As a spiritual director I’ve had opportunity to listen to many individuals who struggle with “self-forgiveness.” Ok, to be honest, I can easily recognize their struggle because I struggle at times with this idea of forgiving myself. It brings up so many questions: What does that even mean? Do I possess the power to forgive myself, or is that only something God can do through Jesus? If this is within my power, then what must I do to experience it?
We know what it feels like to carry burdens of guilt over something that has happened, that we’ve said or done, or failed to say or do, something that has hurt another in some way. The range of possible guilt-inducing circumstances ranges from a sarcastic remarks to a catastrophic traumas. Regardless, this guilt feels like the cross that Jesus tells us to take up and carry. So, we do. We beat ourselves up for our failure. We sit in regret and crucify ourselves. Over and over, the same things nag at our conscience. We say God forgives, but we can’t seem to shake ourselves loose from the acts that haunt our thoughts and hold us captive.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at the instruction to take up your cross. If we listen, we also hear him say, “…and follow me.” We are invited to follow Jesus to the foot of his cross and listen to what his words and his actions teach us about forgiving ourselves.
“I thirst.” I’m so glad Jesus said these words; they perfectly express the human condition. He thirsted physically for relief, thirsted for it all to end, thirsted for freedom, for the work to be accomplished. And we too thirst, especially as we bear our crosses of guilt or regret. We thirst for relief, for change, for healing, for freedom, for reconciliation. The important example in these words from Jesus is first to simply acknowledge the thirst…verbally, to name it out loud and preferably in the company of others who gather at the cross. Until we take this first frightening step, our growth will be slow, and we will feel stuck.
Years ago, a woman from church asked to speak to me about something that she had never shared with anyone else. She told me the story of her pregnancy as a college student, and her decision to abort her baby. She carried this cross silently for 20 years. Through her tears she shared all the details, and I simply listened. When she was done, I didn’t quite know how to respond but said simply, “All we have to hold on to is grace. That’s all I’ve got. You are forgiven. Your child is held in the arms of love and so are you.” This first acknowledgement of her thirst to forgive herself eventually led her to share her story with others that resulted in healing for many other women who were able to voice their own secret shame stories. What are the areas of your life that feel like wounds that won’t heal?What do you thirst for? Who might you talk to about this thirst?
“Forgive them for they know not what they do.” This isn’t an excuse to let us off the hook. This is Jesus acknowledging that our humanity makes us blind to what life will bring us. We cannot see the future. All we have is the ability to live in the moment, to learn from the past, and hope in the future. One verse that has helped me with self forgiveness is Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I like it because of one word – Now. In this moment, today, this very second, no one condemns me, not even Jesus. It’s a statement I use as a breath prayer on days when my cross feels especially heavy. And sometimes it’s a breath prayer I repeat multiple times during the day to remind myself of the complete forgiveness that is mine to receive. How do the words “now no condemnation” strike you? What difference might it make in your life if you made these words your prayer for healing?
“Behold your son, behold your mother.” Even as Jesus approaches his final breath, he is still building community. He restores relationship and creates new places of belonging for his people. These words tell us how important this is to Jesus, and how necessary it is for us. We can’t do life alone. We need safe spaces where we, and others, can speak openly, be accepted, held, and comforted. We need others to speak blessing and healing words over us so that eventually we may do the same for others. Where are your safe places? Do you need to create that space and invite others to join you as you listen, reflect, and respond to what your soul is telling you?
“It is finished.” Three simple words hold so much power. The price for sin has been paid. The mistakes and the missteps have been redeemed. In fact, grace now flows over all humanity, past, present, and future. Nothing is beyond the reach of this offering of forgiveness and grace. Jesus asks us to claim these three words as it relates to our fallen humanity, our specific cross. We come to a place where we lay it down and claim “it is finished,” because “…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)
Forgiving ourselves begins with Christ’s forgiveness. His grace quenches our thirst. He understands our human conditions, creates community, and ultimately calls us to lay down your guilt and regrets. It is finished. We are free.
Marsha Crockett is a certified spiritual director in Washington state and the author of six books including the newly released Sacred Conversation: Exploring the Seven Gifts of Spiritual Direction. Contact Marsha directly at email@example.com or visit her website at www.marshacrockett.org