Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. 'I have sinned,' he said, 'for I have betrayed innocent blood.' 'What is that to us?' they replied. 'That's your responsibility.' So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
I want to talk this morning to those of you who may be walking in Judas' steps. Somewhere along the line, you've done something awful. You know you have sinned and feel terribly remorseful. You may have walked with Jesus. But you can't seem to rid yourself of the guilt, no matter how you try to give back to God. You can't shake the voice of the inner Accuser who says, "You made a choice. You cannot undo this. Now it's your responsibility." The sound of condemnation keeps ringing like coins clanging across the floor of your inner temple. You obviously haven't literally hung yourself like Judas did, but you are hung up in other ways.
A man I know killed his best friend when the two were teenagers. It was one of those unthinkable, horrible, tragic accidents. Through wailing tears, he said how sorry he was. Through sobs and gnashing teeth, the family of the other boy accepted his apology and extended the grace of forgiveness to him. God surely did. But after the funeral, everyone behaved as if this was enough. His mom and dad said, in effect: "It happened. You're sorry. It's been forgiven. We will speak no more of it." Fail, flail, forgive, forget. It sounds good. It works for some. But for my friend, it was not enough.
I can't say for sure, but I think this kid needed to process his guilt more than was allowed. He needed to get to the point where he might somehow forgive himself. But they spoke no more of it. As a result, as far as I can tell, this young man tried to make up for what had happened by a life of spectacular and penitential overcompensation. He would not permit himself to make mistakes or truly admit them when he did make them. And he kept on making them. Why? He was a human being. My friend achieved many great things, but his leadership and relationships did not become what they might have been. Many people who wanted to like, love, or follow him, were put off by his recurring unwillingness to truly face his faults and failures, to be an imperfect man living within the grace of God. I think it might have been different, if he'd been able to forgive himself for what happened that day.
When we don't forgive ourselves, it can mutate into the kind of reality-denying overcompensation I've been speaking about. It may display itself in a lingering listlessness or sadness that robs you of the capacity for real joy anymore. It may turn into an unconscious self-loathing that leads to self-sabotaging patterns or self-destructive habits. It may lead you to say, "What the heck, I'm a Judas, so I might as well keep on doing bad." I've seen it lead some people to the end of a rope.
What about you? Is there anything you struggle to forgive in yourself? Have you got a sin of commission or omission you find hard to think about sometimes or that may be hanging you up? If so, let me touch on four steps that may be of help.
Don't forgive too easily
The first step is this: Don't forgive yourself too easily. I know this may sound strange or counter-productive, but forgiving ourselves ought to involve some struggle. Lewis Smedes put it this way: "If forgiving ourselves comes easy, chances are we are only excusing ourselves, ducking blame, and not really forgiving ourselves at all." If you are self-aware enough, conscious of sin enough, concerned about God and others enough, some part of you ought to ache a bit over the remembrance of the wrongs you've done. As Psalm 51:17 says, "broken and contrite heart God will not despise."
I still ache over my failures as a son or father, a husband or a friend, or even my failings as a pastor. I think of the hospital patient I visited when I was a young minister in training. The patient was very depressed after his girlfriend left him and had tried to hurt himself. I was able to help him that day and he asked me to please come again. I promised I would and I meant to do it. But I became distracted and forgot. He left the hospital, stabbed his girlfriend 19 times, and killed himself.
We don't resolve these parts of our stories by taking them lightly. Be very wary of somebody who walks around talking blithely about how they've forgiven themselves. "Oh, I know I drove drunk and ran over your grandmother, but I've forgiven myself." As Lewis Smedes observes, at the end of the day, there are only two parties that have the authority to hand us a "self-forgiveness license"—the person(s) we've injured, and the God who made them and us.
This is why we go to the people we've injured and ask them for forgiveness. It is always easier to forgive ourselves if they have forgiven us first. Sometimes, however, the other party is not willing to forgive or even still available to forgive us. It is in these difficult circumstances that the forgiveness God offers to a broken and contrite heart is something that we have to work to claim for ourselves.
Don't inflate the significance of your sin
In doing this, there is a second principle to remain mindful of. Don't let your pride inflate the significance of your sin. It is true that some people make far too little of their failures, but there are also others who make far too much of their sins and failures. Listen to what one remorseful man wrote in his diary. "I have done nothing. My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something should be the result of my existence beneficial to my own species." Do you know who wrote those words? John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. Was his whole life really a waste? How about the last words spoken by Hugo Grotius: "I have accomplished nothing worthwhile in my life." Well that's true, except for the minor fact that he founded the entire system of modern international law.
