In my last blog, I mentioned how often inmates struggle with forgiving themselves for their failures as a parent. Many times they do not want their child to come visit them while they are in their prison garb sitting on the other side of a divided table. Of all the painful consequences of committing crime, the damage to the family may be the worst of all. I have seen families stay united, strong, and understanding during a parent’s incarceration but most often the separation causes long term difficulties for the spouse and children.
Once when I was doing a devotional reading, I was surprised to discover that the prophet Samuel had his own parenting troubles. It seemed that his sons did not follow in his God-honoring ways and when they were given some authority they used it to cheat the people and pervert the truth. It may have been that Samuel was rarely home as he traveled around judging the nation of Israel. Perhaps he had not been there at key points in his son’s lives when they needed affirmation and a clear role model. As someone who pastored a church for 22 years, I remember how many events in my kid’s lives that I missed because of the responsibilities of the ministry “call”. I was noticeably absent from some of the photos just like that parent who is serving their time in prison.
So there is lots of parental guilt to go around whether you are in prison or being the typical way-too-busy mom or dad. Most parents I have known, including myself, have made mistakes. The hope is that first we can get forgiveness from God for our failures and experience His cleansing from the guilt (1 John 1:9). Then our prayer should be for our hearts to be turned towards our children in a fresh way and for God to turn their hearts towards us (Malachi 4:6). After that we need to rebuild godly loving relationships one step at a time. I’ve seen ex-prisoners do it with their families so I know that it is possible for others with God’s help.
Quite often someone tells me that they have no problem believing that God is willing and has actually forgiven them. The problem is that they cannot forgive themselves for what they have said or done. This sent me on a study in the Scriptures to find the Bible portion about forgiving yourself. There are many references to our need of confessing and seeking God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). There are also many places where the importance of forgiving others is stressed as in the prayer the Lord taught His disciples, “forgive us…as we forgive those that trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). But nowhere can you find a Bible lesson on how to forgive yourself.
This presents quite a challenge to some believers as they struggle to get past the guilt of something that they did especially to a loved one. In the prison setting I often find inmates that cannot forgive themselves for the damage their crimes have caused in the lives of their spouses, children or parents. No matter how many times they are assured that God has forgiven them they just cannot let go of the overwhelming remorse concerning their failure as a parent, spouse, or adult child.
Even though there isn’t a specific Biblical portion about self-forgiveness, God does know that we need it. I believe that is why it says in 1 John 1:9, “…He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I believe that “unrighteousness” covers that awful feeling of guilt and remorse. David said, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness” (Psalm 51:14) expressing the weight of his regret and sorrow over what he had done. God has given us the remedy for self-forgiveness by providing such a thorough forgiveness and cleansing when we fully confess our sin and guilt to Him. As He grants us forgiveness and restores our relationship with Him, we should embrace His cleansing to heal our guilty souls.
One of the greatest promises from God is that He will not remember our sins. Can you imagine what it would be like if He kept every one of our sins in mind? “Oh, there’s that Carter kid again…you know he willfully disobeyed his grandmother when he was only five…he cheated on a history test in fifth grade…he stole a ‘Hot-Rod’ magazine from the pharmacy when he was fourteen…and you can’t imagine how many times he broke the speed limit once he got his driver’s license…and let me tell you what he did as an adult!” God certainly is capable of remembering every sinful thing that we have ever done, but He made a divine decision to put every forgiven sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalms 103 12). God wants us to know that we can approach Him knowing that He has removed our confessed sin to a place where it is forgotten and is giving us a fresh start in our relationship with Him.
Human beings, on the other hand, aren’t so good at forgetting or at least not identifying someone with their worst behavior. I wonder how long it took before people stopped saying “Rahab – the harlot” or Mary Magdalene of always being attached to prostitution. Did Thomas finally become “The Apostle Thomas” and not “doubting Thomas” at some point in his ministry career? And I can think of many others for this list who, like the woman at the well, was forgiven of her sin by God but perhaps still identified with them by her neighbors.
It has been over a year since the Lord took Chuck Colson home. As I read the news articles concerning his death, every one focused on “Watergate felon” Chuck Colson. It was like the last thirty plus years of selfless ministry never happened. Christ will straighten that out as He rewards Chuck for his service, but I want to try harder not to identify my fellow believers according to their worst decisions or behaviors. If God gives fresh starts, I think that I should as well.