Monday, April 25, 2022

Anonymous Asks (194)

“How can I learn to forgive myself?”

Mark 2 tells the story of a paralyzed man whose friends brought him to Jesus in hope that he would be healed. Mark records that Jesus saw their faith and responded to it by telling the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” A number of Jewish religious leaders witnessed the interaction and took offense at it. Their objection was that only God can forgive sins.

Sadly, the scribes missed the point, which was that they were at that very moment in the presence of God himself. But their objection was technically correct: only God can forgive sins.

Only God Can Forgive Sins

The basis for this belief was the Old Testament. The Law of Moses taught Jews to bring sacrifices to God to make atonement for their transgressions. To the extent that someone else had been wronged along the way, the law also gave instructions about how to make that right. But the process was not complete until the sinner had brought an offering for sin to God’s appointed priest, and that offering had been accepted on God’s behalf.

David’s psalms make this process even more personal. Psalm 32 speaks about the confession of sin. He writes, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” That latter part is the crucial matter. The forgiveness of a wronged friend or neighbor is important. It needs to be sought and obtained if possible. But the forgiveness of God is critical. Until David confessed his sin to the Lord and received that, he had no peace. He continues, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me.” He was wracked with guilt.

You and You Only

In another psalm, David writes, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned.” Technically, we know this to be untrue. He had also sinned against Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in about the worst ways possible. But his point was that only God could truly forgive him. Even if David’s victim had survived the king’s evil plot, obtaining only Uriah’s forgiveness for David’s acts of adultery, disloyalty, ingratitude and attempted murder would have been quite inadequate. All sin is ultimately against God. For this reason the psalmist also declares, “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” The implication is that God ought to be revered because he is the only true source of ultimate forgiveness.

So at least the scribes were theologically sound, though they failed to recognize the Word made flesh standing right in front of them. But the reason I take the time to belabor the fact that only God can forgive sins is because we need to internalize that message. The Bible says nothing whatsoever to me about forgiving myself. I have no ability and no authority to do that. Wherever the expression comes from, it isn’t from the word of God. Even if I learn to forgive myself, I have accomplished nothing significant. Paul writes, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” Self-forgiveness accomplishes literally nothing.

Okay, Fine

“Okay, fine,” our questioner might say. “Let me rephrase that then: How can I learn to feel forgiven?” To that, I would ask an apparently-unrelated question that goes right to the heart of the matter: Do you believe Jesus Christ was raised from the dead?

You see, the basis for forgiveness is the death and resurrection of Christ. We get that from several places in the New Testament, but most succinctly from John. He writes, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In context, the “us” is Christians, those who characteristically have fellowship with the Father and the Son. The “faithful” part is easy to understand. It means if we confess our sins, God will always forgive them, and forgive them 100%. That is the meaning of faithfulness: total reliability.

Forgiveness and Justice

The “just” part is a little harder, but it is explained for us by the apostle Paul. He writes, “The wages of sin is death.” That is how a just God normally deals with sin: “The soul who sins shall die.” Normally speaking, that is the ultimate cost of even one solitary sin of any type: permanent estrangement from God. Eternal loss. Death in every sense. That is absolute justice. But John can say with confidence that God is just when he forgives sin in response to confession. So how that can be?

It can be because God raised Christ from the dead. His resurrection is evidence that God accepted his sacrifice on behalf of everyone who puts their trust in him. That’s what Paul says earlier in Romans: that God put forward Christ Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”, with the purpose in view that “he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”. Faith in Christ makes it possible for God to forgive our sins because he has accepted Christ’s offering on our behalf so that we do not have to pay the price justice demands. And the proof of this is the resurrection. It is the evidence that God found his Son’s sacrifice completely acceptable. Even death could not hold him.

Hidden with Christ in God

When a Christian feels guilty about sin he has already confessed, the problem is that he is failing to remember exactly how pleasing Christ is to God. So whenever you feel the need to “forgive yourself” for something you’ve done and confessed to God, stop and remind yourself that how you feel about your sin has nothing whatsoever to do with being forgiven. Your life is hidden with Christ in God, where no accusation can touch it. No accusation from Satan, and no accusation from your own often-deceptive heart.

Now, if you haven’t confessed your sin to someone you sinned against, that’s another story. That’s a duty commanded in the New Testament, and you are not likely to feel fully forgiven until you’ve at least done your very best to obtain forgiveness by asking for it. That is not always possible with human beings. Unlike God, some people are implacable, especially those who have never experienced forgiveness themselves. The important thing is to have genuinely made the effort, and to remember that God’s forgiveness is both freely available and absolute.

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