As William neared the end of his life, he struggled more with the idea of forgiveness than he ever had. Forgiving the mistakes of others was not his challenge. Frankly, he had come too far in life to worry about those grudges anymore. After all, no one was perfect.
The challenge was forgiving himself . . . for the lifetime of hurts he had inflicted on others—the harsh words, the lies, the deep betrayals he had committed. The audacious idea that God might truly forgive him was completely out of reach. As strongly as he believed there was a God in Heaven, he also believed that same God could not forgive him. His ocean of mistakes was far too dark and deep, much worse than anyone knew, which left him with nothing in the long hours of the night but to dread and fear the eternity that awaited him.
A Flawed Foundation
William was right in one assumption. We are flawed. Over time, we have been scarred by our own sins and the sin of others (Psalm 53:1-3). Our days are filled with right choices and wrong choices. We choose to love in one moment and pursue selfish motives the next. Everyone has sinned and has wounds in need of healing.
In the New Testament, Peter quoted Isaiah 53:5 as he pointed to what Christ has done for us: “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24).
First John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We are reassured of forgiveness with a beautiful image of how God views us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10-13).
Four Forgiveness Hurdles
So, why do we miss the freedom given through God’s forgiveness instead of rushing toward it with open hands? We often face the power of the following four “forgiveness hurdles.” These mindsets don’t stop God from forgiving us, but they hinder us from receiving forgiveness and its benefits.
• #1: I’m not good enough.
I could never be acceptable to God. I’ve messed up so many things, I don’t deserve to be forgiven. People who are living good, decent lives surround me. Why can’t I be more like them?
• #2: I’m not bad enough.
I know I’m not perfect but overall, I’m a pretty good person. The problem is other people have done terrible things to me. If those things hadn’t happened, my life would be fine. I don’t need forgiveness for anything.
• #3: I can’t change.
How could God possibly forgive me for the same mistake again? If God forgives me this time, I’ll probably end up doing it again. What’s the point in trying? God is disgusted with me.
• #4: What I’ve done is unforgiveable.
I’ve hurt so many people in ways that can’t possibly be fixed or forgiven. I wish I could have a second chance but that’s not how life works. Sure, some people tell little white lies or think bad thoughts, but they haven’t committed the big sins. There is no coming back from the place where I am.
Living Free and Forgiven
I know a believer who says he will make it to Heaven one day but will likely live in an outhouse instead of a mansion based on how he has lived. If these thoughts or any of the hurdles above rule your everyday life, consider instead the following tips for living a life forgiven.
• Breathe in this truth: You are fully known and fully forgiven. Perhaps you’ve been forgiven for something but the full scope of your sin isn’t known. You might think, “If they knew the real story, there is no chance I would be forgiven.” Even as God calls us to a transformed life, he is fully aware of our current state. We cannot surprise God or hide things from his view. Fortunately, there is no need. Jesus has paid the price of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s mistakes (Ephesians 1:7). Think of those who have forgiven you. A friend. A parent. A spouse. Even when those close to us “forgive” us, there is often a lingering sense of condemnation, guilt, or shame. We feel like we owe them. Honestly, sometimes they feel that way, too. God’s brand of forgiveness is different from any other forgiveness you have experienced.
• Memorize Scripture related to our hope through Christ. When we explore God’s Word, we begin to internalize its truth in ways that transform us. On days when our feelings steer us in unhealthy directions, we can return to the identity that we find in Christ. We are “more than conquerors through him” (Romans 8:37) and nothing can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39).
• Pursue forgiveness. When our children were very young and got into disagreements, we used to have them practice saying, “I was wrong” to each other as they apologized. How many adults do you know who struggle to admit when they are wrong? Are you one of them? When we humbly seek forgiveness from others, we restore relationships, free ourselves from a guilt-fortified prison, and honor the God who has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). Is there someone you need to ask for forgiveness?
• Grant forgiveness. The Bible says we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Depending on the depth of your hurt, this might seem out of reach. You might think you cannot, or would not want to, forgive. We place the same forgiveness hurdles for others that we do for ourselves. We think they don’t deserve it or what they have done is unforgivable.
Forgiving someone who has deeply hurt you doesn’t mean you just “get over it and move on.” It is a process of acknowledging the full depth of your hurt, grieving your preferred reality that never got a chance to exist, and choosing a new freedom where Jesus bears the burden of the things that have happened. You may need close friends and possibly a counselor to help you move through this process. How can you get started?
• Accept that forgiveness is a process. If you’ve experienced a significant loss in your life, you can identify with the truth that grief is a process rather than a one-time event. You progress through various stages and some days, take a step backward, caught off guard with a surge of unexpected emotion. Walking in the forgiveness God has extended to us through Jesus is a choice we make repeatedly.
If we imagined each of our sins as a single stone placed in a pile, most of us would envision an enormous mountain before us, one we could not move or climb. Jesus isn’t distant from this mountain. He has a front row seat to our struggles and choices and yet, he endured the cross for each one of us so we could be forgiven, leaving the mountain behind. A new journey begins when we take God at his word.
Jamie Shafer works with congregations as a communications strategist for Fishhook, Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her husband, Eric, have two children.