Summary: So often we wallow in guilt and shame, long after we have asked Jesus to forgive us. What if we could be free of that for good? Is self-forgiveness biblical? If not, how can I move forward out of my despair? Peter is a case in point.
Can You Forgive Yourself?
Self-forgiveness is the big rage in pop psychology today. I did a quick search on Amazon.com this week, and came up with over 12,000 hits on the subject of self-forgiveness. Yet, the interesting thing is, the Bible has absolutely no mention of it at all! There are no verses telling us we need to forgive ourselves. Sure, there is the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which implies some self-love and self-care. And yet the whole of the biblical message seems to be to deny yourself, to focus on God and others and to practice humility—not by thinking less of yourself, but by thinking of yourself … less.
But don’t we struggle with something like self-forgiveness? We’ve all had those moments when we’ve absolutely cringed over what we said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do. We know we were wrong. We’ve talked to God about it. We’ve admitted it, confessed it, and received God’s forgiveness. And yet sometimes something still lingers on in our conscience, casting blame deep down inside, telling us we are worthless, that we no longer matter to God, that he really hasn’t forgiven us. We know we’re forgiven, but we still punish ourselves. How will we ever find forgiveness?
A Veteran shared with my moral injury group about an unauthorized personal revenge mission prompting him to flee the military for fear of discovery. He turned to forty years of mechanic work to avoid thinking about it, that is, until his recent retirement left him all the time in the world to think. He never lost faith in God but he was certain God had lost faith in him. He knew in his mind that God had forgiven him, but he was having trouble allowing the message to soak into the core of his being.
I’ll suggest to you from Peter’s story that we find our forgiveness—including any notion of self-forgiveness—in God. As we bask in God’s forgiving love, we will be able to let go of those pesky regrets and persistent doubts, and finally accept ourselves again, as creatures who are flawed but still precious in God’s sight.
Today we’re looking at the second half of Peter’s story of betrayal and forgiveness. The story begins right after Jesus’ arrest. Peter follows at a distance and finds himself at the outer courtyard of the Jewish high priest. After all his bravado earlier, with comments like, “I’ll stay with you to the death!”, Peter now finds himself doing exactly what Jesus predicted he would do. When asked if he knows this Jesus who is on trial, Peter takes the safe way out and denies knowing his Lord, not once, not twice, but three times. And then the cock crows, and Peter catches Jesus’ glance from across the courtyard, and Peter remembers. His failure must have overwhelmed him, as he contemplates how he—like Judas—has betrayed his Lord. We don’t see much of Peter in scripture for the next couple of days. He is conspicuously absent at the cross, along with most of the other disciples. Only the Apostle John and Mary the mother of Jesus and some other women stay by Jesus’ side. On Sunday morning, that first Easter, Peter is back, along with John, racing to the tomb after Mary Magdalene announces it empty.
Now fast forward a week later. Jesus has appeared to the disciples, but not to Peter individually. Now Jesus shows up as a stranger on the coastline throwing out some unsolicited advice to expert fishermen. His guidance leads to an enormous catch—John notes it as 153 large fish! John identifies the stranger as Jesus, at which point the always impulsive Peter dives in and swims to shore.
After breakfast Peter and Jesus have a little 1-on-1 where Jesus questions Peter’s devotion to him and Peter answers in the affirmative. William Swartley describes the interchange as “both gut-wrenching and soul-redeeming, a story of God’s graciousness and Jesus’s forgiving love.”
Note how Jesus sets the stage: three denials before, and now three questions of Peter’s love; a charcoal fire in the servant’s area of the High Priest and a charcoal fire on the seashore. Did you know that these two occurrences are the only mentions of a “charcoal fire” in scripture? Do you think Jesus might have been making a point? He has brought Peter right back to the setting of the betrayal, but this time with an important twist: As Peter affirms his love, Jesus challenges him to serve. As we said a few weeks ago, true love acts, true love serves.
The message to Peter is unmistakable: “Not only do I forgive you,” Jesus says, “but I have important work for you to do. The time for pity parties is over. Get off the bench and back in the game!” Jesus restores Peter to his team.