Forgiving Ourselves and Others

The Bible is full of poetry, and poetry is more than a matter of words. It is the whole way of seeing and grasping life.[i] The largest collection of poetry in the Bible is the Book of Psalms. The Psalms are understood as having their deepest and most genuine spiritual meaning in terms of Christ and His mission of eternal salvation.[ii]

For those of you who follow the Lectionary reading chart, you will notice that there is a psalm given each week in response to the Old Testament reading. Today’s Psalm is #130 (page 500 in your pew Bibles). You are most welcome to go there and follow along as I read through the Psalm.

In pairing this psalm with David’s response to his son’s death, we are given insight of a serious issue – the issue of forgiving ourselves. We are often taught the virtue of forgiving others. However, it is often overlooked that to forgive others, you must also forgive yourself. Psalm 130 explores that journey.

I was counselling someone who gave me permission to tell this story whenever I felt it could help. Of course, the name, time, and place are kept in confidence.

Years ago, when this person was a little boy of just eight years old, he lost his best friend to Leukaemia. They had done everything together. He told me of how he wanted to find another friend but the others at school all seemed to have their own clicks and gangs.

Wanting to fit in somewhere, he noticed that much of the school picked on one little frail girl. They loved to pick on her because of her reaction. She was like a cat that jumped at every little sound. In his little mind, he reasoned that if picked on her as well, then others would like him.

One day on the bus ride from school, the boys began to harass the little girl. Wanting to be accepted by the gang, our little boy of 8 reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocketknife. He showed it the little girl who reacted hysterically, thinking her life was in danger.

Our little friend was horrified. Her interpretation of the incident was not what he wanted. All the boys around thought it funny and encouraged him to be flash the knife again. But he buried the knife into his pocket and deep down knew she deserved an apology. The bus stopped; she got off; and a self-talk began that would go on for more than 30 years.

The difficulty, you see, is that the little girl died soon after from a freak accident. Now our young friend lost 2 classmates. He was devastated – especially when he realised he would never be able to apologise to the girl for his actions.

I encouraged that person to seek professional therapy. He worked through 30 years of self-talk and realised that he had never forgiven himself for that childhood incident. His actions were not excusable, but they were understandable. He was finally able to move forward with his life because he processed the past and took responsibility for his future.

I tell this true story because I feel it represents what is going on with David at the time he learned of Absalom’s death. Just like the little boy, King David had not yet fully processed his failure with Bathsheba.

Psalm 130 helps us as a Church Family, to admit our struggles, recognise the pain in waiting for redemption, and move in victory with the hope of God’s promises

Our Struggle

Let us begin looking at our struggle in verses 1 and 2.

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
     Lord, hear my voice!
2 Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

David’s change of heart after the Bathsheba affair reveals itself in this week’s reading. He was willing to forgive a seditious son that overthrew the kingdom through subtly. He was willing to extend mercy for an act normally punishable by death.

The psalm pairs nicely with the story. It plays off the delicate theme that David was struggling to forgive himself. You can almost imagine the internal conversation plaguing the great king.

“Why did I not stop Absalom when he was at the gates turning the hearts of people against me? He was worthy of death when he murdered his own brother! But how could I hold him accountable? I was guilty of murdering one of my best brothers in arms? I am not worthy to execute judgement against my own son.

“Whoa is me! I repented of my sin with Bathsheba. I have learned to forgive others. I was willing to forgive Absalom, my own son who led this civil war against me! But alas, he is dead – and it is my fault. How do I live with myself?”

Let’s not be too hard on David. His life is a rich record of human reality. His ability to convey emotions beyond the words he penned still speak to us thousands of years later. When we hurt, we cry out to God from the depths of our being. And so, the psalmist continues to articulate our struggle in verses 3-4:

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

We beg for God to listen. Appealing for divine mercy, we beg for God’s acceptance. How often, however, are we willing to embrace that love for ourselves?

Forgiving ourselves is key to forgiving others and being able to love them as we seek to be a visible sign of God’s presence in Papatoetoe amid its mosques, temples, and diverse cultures.

There is forgiveness from God. It is designed so that we do not individualise the harm that has been done. David finally learned how God’s forgiveness empowered him to take responsibility for his actions and move forward, breaking the cycles of despair.

