4 Steps to Forgiving Yourself for Past Mistakes
Many people struggle with the effects of their past mistakes, such as saying words in haste or anger that damage relationships, or making life-altering decisions which ended in failure or disappointment. Then there are those regretful promises we made that became impossible to keep. And many people who have experienced such things from their own actions simply can’t get past their past, forgive themselves and move on.
Clearly, in this context “forgive yourself” doesn’t mean “absolve yourself of sin.” Only Christ can do that, if we accept the forgiveness that Christ purchased for us on Calvary. And thankfully, we know that in Christ, we receive His forgiveness through repentance, to enable us to transform, and grow more spiritually mature. It’s somewhat surprising then, given we have such a wonderful Savior, that so many have a difficult time forgiving themselves.
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“Chronically Human” Humans
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Every single person struggles with human tendencies such as doubt, pride and anger. Whether we’d admit it or not, we have a backlog of failures, half-baked commitments and things we are ashamed of. Even in our best moments we are chronically human, and make mistakes.
It is because of this fact that Christ laid aside His divinity and shed His blood for our salvation. But when we refuse to receive His forgiveness because of shame or guilt over what we have done, we place ourselves in a prison of our own making. It holds us captive, dwelling on past mistakes, and robs us of our future. But what does the Word say?
“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalms 103:12).
It’s time we forgive ourselves, too!
Earthly wisdom would say that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But Godly wisdom says, those who don’t forget the past are doomed to repeat it!
Romans 8:28 assures us that regardless of what mistakes may have been made, or the opportunities we may have missed along the way, God can take what has happened in our lives and make something positive out of it. It assures us that God can turn our lives around for good in every situation.
Peter’s Big Mistake
If anyone knew about the power of forgiveness, it had to be the Apostle Peter.
Peter’s story began at the Last Supper, where he publicly declared to Jesus, “’Even if all fall away, I will not.’ ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times’” (Mark 14:30).
And later that evening as Jesus is arrested, questioned, and flogged, Peter denied Christ just as He prophesied. While we do not have access to all the details of the turmoil Peter experienced, it seems we could presume a few things from the text and human nature.
His denial was not simply denying Jesus as Messiah, but was a cowardly betrayal of his sworn loyalty to his best friend. As soon as the third denial left Peter’s mouth, the rooster crowed and Peter’s world came crashing down as he remembered the prophecy. Shame, guilt and self-condemnation settled over him. He quit the ministry and went back to professional fishing. And he abandoned the destiny God had created for him.
So how is it that he ever became the great Apostle Peter? And what can we learn from his experience to free ourselves from the rut of regret, and to forgive ourselves?
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1. Remember What God Has Said
“And the Lord said, ‘Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to me, strengthen your brethren’” (Luke 22:31-32).
Before the rooster started crowing, Jesus told Peter to be wary. The Lord often telegraphs the enemy’s moves and creates a way for us to escape. And eventually, Peter must have remembered this Word of the Lord… when you have returned to Me.
Not only did Jesus warn Peter about his fall, but with those words, He encouraged him that there was also going to be a future turnaround!
Peter, you will fail, you will deny me, but you will rise again and go on to complete the work that I’ve created you for! What the enemy means for evil, I will use for good!
Peter eventually remembered the Word of the Lord. It empowered him to forgive himself, and return to follow God’s plan for his life.
2. Remain in Relationship with Others
“Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galle, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We are going with you also.’ They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing” (John 21:1-3).
Did you notice that despite everything, Peter stayed connected with the Lord’s disciples? He and John raced to inspect the empty tomb (John 20:3-4), and he was counted among the “Eleven” (Luke 24:33-34; Mark 16:14) as Jesus appeared to them post-resurrection.
Consider Judas for a moment. When you read the progression of Judas’ story, you may think he was on the right track for repentance and restoration: he felt remorse, he gave the money back. But then he isolated himself away from the group and came to a tragic end.
What’s my point? When you feel hopeless and the weight of guilt is trying to take you out, it’s even more important to stay in the group.
After a failure, many people think they could never go back to church, that they’d be too embarrassed or ashamed to show their faces there again. But they’re wrong. We’re all in the same boat – the same chronically human boat.
There’s healing in the group. There’s comfort in the group. There is safety and encouragement, too. Stay in the group!
“If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble” (Ecclesiastes 4:10, NLT).
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3. Run to Jesus, and Receive What He Has Done
As Peter was fishing on the boat, something amazing happened.
“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No,’ they answered. He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water” (John 21:4-8).
In the middle of Peter’s guilt trip, he hears the voice of Jesus and jumps in the water to swim to Him. The picture is that he couldn’t get to Jesus fast enough.
When you feel an overwhelming self-condemnation about anything, whatever it is, don’t buy the lie that you can’t go to God, that He won’t accept you, or that He’s just waiting to punish you.
Like Peter’s jump into the water, get to Jesus as quick as you can. Run to the mercy seat!
“Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Hebrews 4:16).
The Blessing of the Charcoal Fire
“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread” (John 21:9).
There is another place in Scripture where it makes reference to a charcoal fire – when Peter was standing outside of Caiaphas’ courtyard warming himself alongside the enemies of Jesus, and then denying Him.
The first time Peter looked through a charcoal fire at Jesus, he experienced the sinking shame of guilt. But this time, as he looked through a charcoal fire at Jesus, he would experience the freedom of His forgiveness.
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘You know that I love you’” (John 21:15).
And then two more times He asks him: Peter, do you love me? And each time Peter says, “Yes.”
Why three times? Because Peter denied Him three times. Jesus was completely wiping his sin away, destroying the evidence against him.
This was the resurrected Christ who was speaking to Peter, Who had just conquered the cross and had risen from the dead. He let Peter know what had just been accomplished on the cross, that He had paid the price for Peter’s sin of denial. What Peter had done was forever erased by what Jesus had done. Friends, that’s the mercy and forgiveness of our God!
“He cancelled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
He has cancelled our sins, past, present and future, and in order to forgive ourselves we must accept what He has done!
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“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep’” (John 21:17).
Do you hear the absolute forgiveness and trust in that statement?
People matter to God more than anything else. Jesus’ statement showed Peter how much He loved him and believed in him, by entrusting His sheep to his care. And He gave Peter an invitation to restart what he quit, and to become a pillar of the Christian faith!
The true test of whether we have really forgiven ourselves by accepting what Christ has done, is, are we actually willing to get back in the game? Are we willing to begin to make a difference for God and His kingdom again?
“For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again…” (Proverbs 24:16).
Child of God, you can get up again after failure and guilt. You have “bounce back” wound into your DNA that will enable you to restart your destiny. So learn from the example of Peter to let go of the past and the sin, forgive yourself and begin again to follow the plan of God for your life.
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Frank Santora is Lead Pastor of Faith Church, a multi-site church with locations in Connecticut and New York. Pastor Frank hosts a weekly television show, “Destined to Win,” which airs weekly on the Hillsong Channel and TBN. He has authored thirteen books, including the most recent, Modern Day Psalms and Good Good Father. To learn more about Pastor Frank and this ministry, please visit www.franksantora.cc. Photo by Michele Roman.