This is a special request blog topic. An aspect of depression and grief that we may tend to overlook or gloss over is forgiveness. There can be a lot of guilt in loss – you blame yourself, you blame someone else for causing your loss, you blame God for allowing the loss to happen, and then you feel guilty for all the finger-pointing you’re doing or the anger you’re feeling. We say silly things like, “You have to forgive yourself,” but how do you really do that? What if you really have done horrible things because you were acting on your emotions? What if you really have damaged other people or relationships because of your words or actions (or lack thereof) when you were depressed? See? Lots of guilt. Not lots of grace.
All of the things we do that are less than perfect are sin. Sin is anything – behavior or attitude or belief – that is unequal to God’s standard, which is perfection. The only human who has ever lived without sin is Jesus. You are not Jesus. I am not Jesus. We have all sinned. That’s the bad news; the good news is that God is always faithful to forgive us when we ask. And when we ask for his forgiveness, he wipes our slate clean – that sin is gone forever, removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalms 103:12). You may feel like the idea of forgiving yourself is completely unlike the forgiveness of sins, but I think we need to see it in the same light.
Read Psalms 32. The first five verses in the NLT are: “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”
I love reading this psalm because of the physical imagery of a body wasting away and groaning all day long. The image is visceral and heavy and painful to imagine, and I have felt that way over unconfessed sin. I have felt that way in depression over every single mistake I made in a given day; I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep because I replayed every word, every step, and judged whether I should have said or done something differently. Whether or not God’s hand of discipline was heavy, mine certainly was. All the time. I’ve described a little bit of my inner voice and how horrible it could be. I judged pretty much everything I said or did to be the wrong thing, and I hated pretty much everything about me all the time – too fat, too out of shape, too angry, too lazy, too loud, too short, too inefficient, too busy, too far behind to ever catch up, bad at mothering, horrible at wifing, ridiculously awful at housekeeping… I couldn’t forgive myself for anything because everything was all my fault.
Now I can see how self-centered that is and how unrealistically hard I was on myself. It only got better with forgiveness and medication. The medicine knocked the edge off the irritability I felt enough to allow me to view my circumstances with less anger and bigger perspective. I can see past myself enough to see God and others more clearly. So I confessed my sins to God, and he forgave me. Then I admitted all of my real shortcomings (I say real to emphasize that some of the things I felt guilty about in depressive episodes were imagined flaws.) to myself, and I decided that if God can clear my record of guilt I must clear myself of guilt. After all, I am not Jesus, and if Jesus decides to forgive me, do I really think I know better than him? Not forgiving myself was an act of rebellion because it was a way of putting myself before God.
It’s not always that simple in practice, but my inner critic is much quieter these days. I try to be nicer to myself and realize that I will never be perfect on earth, but I can always count on God to forgive me. I try not to be so hard on myself and to focus more on what I got right each day than what I got wrong. I don’t let myself off the hook without some examination because I do need to find the roots of my sin and work to bring them in line with the perfection of Christ, but I do admit now that I am human. When I find my self-talk shifting back into guilt mode, I make an effort to stop that train of thought and say something nice to myself instead. And do you know what? I am strong, I am smart, I am kind, I am beautiful, and (most importantly) I am a loved child of God. I feel a hundred pounds lighter knowing that I am forgiven, not because I earned it, but only because God loves me. “Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (Psalms 32:11, NLT)
How about you? What do you need to talk to God about and then let go of to forgive yourself? What guilt do you dwell on? What does your inner critic sound like? Aren’t you ready to shout for joy?