Set Free from Self-Condemnation

That thing we said, that thing we did—if only we could take it back.

A memory of sharp words spoken in anger, the night we went along with the crowd, or maybe left the crowd and wish we hadn’t—the haunting of regret can be relentless. We’d love to erase certain things with a simple stroke of a life “undo” key, but we know all too well that words cannot be unsaid and past events cannot be undone.

How can we live well today when we can’t shake the past—even the confessed and forgiven past? We trust that we’ve been forgiven because Christ paid for all our sins when he died on the cross, but the memory isn’t erased, and the effects on us and on those we hurt can linger long.

HAUNTED BY HARSH WORDS

I think, for example, of a long-ago colleague named Amber, who in her teens had given birth to a son she named Jimmy. No father was in the picture, and she’d had to quit school to provide for him. She loved her boy, but she resented him too, first for interrupting and then permanently altering her young life. She was harsh with him at times, even after she regained a bit of freedom when he reached school age. I met Amber about twenty years after Jimmy was born. The day we’d met, I’d inquired about the framed photo of the smiling adolescent on her desk. “Is that your son?”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s an old picture.”
“Oh? How old is he now? Is he still in school?”
“No. He got into drugs.”
“I’m so sorry. I hope he finds the way out of that.”
“He won’t. He got shot during a drug deal, and he’s dead.”

It’s been years since that conversation, but I’ll never forget it. My heart broke for my colleague, but not fully on that particular day. That came some months later during a coffee break with Amber in the lunchroom, when we overheard another colleague express loud dismay about parents who say awful things to their kids. A raised voice filtered above the lunchroom chatter: “Do they not realize they’re shaping their children’s lives by screaming and telling them they’re worthless and stupid?”

Amber was quiet for a moment, and then she looked down and said, “That’s what I did to my son.”

She opened up during the remainder of our coffee break, which is how I learned the details of Jimmy’s birth and short life, and I could see how that day’s lunchroom rant on bad parenting had served as a weapon to beat her already-bruised heart. Although she knew God had forgiven her, she just couldn’t forgive herself.

WHEN LIES BECOME REALITY

What can help women like Amber and any of us who live under a weight of self-condemnation? Some carry that weight not because of what they’ve said or done but because of what others have said and done to them. It’s revealed in the woman who regularly puts herself down:

“I’m such a failure!”
“I’m a terrible friend.”
“I could never get involved in church. I have nothing to offer.”

They’ve come to believe what they’ve been told about themselves, perhaps from a very young age.

I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of women in the sex trade, whether pornography or prostitution, live under an unbearable weight of self-condemnation. But for most of them, that weight began to press long before their bartering sex for money. No little girl says, “I want to be a prostitute when I grow up.” But if she’s sexually abused, she might come to believe that’s all she’s good for. Or if she’s abandoned by her father, the message she gets is that no man could ever really love her. Condemnation turned inward so often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

PANDERING THOUGHTS ABOUT THE PAST

We might also feel condemned when we can’t conquer a besetting sin, or when we fail to measure up to the standards we have set for ourselves. To that end, sometimes we fail to distinguish between real, biblically named sin and that which is self-defined. In other words, we view our personal failures as sin, even when God’s Word doesn’t.

Whether our struggle concerns real sin or the personal failures we define as sin, self-condemnation inhibits us from finding comfort in the gospel. Instead we berate ourselves and become critical and judgmental, not only toward ourselves but toward others too. Such misery is caused not primarily by anything we are doing or failing to do but by our inward curve.

Past sins can dominate our thoughts as we rehearse over and over what we did or said and the hurt we caused. Allowing such thoughts to dominate inhibits us from comprehending how thoroughly the gospel deals with sin and guilt.

FIND REST FOR YOUR SOUL

If we’d only look away from that—away from ourselves altogether—and direct our gaze to Christ in his Word, we’d see that Christ’s sacrifice trumps our sin in every respect. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for any sin of his. He took on himself our sin—yours and mine—and bore the guilt of it so we don’t have to. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Quite frankly, if God has forgiven us, who are we to condemn ourselves? Christ died for all the sin—past, present, and future—of those who are united to him by faith.

In light of that reality, if we have put our faith in his sufficiency for us, why do we still feel condemned? Maybe we are measuring ourselves by a different standard, one not rooted in God’s Word. Scripture is where we learn that failing to reach personal goals isn’t necessarily sinful, but having a perfectionist spirit that demands it is.

“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).


Content taken from Flourish by Lydia Brownback, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Lydia Brownback (MAR, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the author of several books and a speaker at women’s conferences around the world. Her books include the On-the-Go Devotionals for women; Finding God in My Loneliness; and Sing a New Song. Learn more on at lydiabrownback.com.