Charles arrived at the counseling appointment defeated. He could not hide his slumped shoulders or his downcast face. He didn’t look me in the eyes, nor could he wrestle a smile during his typical greeting. Charles sat slowly on the loveseat facing me while looking down and wondered why he kept coming back. He admitted he often feels better when he leaves, but yesterday’s wounds are today’s ghosts. His past sins haunt him and hound him until he feels utterly worthless and undeserving of any good thing. He stated, “I just can’t forgive myself.” Charles was living in self-condemnation, and he had some choices regarding how he would like to resolve his dilemma: Will he accept God’s grace, or will he live in self-condemnation?
If you watch movies, you are probably familiar with alternate endings. Writers and producers develop several endings to a movie to see which one would go over best for the test audience, and then they decide which ending will be released. They hope their final decision will please the audience and everyone will leave the movie entertained and feeling positively.
After listening to Charles for a while, we spent some time in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) to help Charles work through his self-condemnation. We first explored the prodigal son’s decision of repentance and what he wanted to say to his father: “No. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants?" After discussing Charles’s repentance, we explored the father’s response and offering of the ring, robe, and sandals as the full restoration to sonship. Finally, we spent the most time discussing the son’s response to the father. What if the son refused the father’s forgiveness and continued on the path of being the servant and living with the livestock? This is the alternate ending Charles was creating for himself.
Based on this alternate ending, we discussed how the younger son felt undeserving of sonship because of his actions. Though he was right to feel guilt and shame for his actions, his father offered him grace, forgiveness, and complete restoration of a relationship with the father. Still, his refusal to accept his father’s forgiveness and punish himself kept him from experiencing the freedom, rights, and closeness as a son. In fact, as a servant, he would be relationally separate and living in totally separate quarters. The younger son’s insistence in punishing himself for his sins kept him in a place of self-reliance: My sins got me here. My shame keeps me here. My self-inflicted punishment (or self-forgiveness) will pardon me or pay the penalty for my sins.
Charles began to see that he was living the story of the prodigal son, but he created and resided in the alternate ending. He was living as a hired servant, punishing himself for his sins and separating himself from the Father. Charles had to be brought back to the decision of whether to accept the grace offered by the Father (the ring, sandals, and robe) through the Son or continue to live as a self-punishing servant. He had to understand the truth of the gospel he had difficulty applying - That God sent His Son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for his sins (Jn 3:16). He no longer needs to punish or condemn himself (Rom 8:1) but instead has the total freedom (Jn 8:36) as a forgiven child of God. Charles needed to preach this gospel to himself regularly, especially when he experienced guilt and shame from his past. And he needed to verbally declare to himself that his worth is based on Christ alone and not on his actions. By God’s grace, he is declared worthy in the eyes of God.
Charles’s present actions of self-punishment or self-forgiveness couldn’t save him from the guilt and shame brought on by his past actions. Only Christ’s actions on the cross could save him from himself. As Charles focused on God’s favor for him based on God’s love and Christ’s actions alone, he was able to experience the peace and freedom of being an imperfect but grateful son.
Charles is not alone in his struggle with self-condemnation. Past decisions creep into our minds to haunt us and rob us of experiencing the freedom and joy found through Christ. The guilt and shame we carry threaten to condemn us and keep us disconnected from God - being his sons and daughters but only living as servants instead of fully restored children. Let us reject any answer for our guilt and shame found in ourselves and refuse to live in the alternate ending of self-condemnation, but receive and accept the gift of grace and forgiveness through the Son. If the Son sets us free, we are free indeed (Jn 8:36).
- Fred Jacoby, MA
Questions for Reflection: