Does God want us to be mired in guilt and regrets, or does He provide a way out of them? What do you need to know about forgiving yourself?
Our past deeds can sometimes weigh very heavily on us. There is no way to travel back in time to undo things we have done in the past, though many of us wish we could.
The apostle Paul’s regrets
Even the great apostle Paul looked at his past with great regret. “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
Paul wrote these words about 20 years after his persecution of the early Christians, and they indicate that he had by no means forgotten his shameful and destructive actions as a young man. The Bible record shows us that Paul left that life behind and went on to lead a much more constructive and productive life. And, as we will see, he had much to say about forgiveness and not remaining stuck in feelings of guilt.
What can we do when guilt and regret about our past actions keep us from moving on with our lives as we should? How can we learn to leave those things behind and move forward? The Bible doesn’t speak in terms of forgiving ourselves, but it does give a blueprint to follow in freeing ourselves of past guilt and regaining mental health.
We can start by realizing that forgiving, whether it involves forgiving others or forgiving ourselves, is not about condoning wrong actions. It is not about a lack of accountability. It involves understanding that God forgives sinners who turn from their sins and turn to Him, and that God then allows and wants them to move forward.
The life of Manasseh, king of Judah, is very instructive about how God views a repentant sinner. Manasseh was the son of righteous King Hezekiah, who was generally considered to be one of the best kings of Judah. Manasseh, on the other hand, was considered to be among the worst. Ironically, his reign over Judah was the longest of any of the kings—55 years!
The Bible lists some of the evil deeds of King Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33. Verse 2 begins by telling us that Manasseh did evil things in God’s sight. He rebuilt the sites of pagan worship that had been torn down by his father (verse 3). He sacrificed his own children in idol worship and consulted mediums (verse 6). He set up an idol in the temple of God (verse 7).
Verse 9 finishes by saying that Manasseh seduced the people of Judah to do more evil than the pagan surrounding nations had done. That is a terrible indictment!
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Manasseh was responsible for a great deal of bloodshed among those who tried to follow God: “For by setting out from a contempt of God, he barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem was overflown with blood” (Antiquities of the Jews, p. 214).
It is hard to imagine having a more guilt-ridden past than Manasseh!
In time God caused the nation to be taken into captivity by the Assyrians and Manasseh to be carried away in chains (2 Chronicles 33:11). Finally, Manasseh took stock of his actions and repented of his sins (verse 12).
What was God’s response, after the enormity of Manasseh’s sins and wickedness? He saw Manasseh’s change of heart and heard his cries. He “received his entreaty” and restored Manasseh to the throne in Jerusalem (verse 13). Manasseh demonstrated his genuine change of heart by destroying the places of idol worship and rebuilding the altar of God (verses 15-16).
Even the sins of Manasseh were not too great to be forgiven by God!
Forgiveness from God comes first!
We need to first seek the forgiveness of God, as shown by Manasseh’s example. The common denominator among people being forgiven by God, no matter how deplorable their deeds might have been, is repentance (turning from their sins and turning to God).
The Bible describes Manasseh’s repentance: “Now when he was in affliction, he implored the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (2 Chronicles 33:12).
Repentance involves sorrow for past deeds and turning from them to live life differently. In the words of the apostle Paul, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul goes on to say that God has appointed a day when He will judge the entire world.
God’s opinion of us is what will ultimately matter, and He is willing to forgive if we repent. Understanding that should help us move on with our lives, regardless of what we may have done in the past.
When we have repented of our sins, God not only forgives them, He also removes them from us. Knowing this is the vital starting point for forgiving yourself.
Psalm 103:11-12 explains this wonderful truth about God’s forgiveness: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
God’s mercy toward us gives us all the chance to move forward in our lives with a clean slate!
The problem with guilt
Guilt can be a healthy emotion to alert us to the fact that we have made mistakes, and we need to make changes in the way we treat others or changes in the way we live our lives. But if we hang on to feelings of guilt after repentance and after making needed changes, it can become an unhealthy emotion.
Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary gives this definition of guilt: “Feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior.”
Hanging on to feelings of guilt (whether the offenses are real or imagined) can prevent you from forgiving yourself and moving on with living a productive life. It is important to establish whose opinion really matters and to know how God views us. The apostle Paul explained that God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
There will be a time for all of us to answer to God and to be judged by Him. For those who are being called today, the time of giving account and being judged is now (1 Peter 4:17). God has made it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to Him by the death of Jesus Christ, through repentance and baptism. (For further information about this, see the article “What Is Baptism?”)
When we have truly repented and been baptized, we are forgiven completely and reconciled to God. Notice Colossians 1:21-22: “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight.”
When God has forgiven us and reconciled us to Himself by the death of His Son, there is no reason to hang on to guilty feelings about anything in our past!
In the words of the apostle Paul: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
When we have repented of our sins, been baptized and made the necessary changes in our lives, it is time to leave the past behind and move forward. Even after baptism we will always need to be aware of the times we fall short, and we will always have a need to repent of sin when it enters our lives. Our focus, though, should be forward-looking, and we should bear in mind that when God forgives sins, He forgives completely and desires to see us move on.
An encouraging passage from the book of Jeremiah is repeated in the book of Hebrews: “‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’” (Hebrews 10:16-17).
What about the concept of forgiving yourself? The Bible has shown us that the path to follow is to repent before God, change the path we’re on and be assured that when God forgives, He removes us from our transgressions.
Consider one more passage from the apostle Paul: “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press forward toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).