One of the hardest issues we battle with as Christians is forgiving ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I think sometimes it’s easier to forgive others for what they may have done to us rather than forgive ourselves for mistakes we've made in our own lives. I'm not totally sure why that is, but I do know that if you're out there struggling to forgive yourself, you're not alone. It isn't a new phenomenon that applies only to you; the battle has been around as long as man has been on this earth.
I was re-reading John Chapter 21 today and realized what a perfect example this Chapter is of God's never-ending love for us, no matter what we've done in our lives. As background, Peter had already denied Christ three times and Jesus had already been crucified and resurrected. There had been some sightings of Jesus after the resurrection but no one really knew what to expect next or if anyone would ever see Him again.
If you're familiar with this particular story in John, you'll remember that some of the Disciples were at the Sea of Tiberias. Peter was one of those Disciples there that particular day. I don't think it’s a stretch to believe that Peter was probably feeling guilty and ashamed and depressed about how he had denied Christ in the past. Even though Peter was with his closest friends, that didn’t mask the fact that Peter still couldn’t see a way to repair the past and may have to live with those feelings the rest of his life.
It helps to remember that Peter was a true fisherman at heart. I’ve known people in my own life that live, breathe, and sleep fishing. They are at home on any lake or stream at any time. On this particular day, Peter decided to go out and catch fish. In fact, Peter did exactly what you and I do at times of trouble or when stress or guilt is unbearable—we go back to what's comfortable. Peter went back to what he was most comfortable with to (perhaps) find peace and solitude. Fishing was a relief to Peter and I believe helped him to relax and erase some of his pain or guilt. As Peter decided to go fishing, the other Disciples that were present decided to join him, but no one caught any fish.
As everyone was out in the boat fishing, they suddenly heard a voice off in the distance from someone standing on the shore. The person on the shore was asking those in the boat if they had caught any fish. The Disciples, not knowing who this person was, shouted back "no." This stranger on the shore then did a peculiar thing. He instructed the Disciples to cast their net on the right side of their boat. They did so and caught so many fish they couldn't even haul in the net. Shortly thereafter, some of the Disciples recognized the person on the shore was Jesus and pointed this out to Peter. As soon as Peter heard this, he jumped in the water and swam toward the shore, toward Jesus. I wonder what Peter was thinking as he swam to the shore? Was he going to apologize to Jesus for denying him? Was he going to ask if Jesus was angry with him? Did he want Jesus to say some comforting words to him? We can only speculate, but as soon as he began swimming, the other disciples that remained in the boat followed him to the shore, towing the net full of fish behind them.
As Peter swam closer, he could see that Jesus had already started a warm fire of coals and had some fish cooking on the fire, along with some bread. He invited Peter and the other Disciples to bring some of the fish they had caught and have breakfast with him. Before Peter could say anything to Jesus, or do anything to ease his own guilt or pain, Jesus was already there waiting with open arms! Peter didn't have to do anything to make things right with Jesus; it was if nothing in the past had ever happened.
I think about my own life and how many times I have second guessed myself, made bad decisions, and wished I could make things right with God. It helps me to remember the story about Peter all those years ago. No matter how hard I try to erase what has happened and forgive myself for what I should or should not have done, God has already forgotten my mistakes and is there with open arms ready to welcome me.
I thought I would list some quick, practical suggestions, I’ve learned over the years that may help you with forgiveness:
- Don’t be afraid to forgive yourself. This sounds simple but, sometimes, we hang on to the past—even when it hurts—for fear of being alone in the present or future. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones that can support you as you sever the past and embrace the present/future. Allow others to pray for you.
- Remember that forgiving yourself of the past doesn’t mean you have to forget the past. It simply means you refuse to allow the past to control your emotions now. Stop punishing yourself.
- Don’t hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else does. We’re all imperfect and make mistakes. Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus welcomed Peter back with no questions asked. Embrace God’s Grace, as Peter did, and realize that nothing you’ve done will keep God from opening his arms to you.
- Realize that it’s OK to let go of other people’s expectations of you or what others have said about you. You don’t have any control of what other people say and do. It also helps to separate what you can control versus what you can’t control.
- Look for small things each day where God shows you how he is working in your life. It may be a kind word from someone; an opportunity that presents itself; a chance for you to do something for someone. Trust me, God shows you each and every day—you just have to be aware. Keep a prayer journal or diary of what God shows you and teaches you each day.
- Surround yourself with positive verses and quotes. Write your favorite versus on index cards and stick them on refrigerators; on your bathroom mirror; or in your car. Place them everywhere possible so that you constantly see positive verses. It’s amazing how this will change your perspective.
- Realize that forgiving yourself is a journey, not a destination. Don’t fool yourself in believing that you can flip a switch, and you’re there. It is a gradual process of baby steps.
May God bless you along your journey of forgiveness.