The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. 

It is better to forget about yourself altogether. 

—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I just can’t forgive myself, my friend confided.

She had repented of her sin. She had confessed it to God and to the person she had hurt. Both had forgiven her. My friend had done the job right. But months later, she still can’t forgive herself. 

Maybe that’s as it should be. Because maybe the problem isn’t a forgiveness problem.

Maybe it’s a pride problem.

I hear your heart pounding and your pulse racing, and I sense those pink splotches coloring your neck. So I rush to reassure you of this rock bottom truth: our God is a pardoning God. Forgiveness is at the heart of who God is. In fact it is part of his self-proclaimed name (see Exodus 34:6-7).

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

Our God is not stingy with forgiveness. He delights to show mercy (Micah 7:18). I said, delights. God loves to show mercy, to forgive the worst—the ugly, cringeworthy and inexcusable things. It’s his name.

But for some reason, I still don’t like to need forgiveness. I’d rather be excused.

Inexcusable, and Totally Forgivable

When I commit a really embarrassing sin, I want to be excused. Being excused is less humbling than needing forgiveness. (Not sure of the difference between excusing and forgiving? Check out this post.)

We make excuses for our sins, when what we ought to do is to really and truly believe in the forgiveness of sins. Maybe we make excuses because we think that God will not take us back to Himself, “unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that would not be forgiveness at all.”

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness; and that we can always have from God if we ask for it. 

C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness”

This is the grace in which we now stand. It’s the humble grace we need to confess what’s left of our guilt after all the excuses are made and so to be totally forgiven and completely cleansed (1 John 1:9). 

And this total forgiveness from God is ours for the asking.

Stop Scratching the “Not Feeling Forgiven” Itch

We know it takes humility to confess our sins. Proud people don’t confess and ask for forgiveness.

The connection between refusing forgiveness and pride is less obvious. But it’s there, just beneath the surface. Because rightly understood, pride is not just thinking too highly of ourselves, it’s also thinking too lowly or too often of ourselves. Or dwelling on our sin when we have been forgiven.

Humility is a form of self-forgetfulness which is opposed the self-preoccupation of pride. 

If we accept C.S. Lewis’s description, it means our fixation on the sin we’ve already confessed may in fact be pride’s counterfeit version of humility. 

It means that the focus on feeling forgiven is not an itch we must scratch. 

The humble, forgiven saint doesn’t get stuck scratching that itch. She can let it sit.

When our boys were younger and would scratch bug bites until they bled, I would dab on Benadryl and distract them with toy to keep their little hands busy. They stopped scratching because the focus was off the bite. 

We do what Apostle Peter called us to do, and if anyone had some embarrassing sins that could have been hard to live down, Peter did. I suspect he knew the “not feeling forgiven” itch. But I don’t think he scratched it. I think that because it was Peter who wrote this (1 Peter 5:5b-6),

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you

Humble yourself. Hang out under his mighty hand. Believe he has forgiven, even if you don’t feel forgiven.

Camp Under God’s Mighty Hand

But mark my word, pride wants us to camp in the Self-Pity Land, beside Camp Woe-Is-Me. Humility camps elsewhere, writes Jason Meyer (Killjoys). 

Humility pitches its tent under the mighty hand of God


Self-focused pride insists on carrying its sin and failure, but humility is fast to cast its cares on God.

I don’t want to sound cavalier. It’s no cake walk to accept forgiveness and cast your cares. I feel that. Sometimes after I confess the sinful thing I’ve said or done, I don’t feel instantly refreshed (Acts 3:19). Then I might wallow a while, astounded that I could think, say, or do such an ugly thing, and sickened that conduct so un-becoming a Christian could come from moi. Sorry, as Lewis aptly put it, to find that I was the sort of [wo]man who did those things. 

Is this the very real feeling, I wonder, behind the words, “I can’t forgive myself”?

Our Feelings Deceive Us

While Scripture assumes that we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34Eph. 5:29), it nowhere calls us to forgive ourselves.

Throughout its pages, forgiveness is transacted vertically between the sinner and his God, and horizontally between the sinner and the one he has sinned against. Nowhere is it transacted inside the self-same sinner. In other words, we are not in one act both the victim and the offender.

So then why do we feel a need to forgive ourselves? Is it because, even as repentant offenders, we don’t always feel forgiven? 

If we don’t feel forgiven could it be because we confuse being forgiven with having no consequences?

But forgiveness does not exclude consequences. I forgive the son whose angry kick broke a door and still make him pay for the repair. You forgive a friend who broke confidence and still not trust her with your secret. We can receive God’s forgiveness for a gluttonous binge and still feel sick to our stomachs.

Forgiveness can co-exist with consequences. 

Our feelings confuse us. We think that if we’re still feeling bad we need more forgiveness. Could it be we need more grace, more faith, to keep the humble tent pitched where it belongs?

Forgiven Like David

Make us more like King David, the man after your own heart

David is a marvelous model of how to humbly accept forgiveness and consequences. After Nathan’s confrontational, convicting you-are-the-man speech, David and Bathsheba’s borne-of-wedlock baby dies. David’s servants are confused when, rather than weep and wallow, he rises from his mourning and worships.

“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘ Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ (2 Samuel 12:22).

Then, near the end of his life, against all wisdom, David orders a census. His conscience is pricked and he repents. Then God lets David choose his consequence.

Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14).

When David sinned, he repented. When he repented, he was forgiven. Yet David still experienced consequences of his sin. The child died. A plague “killed 70,000 from Dan to Beersheba.” David might have felt unforgiven, but we don’t find him trying to forgive himself. 

David did the right thing after he sinned. He humbly hoped in God’s goodness. He camped right under God’s mighty hand, and accepted God’s mercy and his consequences.

What About Us?

I confess, sometimes after being forgiven, I feel the consequences more than I feel forgiveness. I’m not a happy camper. Instead, I’m prone to the “all or nothing” syndrome. Either, I’m so horrible. How could God possibly forgive me for the mess I’ve made? Or, equally faithless, I don’t deserve such grace.

Exactly. Christ died for this.

What about you? Do you humble yourself like David and camp under God’s mighty and merciful hand? 

Trusting God’s Forgiveness Honors Him

When the Word says (1 John 1:9), “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” we must believe it. We do well to vacate the Judge’s seat over ourselves and trust God’s verdict instead.

David trusted God’s verdict and was “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). To trust God is humble and God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). He delights when we hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147:11).

Growing in faith may mean we learn to stop scratching the “not-feeling-forgiven itch.” It may mean we distract ourselves with his love and join the psalmist who calls us to bless the Lord with all our souls and “to forget not all his benefits.” Then he lists big benefits. Can you guess which one is listed first?

Who forgives all your sins.

A Prayer For When You Can’t Forgive Yourself

In the end, I did not help my friend forgive herself. Because I don’t think we can forgive ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Self-forgiveness is not a biblical “thing.” But praying is.

We can always pray.

Heavenly Father,

We have confessed our sins to you and we believe we are forgiven.

Please increase our faith. Help our unbelief. 

Would you help us feel forgiven? Would you help us think more on you more and less on our sin? May the itch of our forgiven sin fade in the light of your mercy and grace. Lord, help us receive both your forgiveness and your loving discipline. We want to camp under your mighty, merciful hand.

We pray in the name of Jesus in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.


[Author’s Note: The first version of this post was published on 7/21/2015. Please look for a digging deeper post next week with five reasons we may struggle to receive God’s forgiveness. If you have a question or comment about this post, please drop a gentle line.]

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