Do you see what's going on here? One reading of these words might suggest that these were very humble men. But in actuality, their wailing about their failure was a form of pride. They are upset because in their blind ambition, they had turned out to be merely human beings and not perfect gods. Don't do that yourself. Take your sin seriously, but don't define the value of your whole life by where you failed. Give glory to God for all the myriad ways in which his grace has triumphed in your life and can triumph further.
St. Paul sinned terribly. He had people imprisoned and tortured unjustly. He presided over mob lynchings. He wasted the prime years of his youth walking the wrong path. Yet Paul prayed in Ephesians 3 that all of us would dare to keep seeking "him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Eph. 3:20).
Dare to believe Jesus' words
You know what? I don't think that Judas' greatest sin was stealing from the disciples' common purse, or selling Jesus out to the religious leaders, or being a part of the story that led Jesus to the cross. I know that's his rap, but I think that storyline misses the thrust of the gospels. I think Judas' greatest failure wasn't his decision to betray Jesus; it was his decision not to believe Jesus.
You see, Judas was there when that miserable traitor, Zacchaeus, expressed sorrow over his past and pledged to live differently going forward. "Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost'" (Luke 19:9-10). In other words, "Zacchaeus, you abandoned the Jewish family by becoming a Roman collaborator. You joined Al-Qaeda. But I see your sorrow, your readiness to walk a new way. Welcome back to the family. You are forgiven." I don't think Judas believed it.
Judas was also there when the crowd dragged the woman caught in adultery right in front of Jesus. Judas knew exactly what the law required: This "whore" ought to have the center seat at a rock concert. She ought to be stoned. But Jesus saw her remorse, and said: "I don't condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11). Forgiveness for her, when she'd been caught in the act? I don't think Judas believed it.
Judas was also there when Jesus told that story about the son who humiliated his father before the whole neighborhood, disrespected him, took half his family's money and lost it all. Judas knew exactly what should happen. Kill the kid! But according to Jesus' story, when the Father saw the grief of his son over what he'd done, when he saw his willingness to be a slave if that's what it took to begin again, "The father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found'" (Luke 15:22-24). I don't think Judas believed it.
The key question I suppose is this: Do you believe it? Do you take Jesus at his word? Here's the deal: If Jesus isn't telling the truth about the heart of God, then go ahead and hang yourself. If your perfect record is the only thing that will gain you love and forgiveness, go ahead and find a rope. But if Jesus was right about how outrageous the grace of God is—as his voluntary death on the cross and his victory over the grave proves—then you and I have something to believe in. We have something to live for. We can forgive ourselves and move on. This is the third step you may need to take. Dare to believe Jesus' word.
Commune with other forgiven sinners
It's hard to keep our belief in the outrageous grace of God that Jesus both taught and modeled, isn't it? Even when we hear the truth that we've been forgiven by others or forgiven by God, the voice of the Accuser attacks us at times. This is why, if you want to forgive yourself, the fourth step I'd recommend is to make it a priority to commune with other forgiven sinners.
It seems to me that this is the critical difference between the two most luminous disciples in Jesus' company. Both Judas and Peter were enormously gifted people. Both of them were zealous disciples. Both of them betrayed Jesus profoundly. Yet one became isolated and died alone. But the other remained in the community of other fallen disciples and found the grace he needed to become a new creation altogether.
King Solomon of Israel had some spectacular failures in his life, and he extolled in these words the value of having such partners: "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (Eccl. 4:12).Who are those people who serve as the strands that keep you tied into God's grace? Who are the trustworthy people who know the painful sins of your past, who are honest about their own, and who can help you believe in the redemptive love of God? Whose cord are you a part of?
Live as one forgiven
So based on this story about Judas, here are the takeaways. If you really want to forgive yourself, don't do so too easily. But don't let your insistence on being perfect inflate the significance of your sin. Dare to believe the words of Jesus about God's willingness to forgive a broken and contrite heart. Make sure you commune with other forgiven sinners. And, as we celebrate on every Sunday morning, go out to live as one over whom God, the ultimate authority in this whole Universe, has written this liberating, this new possibility-creating, this life-beginning-again word: "Thou art forgiven!"
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, Illinois.