our Portraits of Forgiveness. And what we can do, if you're at a point where you haven't been able to forgive yourself and want now to take your stance and say, "I am going to forgive myself because God has forgiven me," you can put your thumb or finger onto one of these ink pads and put your print down there. Uniquely you, and you will be in this Portrait of Forgiveness, and I'm going to do it right now myself. Now remember if you do this you're going to have some ink on your hand.

You could also do it, if this has been a prior reality for you and you just want to celebrate again that part of your self-identity that you want to celebrate today is that you are forgiven, and maybe you want to just sit where you are and be thankful. Any of those responses is fine.

The reason why I put it up, what it means to me is that God forgave me in such a powerful way that all of those stupid things I did have not kept me from having a peaceful and fulfilled life and actually had an opportunity to minister in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the things that tears me up is that so many of the things I've done wrong happened after I believed in Jesus. That's what it means to me. It's going to mean something unique to you. So let us continue our worship now.

Join me in prayer. Lord, as we go into this time, this time of offering, this time of reflecting on your incredible grace in our lives, open our eyes, open our minds so that we might take a step away from condemnation and into the freedom and forgiveness of Jesus Christ even to the point of forgiving ourselves, for we ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

© 2010, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145