Forgiving Yourself

Jesus said to him a third time, “Do you love me?’ And Peter said to Him, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” John 21:19

The scene for the verse is a stretch of shoreline on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus had prepared breakfast for the disciples. The time is several days to several weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, and after He had given them the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22) to go out and share His story.

We are also several days to several weeks after Peter denied knowing Jesus. That failure on Peter’s part probably explains his suggestion at the opening of John 21 to go fishing. Instead of catching men, Peter had decided to just stick with catching fish.

Though speculative, I believe Peter simply could not get over the fact that after he had boasted so loudly about his faith and commitment, he had caved in. The voices of self-condemnation were loud and drowned out the words of grace, and one of those voices was his own. The problem was so serious Jesus made another appearance just to give Peter an opportunity to affirm his love for the Lord (three times, one for each denial), and to tell Peter to get back to the business Jesus had called him to in the first place.

Peter needed to hear the words again from Jesus, and I think he needed to say the words of grace to himself.

All of us have an internal recording that plays again and again. These are the words, images, and evaluations we have of ourselves. Whether you realize it or not you are continually telling yourself what you think of you!

Having questioned a great number of people about their internal recordings for many years, I have discovered that a great majority of those recordings are negative. People are constantly down on themselves. A failure in some area (relationships, work, religion) has led these folks to make themselves judge, jury, and jailer. Self-condemnation has imprisoned them.

Are you in that kind of prison this morning? Peter was, but Jesus helped him to be free. He can help you also.

One step out of this prison is to stop accepting the unfair criticism of the least godly around you. Without doubt, a godly critic can provide for some needed correction in your life, but you are probably listening to the wrong people. If your critics are not Christ-like, they did not come from God.  Remember, you will not be liked by some people. If someone feels compelled to tell you, or tell others, how much they dislike you, that is not a “you-problem!” Stop listening to your un-Christ-like critics.

A second step involves dealing with your own real failures. Peter should not have denied Jesus,. but once he did, and once he realized his mistake, he needed to receive forgiveness, learn, and move on. A part of moving on means forgiving yourself.

That phrase is so overused that it has lost some of its necessary meaning. To forgive yourself sounds like you’re making excuses and setting up yourself for the next stumble, and often that is the case. But Peter’s story does alert us to a real need for self-forgiveness.

Your reluctance to forgive yourself arises either from striving for perfection or from striving to please everyone around you. Both motives are plainly unrealistic and deadly. Entering into this negative input loop of constant nit-picking and self-doubt ensures only that you will never be able to punish yourself enough and that you will always remain imprisoned.

Accepting the fact you’re faulty is not an invitation for failure, it is a common-sense approach to allowing God’s grace more deeply into your life. When you fall, do not keep kicking yourself. You confess. You receive. You move on. Failure to do this keeps you in prison. Trust me, God is not the one holding the key. You are, and the door is already open!

Think about this carefully: had Jesus already forgiven Peter before their encounter on the shore? Of course. So why the encounter? I believe Jesus was inviting Peter to join Him in the grace of forgiveness. “Step on out of prison, Peter. The door is unlocked. It always has been.” He is saying the same thing to you.

It’s time for you to step out of prison too and get on with the life God has given you. Speak the words of forgiveness to yourself. God spoke them to you long ago.


Dr. Terry Ellis

August 6, 2011