When I don’t feel forgiven

I was 14 when I first watched pornography. I had no idea that images could pierce the heart. I didn’t know the poison would linger after Jesus saved my soul. At 24, through the mercy of God working through the gospel, community, and repentance over and over again, I finally experienced a freedom I never dreamed possible.

That was in 2007. Looking back now, I can see there was a decade where I struggled. I struggled not only to fight temptation, but also to believe that I was forgiven. Seasons of success made me feel like I was on top of a mountain, but I was often on the verge of failure. And when I fell, I sincerely prayed for forgiveness, and I believed that God had forgiven me. So why was the pain still lingering? Why didn’t I feel forgiven?

Some friends will tell you to “forgive yourself,” as if you were the guardian of your guilt, holding the key to your own freedom. Others correct this advice. They say no word of forgiveness is more decisive than God’s, encouraging you to trust His Word because feelings are not facts.

To be comforted by grace, we must locate our grief.

I received both types of advice. And although I agree with the latter, I did not know how to “believe more”. I was wondering, Why am I so unaffected by this truth? Why can’t I find comfort? I learned that to be comforted by grace, you have to locate your grief.

Locating Our Sorrow

Here’s what I mean: It’s only when we acknowledge that we feel grief and are honest about what we believe we’ve lost that we can see how God’s grace applies to that grief.

What are the common places where grief is located?

1. Sorrow for offending God: a loss of intimacy.

Godly sorrow is appropriate when we sin. All of our sins are primarily against God, and we should be grieved when we grieve His Spirit (Eph. 4:29-32). When we cause grief to God, we experience a loss of intimacy with him. And even after our fellowship with God has been restored, we may fear that he no longer shows warmth toward us. But our comfort when we have grieved God is that if we love him, it is because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We must remember that the Father moved to us and the Son loved us unto death, not when we were at our best but at our worst (Rom. 5:8).

2. Grief for grace given: a perceived loss of justice.

Godly sadness, which should be a doorway to His grace, can sometimes become a revolving door to depression. For those with a strong sense of justice, God’s grace can be difficult to receive, and his reminders can plunge us deeper into despair. Why? It is unfair to be loved by God when we are guilty. We prefer to be punished and sit in our grief. Those who feel this way need not only the comfort of God’s grace, but also the comfort of his justice. In Christ, all our sins have been punished. There was a righteous judgment of our sins on the cross. God is therefore quite just to forgive us (1 John 1:9). He is both righteous and a vindicator of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

3. Grief for needed grace: a perceived loss of strength.

If our grief persists after experiencing the comfort of God’s grace and justice, we may mourn the death of our self-perception. Our sin and God’s justice and grace toward it reveal that we are not as virtuous as we thought, not as strong as we imagined. We are shocked at what we are capable of in the face of temptation. Could this be the source of our sorrow—the reality that God has always known our sin, but we have struggled to admit it until now; the truth that we are weak, that we need a Savior more than we imagined?

There are times when what haunts us the most is not our sin but our need for grace. But truly the death of our false perception is necessary. We must feel this loss to see ourselves for who we really are: broken sinners in need of the Savior.

Locate his gaze

We are not the first to overestimate our strength and mourn it bitterly (Matthew 26:75). When Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times, Peter made sure and said, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:31-35). Her relationship with Jesus began with a realization of her need for mercy: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). But somewhere along the way, Peter began to see himself as someone who wouldn’t succumb to the temptations of others.

We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.

So what comfort is there for us when our inflated sense of self causes us to be sifted like wheat (Luke 22:31)? We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. We may still feel the shock of our sins, but there is the freedom of knowing that God is not shocked. No, he looks at us as Jesus looked at Peter. He sees through our pretensions and our spiritual bravado. He is not distracted by our inflated promises. He fixes his eyes on our limitations, our weaknesses and our sins (Luke 22:61), then he decides with mercy to show us his grace, his strength and his power.

We can rest in the truth that Jesus knows those he has called. He knows the dimensions and limits of our love. He wants us to know that there are no limits to His.

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