In Christian culture, we use the word “forgiveness” a lot. We believe in a gracious God. We believe in a God who takes all of our imperfections, shortcomings, inequities and failures, and makes us whole, cleansed, right and holy.
Many of us secretly live a double life of shame. We believe in the power of God’s mercy but our thoughts dwell on the mistakes God has redeemed. We carry around the weight of guilt. We’re so keenly aware of our own imperfections that we have experienced grace but can’t function in the freedom of it.
In his book, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, author Brennan Manning addresses the idea of God’s love toward us even knowing all the sins we commit.
God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us just as we are—not in spite of our sins and faults (that would not be total acceptance), but with them,” he writes. “Though God does not condone or sanction evil, He does not withhold his love because there is evil in us.
How can we learn to live in the grace we’ve been so lovingly given?
1. Make peace with your regrets.
In my life, I’ve sometimes made an unhealthy habit of confusing guilt with regret. We’ve all made decisions we’re not proud of, but sometimes we’ve made decisions that weren’t wrong, they just didn’t produce the results we hoped for. A relationship that didn’t work out, a job you ended up hating, a move that left you lonely.
Those things aren’t sinful, they’re just part of life.
When we embrace the reality that life is full of ups and downs and stop dwelling on should haves and could haves, then we can focus on all the ways we have grown through those hurdles and live life right now. Right now is all we have any control over. You can’t go back, but you can move forward knowing you’re stronger and smarter than you were before.
2. Have you made things right with others?
Sometimes, we’ve asked God to forgive us but we forgot the other part of the forgiveness equation—making it right with others. This step is a difficult one. I remember watching a news segment where a man was apologizing to the family of a woman he killed while driving drunk. I felt a pit in my stomach for him. I couldn’t imagine facing a family left torn and grieving because of my actions.
The truth is sometimes our choices do lead to destruction. Sometimes that “unhealthy guilt” is really “godly conviction.”
The Bible talks a lot about being a peacemaker. Sometimes we convince ourselves that our apology won’t be accepted or that bringing up past mistakes will only cause more pain for everyone. Often times though, an apology is the key to finally being able to put your past behind you. God can also use it to bring purpose in the pain to the person we’ve hurt in more ways than we can imagine and even set them free of bitterness, too.
3. Don’t confuse your mistakes with your identity.
Taking ownership of your actions helps you to recognize where things have gone wrong and move forward, but letting your actions define you is a life sentence that God never designed for you. It’s not until we realize we are not what we do but who God says we are that we can experience the true freedom grace provides and move on.
Psalm 103:10-12 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.”
Isn’t it time we believed that?
4. Make joy the priority.
Punishing yourself by refusing to enjoy life out of guilt won’t make you feel better and does nothing to please God. In fact, it exalts your position as judge over your life when God has already forgiven you of it. We’re not meant to be bogged down by our mistakes.
When we don’t forgive ourselves, we’re essentially carrying around empty suitcases that don’t let us move fluidly or grasp good things if our hands are already full. When joy becomes our pursuit instead, it doesn’t just encourage us to live at peace with others and resolve our mistakes quickly, we actually get to see grace for all it is—in all of its unfairness, freedom and ability to let us rest.
When shame tells us we’re unworthy, Christ is there asking us to trust that He has made us new. He’s asking us to find our identity in him. He is asking us to hand Him our self-made prisons and dwell in His freedom.
Let’s respond by fully accepting those gifts with empty hands.