Forgiving Ourselves

My ninth grade English teacher was a woman who had a passion for the written word.  Few students appreciated her attempts at making good grammarians and writers of us.  Usually she dealt more with discipline than she did with nouns and adverbs.

Color rushed to my cheeks the day Miss Williams caught me cheating.  I knew cheating was wrong, and I would have never copied someone else’s work.  Even so, it was hard for me to say no when Amy (name changed), the girl who sat behind me, sometimes asked for my “help” when she didn’t finish her homework.  Miss Williams had never caught us before, but one afternoon, she found my paper sitting on the wrong desk.

“Why does she have your paper?” she asked me.

I mumbled some reply, knowing there was no answer or excuse good enough to improve our now dire circumstances.  She took both of us to the hall, away from the staring eyes of our classmates, and she lectured us on the wrongness of cheating and the consequences of those actions.

For the first offense, she did not send us to the principal for further lecturing and punishment, but the next time, she warned us, would be different.

We returned to the classroom with down-turned eyes and zeros on the assignment.  Not only was I embarrassed, but I was angry with Amy for asking me to cheat and myself for allowing her to.

I doubted that I would ever redeem myself, and even now, years later, I feel embarrassed and guilty when I think of my cowardice.

 In spite of this, Miss Williams still saw something that she liked in me.  On the last day of school that year, she asked to speak with me.  Still feeling the sting of that afternoon many weeks earlier, I met her just before I left the building, more than a little nervous.  She presented me a decoratively bound book filled with blank pages.

“A teacher gave me a book like this once,” she said.  “It opened doors for me in my writing.  I hope it does for you as well.”

I spoke a soft, humbled thank you.  She smiled and turned to go.  I left school that year with a lesson learned that was unrelated to the English she prodded us with each day in class.

Ephesians 1:7-8 says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (NASB).  Jesus’ death offers us forgiveness, but sometimes we are unwilling to forgive ourselves for the things that God has already forgiven us of.  We continue to bludgeon ourselves because of the personal guilt we feel over our sins, and we forget that those sins, as bad as they were, have been erased from our tally sheet.

Micah praised God for His forgiveness in his book.  “Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (7:18-19).  God wants to forgive us!  He wants to show mercy and remove our sins far from us, even to the depths of the sea.  The gospels are full of people who Jesus showed forgiveness.  One of those stories is found in the book of John.

John 8:1-11 offers a picture of Jesus’ forgiveness.  The Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman whom they caught in adultery.  The Pharisees were hoping to bookend Jesus between two bad choices.  If He said to forgive the woman, it would have gone against the Jewish law written in scripture.  If He approved of stoning her, which was illegal according to the Roman rule they were living under, He would have found Himself in another kind of trouble with the Roman government.

But the Pharisees still did not understand who it was they were up against – God incarnate.  They were no match for Him.  Jesus answered the Pharisees with a statement that turned their trap over on top of them.

“If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

After a moment, the Pharisees, beginning with the older men, walked away because they knew that Jesus had bested them once again.

Even though Jesus put a stop to this attempted entrapment, He also knew that the woman was indeed guilty and had sin that needed dealing with.

“Woman, where are they?” He asked her.  “Has no one condemned you?”

She saw that those who had, just moments before, surrounded her as an angry mob were no longer there.

“No one, sir,” she said to Jesus.

Then Jesus said the sweetest words the woman had likely ever heard:  “Then neither do I condemn you.”  Jesus said to her, “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”  Jesus prevented the Pharisees from enacting punishment for the sin she had committed, and He, the only one who could punish her, forgave her.

We don’t know for certain what the rest of this woman’s life looked like, but we would hope that she took the gift Jesus gave her and went on to live a life that followed after God.  Jesus offered her a fresh start, but what if, instead, she decided to wallow in the sin she had committed?  She could consider herself already damaged by her sin and continue in the life she had been leading.  She could follow after Jesus, begging Him to punish her for her sin.  She could chase after the Pharisees, who had been so eager to punish her, and cry out to them for her own stoning.  After all, this is what the Jewish law said her sin deserved.  What did she do with the forgiveness Jesus gave to her?

When we become Christians, Jesus forgives us of all our sins, but sometimes we still hold those things against ourselves, not letting Jesus give us the freedom that He wants to offer us.  He doesn’t want us to carry around the baggage of the sin that He has already forgiven.

Just as Jesus does for all of us, my English teacher put aside my infraction, and instead of holding my sin against me, she gave me a gift.  That gift was more than just a stack of bound paper.  It was a gift of encouragement of my desire to write, and even more importantly, it was a gift of a lesson in forgiveness.

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One Response to Forgiving Ourselves

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