How do I forgive myself?

The simple answer to how to forgive myself is, we forgive the same way we forgive others. Unfortunately, simple and easy aren’t the same thing. This is an all too familiar story.

Perhaps the main reason we don’t forgive ourselves is because we don’t understand forgiveness. Suppose you owe $10,000 on your car. You lost your job three months ago. You’ve juggled accounts, wiped out your savings, and have no prospects of a new job. The finance company has sent notice that if you do not catch up on back payments by the end of the month, they will repossess your car. That’s the debt owed.

There’s a happy ending to this story. You get another notice from the finance company that your account has been closed—you owe nothing. Zero. They have “forgiven your debt.” They have written off the loss.

You now have a choice to get really excited and overwhelmed with gratitude, or you can try to pay off the car. Have you ever tried to argue with a corporate computer? Every attempt to make a payment will be rejected because there is no debt. That’s forgiveness.

If we get still and listen to the conversation in our heads, we hear things like “I can’t believe I did that,” “I know better than that,” “Wow! I’ll never be able to show my face there again,” “I’m so ashamed,” “I’m such a mess,” and the list goes on and on.

It’s hard to see that we no longer owe anything. We say, “I don’t deserve forgiveness.” The one forgiving says, “I accept the loss. You owe me nothing.” Forgiveness is an undeserved gift that is given.

Sometimes this is where we confuse guilt and shame. It can be healthy when we feel guilty about what we’ve done, because we can do something about it. Christians call that being convicted in our conscious. There’s a way out. We confess sin to God and go the person we have offended to make things right.

God promises that, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9 NASB).

Where we often get caught is overlooking the second part of the promise; the part where He will “cleanse us.” Cleanse means to make clean. When we accept forgiveness, shame is removed.

Shame focuses on who we are, not the actions we’ve done. It looks at where we’ve failed and whispers loudly, “You are a failure.” Shame condemns and gives no way out. It continues to try to pay a debt that is no longer there.

Zig Ziglar used to say, “Failure is an event, not a person.” Actions are what we have done; they don’t define who we are unless we let them.

Now we are back to the beginning. We forgive ourselves like we forgive others. As the perpetrator, we ask for forgiveness from the one we hurt. As the victim of our own actions, we forgive ourselves. It’s a choice to release the loss—to others and to ourselves—and a choice to accept the amazing reality that “I owe nothing.” It’s all clean.