Church family, we are human, and we have not always gotten it right. Every Sunday is a new beginning. No matter what has happened in St Johns the week prior, we move forward with God’s forgiveness. The purpose of that forgiveness is to revere God. That is because the fundamental purpose of the church is to bring glory to God.[iii] In all that we do: our worship services, our community activities, our youth ministries – it is all done to bring God glory.

We are not here to promote the glory of St Johns. We are not here to promote the glory of St Johns’ ministers. We are not here to promote the glory of member’s accomplishments. We are here to give God glory and that is possible because of God’s forgiveness.

God has forgiven you. Have you forgiven yourself?

Our Waiting

Let us now return to the Psalm and see our waiting for God’s redemption in verses 5-6.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

Through times of grief, we wait for the Lord. Through times of uncertainty, we wait for the Lord. That is who we are. We are Christians. We are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And our soul waits for God to restore our joy when we lose it through our own stupidity.

We wait on God to give God glory. That is not because God is some egotistical being like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. God is not so arrogant God think’s only about God’s Self. That egotistical being does not exist in Scripture. The God of the Bible is triune. The inner dynamic of the triune God is love – the relationship shared between Father and Son which is the Holy Spirit.[iv]

God’s goal for humanity is that we reflect God’s nature. The Church was established to glorify God’s triune nature. God brought to Papatoetoe a community of love and covenant people.

Our reading earlier from the book of Ephesians straightforwardly addresses issues of relationships. Forgiveness is a key formula to the Church’s success. Being willing to take responsibility for our own actions individually and collectively is imperative. That includes forgiving ourselves as well as others.

Our Hope

And now let us move to the final verses in Psalm 130 to see our hope.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is the stabilising balance between “beating ourselves up” and arrogantly ignoring the effects of our behaviour. His words are life-giving and fulfilling. We can survive inappropriate behaviour when we feast on God’s words. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. You will be led to Life’s fulfilment and purpose.

We worship our faith amid other faiths. In the Middle East, where some of those faiths are more dominate, we see more clearly the differences in our faiths. They embrace a religion where forgiveness is considered a moral weakness. By that I mean they don’t just mean a failure to keep a more law but a deficiency in the implicit moral code itself.

The main moral standard for the main participants in the Middle East conflict is justice. To forgive people, they will say, means going soft on justice, by which they mean the full recompense and punishment which both sides believe they are owed because of atrocities committed by the other. It’s not just that they don’t want to forgive or that they find it difficult. They believe passionately that it would be immoral, totally wrong. It would belittle the evil that has been done.[v]

I fear this attitude is becoming more prevalent in Western society. The cancel culture moving into New Zealand promotes justice as the moral standard.

When we refuse to forgive ourselves let alone others, we are not practicing the Christian faith. We are practicing a different faith. The Christian faith promotes humility as a virtue. The Bible elevates humility, exemplified by Jesus’ humble obedience to the will of his Father, as the human ideal.[vi]

As a people united together for worship, God calls St Johns to exemplify love and forgiveness in the midst of brokenness. We exist in love and as such reflect what God is like. We reflect God’s love when we forgive – both when we forgive ourselves and when we forgive others.

When there is a mutual commitment to our shared vision, there is love. Our success begins with loving ourselves and embracing the values we have. By doing that we love others in the community. Our mutual love submits to something greater than ourselves. Loving ourselves enough to forgive, once God has forgiven, is the foundation for loving others and creating momentum for our cause.

I close with a curious observation about the reformation translation of two verses in the psalms. They seem to indicate David finally embraced the truths we have spoken about today.

  • Psalm 22:20        Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
  • Psalm 35:17        Lord, how long wilt thou look on? rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions.

In both places, the soul is called “my darling”. Do you love yourself enough to forgive yourself where God already has done so?

Prayer of Application[vii]

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.
Set us free from the past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.


[i] Cadorette, C; Giblin, M; Legge, M; & Synder M; Liberation Theology an Introductory Reader, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992 (fourth page of Preliminary Observations)

[ii] https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/old-testament/psalms

[iii] Grenz, Stanley J; Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994, p.488.

[iv] Grenz, 489.

[v] Taken from Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright Copyright (c) 2006, p.156, by N.T. Wright. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

[vi] Grenz, 489.

[vii] Book of Common Worship, PC(USA), Prayers of Confession #1, p.57

Published by St Johns Papatoetoe

Presbyterian Church, Hunters Corner, Papatoetoe, Auckland, New Zealand belonging to Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ).

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