Have you ever done something that you really were ashamed of? Something that you thought if others knew what you did they would no longer love or respect you? Maybe you struggle with an addiction, maybe it was an affair, or possibly it is the angry outbursts at the people you love. What ever it was or is it makes you feel like a fraud. It has you trapped under a load of guilt and shame that feels inescapable and makes you want to hide. The truth is we have all done things that we are ashamed of, things that need forgiveness. Often we need the forgiveness of others, but even more often we need to learn to forgive ourselves. Here is how you can be set free from the bondage of shame and guilt through forgiveness.
Step 1: Acknowledge what you did that was wrong. Admit it was wrong, define how and why it was wrong. At first glance, this might seem like a great way to make yourself feel even worse about what you did, but the truth is that you can only heal from what you can acknowledge. You have to admit that you were wrong and know what it was that you did wrong and why it was wrong.
Step 2: Acknowledge how your actions negatively affected you and others. Every action has a consequence, and typically the consequence affects more than the one person who committed the offense. First look at what the offense did to you. How did it make you feel? How did it make you think of yourself? What are some of the consequences you will have to face? Next think about how it affected the other person. How might they have felt? What might they have thought? How did your actions hurt them? What consequences do they have to face because of what you did?
Step 3: Consider what you can do better next time. Have a plan of how you want to respond if you are in that situation again. Think about how you want to act, what you wish you would’ve done differently. Develop a plan for the next time that will reflect the desire of your heart to behave better. Consider what triggered you to behave or react in the manner that you did. Were they internal or external factors? For example; what were the things you believed about yourself, the other person, or the circumstance? Was it something that tempted or triggered you? What were you hoping to accomplish with your actions? How could that have been better accomplished? What can you change so that things will go better next time? Write out your plan.
As you work through this step you may find yourself stumped or blaming the other person for your actions. Or you may discover that the you need help to thoroughly address the issues that led to the offense. Do not let either of those things discourage you. Seek out help in the advise of a trusted friend or counselor to work through this step if you need to. It may take awhile to completely work through this step. In the mean time simply do your best and make it part of your “plan”. For instance, “one thing I will do so that I can handle things better next time is pursue counseling so I can figure out how I got myself in this mess”. Then simply move on to step 4.
Step 4: Consider what you can do to make it right. How can you make restitution for what you did wrong? It will not change the past, what you did still happened, and the damage remains. But is there anything on your end you can do to try to make things right? For example if you stole money from someone you can repay what you stole and add interest. If you broke something you can offer to replace it. Restitution does not erase what you did wrong, but it may help to set things straight and shows that your hearts desire is to make things right.
Step 5: Confess to God. The whole purpose of the gospel is to proclaim the good news that we are loved and that we can be forgiven from our sins. A pastor I know used to say “1John 1:9 is the greatest mental health verse in the bible”. It states that “if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. What that means is that if you, no matter what you have done, if you confess your sins you are 100% forgiven! The bible says that your sins are removed from you as far as the “east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), that you are made clean and holy in the sight of God. Why is this so important? Because if a perfect and holy God is not going to hold your past against you then you do not need to hold your past against yourself. You are free to forgive yourself and move forward. Here is an example of what to pray:
“Lord Jesus, I admit that I was wrong when I (insert specifically what you did wrong). I believe that you died to pay the price for all my sins past, present and future. I admit that I need your forgiveness and love. Help me to follow you, and to do what you would have me do. I accept your payment for my sin and your forgiveness. Amen.”
Step 6: Confess to the person you wronged. This is a very difficult step. It can be extremely hard to go to someone you hurt and admit you were wrong. Honestly, they may also have some fault in the matter, but it is not up to you to bring that up to them in this process. This is about you admitting your faults and seeking forgiveness. Your confession can be written or in person, but you may find it helpful to write it out first and practice what you want to say so you don’t get side tracked and begin rattling off the list of reasons why you did what you did or all the things they did that were wrong. Your confession should be specific. Here is an example:
“(Name of person you wronged), I am sorry that I (specifically state what you did wrong). I imagine that what I did caused you to feel or experience (state what consequences you think they may have experienced due to your offense). In the future I want to do better. (State how you would like to behave differently and your reasons for wanting to behave differently). Will you please forgive me?”
