What If You Struggle to Forgive Yourself for a Past Sin?

I’ve received messages over the years from believers who say something along the lines of this: “I struggle with forgiving myself for a past sin. I’ve asked Christ’s forgiveness for it many times but can’t seem to resolve my feelings of guilt and accept God’s forgiveness.”

Talk Back to the Devil

If you can relate to the sentiment of this message, here’s what I encourage you to do: ask yourself, “Have I accepted Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf, and also confessed to God this sin?” If the answer is yes, would God on the one hand say, “I’ve fully forgiven you” (the clear teaching of Scripture) but then turn around and plague you with guilt feelings when in fact He died to remove your guilt? No, obviously not. That means the source of your despair is not God but the evil one. So talk back to the devil and say, “You’re right, I’m a sinner. But Christ has fully forgiven me and He is infinitely greater than you, as 1 John 4:4 says. So I will believe my Lord, not you!” (A. W. Tozer entitled one of his editorials “I talk back to the devil,” and it later became the title of one of his books.)

Jesus said Satan is a liar, and when he lies he speaks his native language. Lying is what he’s best at. Satan is lying to you and saying Christ’s redemptive work is not available to you in this case. Christ is the teller of truth. What does He say? “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37, NIV). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If we believe Satan when he says Christ’s death wasn’t sufficient to cover our every sin, then we are choosing to believe the most accomplished liar of all time, the one whose native language is lies.

So, have you confessed your sins to Christ? If yes, then you are forgiven. Whether or not you have doubts, whether or not you have a subjective emotional sense of “feeling forgiven” is irrelevant—the fact is, if you have done what 1 John 1:9 says, (and unless God isn’t telling the truth!) you are forgiven.

We Dare Not Call God a Liar

All sins must be punished—if we don’t accept Christ’s punishment on our behalf, we leave ourselves to take it on. But since we have no righteousness to pay for our sins, we can never atone for them, and therefore the self-punishment can never end. Only we who are covered with the blood of Christ will escape eternal judgment for our sins, because that judgment has been laid on another whose gift of atonement we have received.

We simply aren’t good enough to ever pay off our own sins. So if we choose to believe we’re unforgiven after we’ve confessed, we say Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t good enough to save us by His grace, and in effect, we call God a liar.

Chuck Swindoll wrote, “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.”

If you feel you’re not worthy of God’s forgiveness, you’re right—none of us is worthy of His grace. If we were worthy of it, we wouldn’t need it! But God showed His grace to us in that while we were yet depraved and sinful, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). He has seen us at our worst and still loves us.

Trust His Word, Not Your Feelings

Don’t buy into Satan’s lie that your relationship with God depends on you always doing the right thing and feeling a certain way. The devil may even try to convince you that you’ve lost your salvation. If so, rehearse what Scripture says. We can do absolutely nothing to earn our standing with Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Therefore, we can do nothing to lose it. No one can pluck us out of the Father’s hands (John 10:29). Our ceasing to do good works, or doing bad works, cannot move us out of His hands, simply because it is not our good works that put us there in the first place (we have no good works apart from Christ), but only the perfect work of Christ done on our behalf.

Beware of letting your feelings keep you from trusting the Lord. Otherwise you’ll fall into the devil’s trap and fall for his schemes, which we are commanded not to be ignorant of, so that he cannot outwit us (2 Corinthians 2:11). One of the things Satan would love to do is get you so focused on your guilt that you stop serving at church, stop witnessing, stop growing in your faith, and stop trusting what God’s Word says. Since he cannot keep you from going to Heaven, now he wants to derail you and distract you from serving God. He wants to create a wedge between you and God. Do not let him do this. Ask God to help you not fall into Satan’s trap.

Believe Christ and meditate on Scripture, not on how you feel, and eventually God will change how you feel. You are forgiven—eventually you’ll feel forgiven, but until you do, you still are. Don’t trust your intellect any more than your emotions if it is contradicting the Word of God. Don’t trust anything but His Word—force your intellect to submit to it, ask God for help, and eventually your emotions will likely follow, but whether they do or not, the truth is still the truth. If you have sinned and confessed, you are forgiven. No sin is bigger than our Savior.

Satan wants you to be shrouded in darkness and despair, because he knows the truth will set you free (John 8:32), and he wants you in bondage. Christ, in contrast, wants you to embrace His grace and accept His empowerment to walk in the light, as He is in the light, His blood covering us from all our sins (1 John 1:7). (One clarification: the Bible teaches not only forgiveness of our sins but also consequences of our choices. Forgiveness means that God eliminates our eternal condemnation and guilt. But it does not mean that our actions in this life have no consequences on earth. Forgiven people can still contract an STD or go to jail for drunk driving, for example.)

It’s All About Christ

Ultimately, refusing to forgive ourselves is an act of pride—it’s making ourselves and our sins bigger than God and His grace.

Tim Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods, “When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God’s.”

C. S. Lewis expressed a similar sentiment in one of his letters: “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

Like me, you’re a wretch, an unworthy sinner. Neither of us deserves God’s grace. But He gives it to us anyway—and that should make us dance for joy! So don’t be self-absorbed and self-important, as if this were all about you, and you have to figure it all out and make a way. Christ has figured it all out and made the way for you. It’s not about your righteousness—it’s about the righteousness of Christ on your behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). He’s the One who has made us His beloved children (Romans 8:16) and called us His friends (John 15:15).

If you’re still struggling, by all means get help from your pastor or a mature Christian friend or counselor. Listen to God, who died for you on the cross, not to the Enemy of God, who is telling you Christ’s work on the cross wasn’t good enough. Read His words of grace and forgiveness out loud, write them down, and memorize them. Choose freedom, not bondage. Don’t despair, but rejoice in the grace of God. The price has been paid—it’s for you to accept Christ’s atonement, not try to repeat it.

Embrace God’s forgiveness. Relax. Rejoice.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoiced in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).


Photo by Nicholas Bartos on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries