Pardoning Ourselves

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Luke 6:36 NRSV

Do you ever have trouble forgiving yourself? I confess, I do. I don’t think it is a vocational hazard on my part as your rector to struggle with guilt over those things, in the words of our confession, “ done and left undone .”

Guilt is not a bad thing in and of itself. It lets us know when we have hurt another, hurt our Lord or hurt ourselves–our created nature. When we sin, we know we have that “great High Priest,” Jesus our Lord, who offers us mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 1:14–16)

We also know, though forgiven by the shed blood of our Lord Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, the spiritual discipline of “confession” is commended to us by Holy Scripture and is, in fact, good for the soul. (James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9–2:1) Confession clears the air of the brokenness that may exist between ourselves and one another, or ourselves and God. Yet, what about between “ourselves and ourselves?” What might I mean by that?

In the passage from Luke (above), Jesus teaches from what many have called His “ Sermon on the Plain ,” as it mirrors much of His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. However, Luke describes the same terrain differently! In this passage, He reminds His hearers of that vital Christian gift of mercy. He compels all of us, in our lives and interactions with others, to “be merciful.” Why? Because it mirrors God’s mercy to us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

I suspect most of us immediately think about our need to be merciful to others who might have hurt, offended or sinned against us. Yes, we are certainly called to do that, but what about being merciful to ourselves? Are we called to do that also?

Yes–without question. I have found over the years that much of the heart- and soul-ache people experience comes with a burden of guilt over something from the past. They have asked God’s forgiveness. They have asked that of those they have offended. They know that God forgives and they often experience the mercy of another, but then they continue to carry around their guilt. What does that mean? It means that person has not been merciful to themselves.

It also means, friends , that you are holding your own sin against yourself, when God has already forgiven it! It means, frankly , that you are holding yourself to a higher standard of behavior than God! God’s mercy allows for your mistakes and sins, and even pays the price for them. It is a godly thing to do to follow His lead here.

I like what the late evangelist Merv Rosell once wrote, “ When God pardons, He consigns the offense to everlasting forgetfulness .” The Psalmist puts it even better, “ As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us .” (Psalm 103:12)

So, dear one, if you have confessed your sin to God, if you have given it over to Him, are you still holding it against yourself when no one else is? What might Jesus have to say to that? He would say, “Act as God would act to the one in the mirror.” It’s time to give up the past and release the guilt; indeed, be merciful, just as your Father is merciful . Yes, even to yourself.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.