A key tenet of the Christian faith, forgiveness can often be a difficult task. And the most difficult person for us to forgive sometimes is ourselves. In this "In Focus" episode, Pr. Bob discusses how we can begin the process of self-forgiveness and free ourselves from burden of guilt and shame. Perhaps you can relate to the story Pr. Bob tells of a church member whose guilt has held her back from fully living.
Table of Contents
- Forgiveness: Easy to Say, Difficult to Do
- Reframing Your Focus
- Grasping the Christian Message
Forgiveness: Easy to Say, Difficult to Do
Forgiveness is what in large part Christianity is based on. In fact, in the Lord's prayer, we Christians actually promise we will forgive. "Forgive our sins," we pray, "as we forgive those who sin against us." I forgive you. So easy to say. So difficult to do. And there are many scenarios which can make forgiveness all the more challenging for us. Sometimes the offender isn't remorseful, refuses to acknowledge any harm was done or isn't even alive.
But you want to know the situation that's often the one in which people have the most difficulty forgiving? When the person they need to forgive is themself. "I know God forgives me," countless people have said to me in counseling. "It's just that I can't forgive myself." Does that sound like you or someone you know? Then stay right here.
I'm not one of the best preachers in America, but on occasion, sometimes I may have some insight or perspective that could prove helpful in your walk with God. So this episode is a little interlude between the preachers that are highlighted here.
I want to approach forgiveness of self from both a practical and a theological point of view. Now from a practical or a real-life standpoint, the way many humans think about and recall the words and actions for which they feel shame or guilt, let me point to an important factor. I want to do that by telling you a true story. It's kind of heavy, so bear with me.
The Story of Jane
It was a good number of years ago. I'm serving a church, had worship service on that Sunday morning. As usual, I'm sticking around the office for a little bit. It's maybe 2:00 PM, 2:30 PM. I hear a knock on my door. I figure it's the folks cleaning up, just wanting to see if Pastor Bob is around.
So I answered the door and there stands one of my church members, who I recognized. She didn't come to church a lot. Maybe, I don't know, once a month, once every other month, but I recognized her. Early middle age, maybe 42, 43 years old I guess. It hit me that she wasn't at church that morning. I was about to kid her and say something like, "Hey, you missed service by a couple of hours." Then I looked at her face and I knew something was going on.
I'm going to call her Jane, not her name. There's no way in this world you would know who she is. So I don't mind sharing some of the details. "Hey, Jane. Come on in." She comes in, sits down. I close the door. "What's going on?" "Well, Father Bob," I'm in a church where they said father instead of pastor.
"Father Bob, I'm seeing a counselor." "Oh, Jane that's great. Is it helping?" "Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it's helping. But my counselor just thought I should come and talk to you." "Okay. About what? What can I help with?" "Well, my counselor thinks that what I'm dealing with is as much a spiritual problem as it is a psychological problem," which I, as a pastor appreciate. "Well, that's great. Okay. Now tell me more."
The Rite for Penitence
She sits there, looks down at her feet, shoulders slumped down, and she begins to recite. Jane begins to recite something that seems to me, obvious that she has recited time and time again, in her mind. She begins to tell me that as a 17-year-old girl she got pregnant and she decided to end the pregnancy. Now that's the cliff notes version. Let me explain more.
Jane got pregnant with someone she really cared about. She was from a very religious family. And she had an older sister, much older, who had gotten pregnant too when she was in high school. Apparently that had caused a huge uproar in the family. Because of this and because of so many other things going on in her life, she made the decision to end the pregnancy.
Now, this podcast is not about abortion. That's not what I'm talking about. There are plenty of people with podcasts who will tell you what you need to say and think about everything. This is not that podcast. The point is not the abortion, but the fact that what that event brought about in her was this immense burden of shame and guilt.
Here she is 25 years later and she says, "Well, Father Bob, I couldn't sleep and I was losing weight and I was in severe depression. I didn't want to get up out of my bed. I knew something was wrong. And when I went to counseling and the counselor began to peel back the layers, this kept coming up."
"Okay, Jane, I get that and I see the pain. What can I do?" "Well, can you kind of help me go through a liturgy, the rite for penitence?"
Reframing Your Focus
"Of course, I can do that Jane. Absolutely." But there's more there. I began to ask her questions about what happened during that time. What I found was a really interesting dynamic.
This woman, who's now middle age, could not forgive herself for something that happened 25 years earlier. It was affecting everything she did and what I felt needed to happen was I needed to be able to put this event in some kind of perspective that made sense today. What I mean by that is something called reframing.
When you reframe something, the picture stays the same. The data, the facts, they don't change but looks a lot different because of the frame you put around the picture. You've done that before. But what I think happens over time is that many people, as they remember the events that caused them shame or guilt, over time they tend to magnify their involvement, not minimize it.
I began to ask Jane questions. "Okay, I know this was a watershed traumatic event in your life, and I'm not trying to minimize it. But let's look at it now as a 42-year-old or 43-year-old, not as a 17-year-old. Let's look at it now."
She began to tell me about her family, her life, her faith, and even more importantly, what happened with her sister. She began to explain the environment of the family when her sister got pregnant. Here's what she said and I'll never forget this as long as I live. She said, "All I could remember was the screaming."