The person may forgive you and you can together reconcile and decide how to move forward. Or they may choose not to forgive you. Even if they do not forgive you, you can still continue with the process of forgiving yourself! The forgiveness of yourself is NOT contingent on them forgiving you. God has forgiven you, therefore you are forgiven. Additionally, you are doing what you can to try to make things right in the relationship. If they do not extend forgiveness, you can accept that, you can forgive them for that, and you can continue to move forward in the process.
Here are a couple of additional thoughts on confessing to the person. In some cases it may not be possible to confess to the person who you wronged, perhaps they are not accepting communication from you or they have passed away. In those cases you can symbolically confess through writing your confession in a letter and pretending to read it to them. You can envision them accepting your apology and extending forgiveness. You can also pray for an opportunity to confess to them in person in the future. In other cases it may not be safe for you to confess directly to the person you wronged. If personal safety is an issue you need to carefully assess the situation and take necessary precautions to keep yourself and others safe.
Step 7: Offer to make restitution. Here is where you can offer the ideas you thought of previously to do what you can to try to make things right. You can also ask the other person if there is something they can think of that you can do to make it right. If what they suggest is acceptable to you, then you can do what is suggested. If what they suggest is demeaning, demoralizing, or something you are unable or uncomfortable doing then you do not need to do it. The purpose of offering restitution is to show your hearts desire of wanting to make things better and reconcile the relationship through an outward gesture. It is not to punish yourself nor is it to allow the other person to punish you. If there is nothing that can be done, it does not nullify the forgiveness. You are still forgiven and can still extend forgiveness to yourself.
Step 8: Accept the consequences. All actions have a consequence. When we wrong someone there may be a consequence of distance in the relationship, new boundaries may need to be set or a lack of trust may have developed. Or perhaps what you did will result in legal consequences that need to be faced, fines paid, and other restrictions being placed on you. You can accept the consequences and continue to move forward. While you are in this process it may be difficult to remember to be kind to yourself. You are not defined by your past and the things you have done wrong. It is important that you remind yourself that you are free from the negative labels that you have applied to yourself because of your actions. Speak kindly to yourself. The consequences are only a result of what happened and will one day come to an end. In the future you will make better choices and get better results. You are still loved by God. You still have value and a purpose. You are still in a process of learning and growing.
Step 9: Forgive yourself. Release yourself from having your identity tied to your actions. While your past has helped to make you who you are becoming it is not the definitive answer on who you are as a person. From every mistake you have made you have learned. You are growing in character and maturity. It may be helpful to write this out and keep it to review as needed. I have included two options, one for Christians (A) and one for non-Christians(B).
A.) “I have acknowledged that I was wrong when I (insert offense). I have done everything I can to set things right between (insert name of person) and myself. I have confessed my offense to God and I have accepted his forgiveness. I have determined to try to do better in the future. There is nothing more I can do. I will no longer beat myself up over this offense. Because of what Jesus did on the cross I am released from the guilt and shame tied to this offense. I have learned valuable lessons from my mistakes and I will hold on to those as I move forward. I choose to agree with God that I am forgiven from this offense and with His help I will continue to accept the truth and agree with God that I am loved by Him and that he has a plan for me.”
B.) “I have acknowledged that I was wrong when I (insert offense). I have done everything I can to set things right between (insert name of person) and myself. I have confessed my offense and tried to make things right. I have determined to continue to try to do better in the future. There is nothing more I can do. I will no longer beat myself up over this offense. I release myself from guilt and shame tied to this offense. I have learned valuable lessons from my mistakes and I will hold on to those as I move forward. I choose to forgive myself and I will accept the truth that I am loved and valuable.”
Step 10: Instate your plan. You made a plan on how you can respond better or choose better, begin doing those things. Envision yourself being the kind of person you want to be and work toward that goal. Remember you are not perfect and this will not go perfectly, you are in process and it will take time to make these things become more natural and more of who you are. Keep going, keep pressing forward, don’t let slip-ups stop you. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall, just keep getting up and trying again.
Step 11: Continue to remind yourself that you have done everything you can to make things right and that you are forgiven. It is so easy to fall into the trap of shame and guilt, but it is not helpful to you or anyone else. Continuously rehearing the shame and guilt will actually keep you trapped in the very behaviors you are trying to change and may create even more insecurities and issues. Instead, remind yourself often that you are forgiven, you are loved, you are valuable and your are still in the process of learning and growing. When you catch yourself wallowing in remorse or pity remind yourself that all of that is in the past and that you have decided to move forward.