She was only six or seven years old when her sister got pregnant. "All I could remember was the screaming." Obviously the screaming of her parents, the screaming of relatives, the screaming of whomever in the house. That's what that six and seven-year-old took away from that event. Not love, not acceptance, not care, not even grief, but screaming.
I looked at her and I said, "So you really didn't have that much of a choice, did you?" And I don't know if that made a difference or not, but she seemed to really pick up on that because you see she's living with this guilt because she chose to do something. I'm trying to tell her. "Well, maybe where you were at that time, maybe you didn't have that much of a choice. Maybe you didn't have as much of a choice as you think. And you're walking around with this huge burden. Maybe you didn't have many places to turn."
Then it got even more interesting. She's very tearful as she tells me this. She's again, looking down. I said something that you might have said. It wasn't meant to be some big theological pronouncement. It was just a statement of the obvious. I just said out of the blue, "But you were so young."
A Fair Perspective
When I said that, I tell you, I still get choked up thinking about it. Jane sat straight up and for the first time looked at me dead in the eyes, eyes wide open. The look on her face wasn't surprise. It was shock and she blurted out. "I was young, too young. I was just a kid," and her eyes filled with tears and she began to weep, all the while, looking straight at me.
For the first time she realized she's been living with this thing as a 17-year-old like it happened yesterday, and it's 25 years later. She now has different perspective, can reframe this event.
She began to think, "Wow, my own kids are about that age. I wouldn't want this on their shoulders. They're too young to make these kinds of decisions." She began to see, she had little resources, little places to go, to get any form of help or assistance or comfort. She was on her own and that changed the way she saw her own involvement in an event that has literally framed her entire life.
You see, there are things called primary stressors, the things that happen to us, the immediate things, the event themselves. But there are also things called secondary stressors. That's when we remember and we rethink and sometimes relive the primary stressor. The thing is that secondary stressors can be more damaging than the primary stressors.
Grasping the Christian Message
By reframing, really stepping outside the event, trying to look at it from a third party point of view, sometimes we can reframe and get a better assessment. It doesn't mean that we let ourselves off, or that we don't take any responsibility for what happened. But rather that we reframe it so that we have a fair perspective of exactly what we did and what we didn't do.
Now from a theological point of view, I want to tell you about an interesting study. The Reverend Dr. Peter Moore, who was the former Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. This is in Pennsylvania, once organized a study where he asked churchgoers a number of true or false questions about the Christian faith.
So these are Christians and he's asking them true or false questions about the faith they proclaim. To the statement, sometimes I think I may have committed an unforgivable sin, 150 people answered false, but 39 said true. Christians who said they may have committed an unforgivable sin.
So I believe that Jane and the 39 churchgoers, who believe they've committed an unforgivable sin, I think they're sincere in their remorse. They're sincere and genuine in their humility. Yet their unforgiveness, well, that doesn't reflect the essence of Christianity. In other words, for all of their sincerity and their self-loathing, they may not have really grasped the Christian message.
God’s Blood Is Enough for the Forgiveness of Our Sins
You see, when Jesus commissioned his disciples, he not only gave them the Holy Spirit and told them to baptize in his name. He also directed them to forgive others. But in order to love others and truly forgive them, look, we've got to be able to receive God's forgiveness ourselves. That is to declare our own selves forgiven for those things we have done. Despite the disagreements between Christians about rights and wrongs, the fact is that we all agree on one thing.
Jesus was God in the flesh and his death was a sacrifice for our sins, past, present, and future. We, therefore, are redeemed through his blood and we're given new life as he was raised from the dead. In other words, the blood that dripped from the cross was the blood of God shed for us.
If that's true and that's what we believe, and it is, then there's no such thing as an unforgivable sin. Look, let me put it this way. What could you possibly do? What sin can you possibly commit that cannot be covered by the blood of Almighty God? Think about it. What sin is so grievous that not even God's own blood can redeem it? Murder, covered. Adultery, covered. Child abuse, covered.
You see, God says his blood is enough to cover all sins of all persons. And when we truly get this, I mean, when we really get it, deep inside. Don't just stand up and recite it. When it really hits us, in our core, we not only understand that there's no unforgivable sin, but we also appreciate the magnitude of God's sacrifice in Jesus.
We Can’t Escape the Important Question
It is in acceptance of Christ as our personal savior and turning from those sinful parts of ourselves that we receive new life in him.
Now, listen, this is important. When we say we simply can't forgive ourselves yet strive to be a Christian at the same time, we can't escape a really important question. Here it is.
Since God has declared his blood sufficient to cover all sin, including yours, do we have higher standards than God? He says his blood is enough. Do we have higher standards than God?
Sometimes in church sessions on forgiveness, I'll have folks take out a small piece of paper and write down the name of the person they most need to forgive. Oftentimes there's no issue at all. They know right away who it is. Some people might say, "Well, I've got a few people in mind," and other people might say, "Well, you know, I really don't even want to think about that person." But no, they do. They eventually write that name down. They know who it is.
I have them think about where they were, what the offense was, and make sure they had a really accurate frame around it, the best they could from their perspective and their vantage point now. Then I have them burn it and then we do it again. I tell them to write their own name down. That's more difficult.
Don't have higher standards than God, except his forgiveness freely offered. His blood covers it all. That price was paid for one reason and one reason only. Because he loves you. He doesn't want you to live in guilt or shame but in freedom and love. Now, go share that forgiveness with others. Thanks for listening. See you next time on Inspirational Sermons.