“I Don’t Feel Forgiven”

I’m a Christian. I confess my sins like the Bible says, but I don’t feel forgiven. What should I do?

This is such a common question. Some think their past failures are too great for God to want to forgive them. Others have fallen so many times to the same sin, they’re sure God has given up on them. Still others compare themselves to other Christians who seem so happy and perfect and not messed up like they are, and surmise that God must not have forgiven them or they’d be different.

What can you do when you start to wonder if God has really forgiven you? The key is realizing that feelings follow thoughts, but what we think isn’t always true. Here’s what I mean.

Forgiven in "Return of the Prodigal Son"

A wayward son finds forgiveness and his father’s embrace in “Return of the Prodigal Son” (Rembrandt, circa 1668)

In French 101 in college, I felt sure that my professor didn’t like me … until the day he gave me a French translation of a Peanuts book as a gift because I tried so hard. Till then, I had thought professors liked only the best students, and since I was the only student who had never taken French before and students next to me were doing better, this false belief fed the feeling that he mustn’t like me. When my false belief was proved wrong, my feelings changed and I relaxed in class.

When our feelings contradict reality, we have to teach ourselves truth. Here are five steps you can take to teach yourself the truth about God’s forgiveness.

Teach Yourself 1 John 1:9

First and most important, memorize 1 John 1:9, concentrating on its words so you absorb its meaning:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

Read this verse aloud at least ten times a day to memorize it. Write it on a card or enter it into your cell phone so you can review it often. Think about what it says. How would you feel if God completely cleansed you? He has! So that’s how you should feel now.

Every time you start to feel nagging doubts about being forgiven, quote this verse and thank God for forgiving you: “Thank you, Father, that when I confess my sins, you are faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. I’ve confessed my sins, so thank you that you have forgiven and cleansed me.”

Act Out 1 John 1:9

The more senses we involve when we’re learning something, the better we remember it. Here’s an activity that will help make 1 John 1:9 real to you.

Grab a roll of toilet paper and two pens, one black and one red. Write on the toilet paper in black all the black sins that are bothering you. Tear off the section you’ve written upon and turn it sideways. In red, write out 1 John 1:9 on top of all your sins, imagining it to be like drops of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross for forgiveness of sins. Then flush them! Your sins are gone.

Walk someplace else, kneel, and thank God for washing your sins away.

Repent

Sometimes the reason we don’t feel forgiven is that we haven’t really repented. Repentance doesn’t mean a quick, “I’m sorry”; it means turning away from our sins with the intention of not repeating them, and actually taking steps to block the way back.

For example, Clay and I have known people who have confessed their lusts to God, but they haven’t gotten rid of the porn over which they lusted. That’s not repentance, and without repentance, we won’t have a good conscience.

Take a look at what the Apostle Peter wrote:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 2 Peter 1:5-7

Did you see the words, “make every effort”? God tells us to put effort into adding virtue to our faith. The effort isn’t to achieve salvation or attain forgiveness: it’s so we’ll grow in character. No, we won’t be able to do it without God’s help, but yes, we have a part to play. We get rid of stumbling blocks, we examine whether our lives match God’s instructions, and we think about how to do the things God tells us to do. We pray for God’s help and we do the best we can.

When we live in unrepentant disobedience, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. That can give us the nagging feeling that we’re not forgiven. The answer to this problem is true repentance: turn from disobedience, confess that we’ve been living against God’s will, pray for God’s help, and take steps to change.

Realize that Godliness Increases

In the passage we just looked at, Peter goes on and makes two more important points when it comes to knowing you’re forgiven. Here’s the next:

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:8

These qualities increase as we walk with God. He grows us, but it takes time. Know that God doesn’t expect you to be perfect overnight and take comfort in the fact that these qualities will increase. Be patient—God isn’t finished with you!

Quit Looking at Past Sin

The next verse in this passage is especially important. Read it carefully and take note of what causes us to lack godly qualities:

For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 2 Peter 1:9

Notice here that forgetting you’re forgiven actually causes you to lack the positive character qualities mentioned in verses 5-7, such as “virtue,” “self-control,” “steadfastness,” and “love.” Young Christians often think that if they continually beat themselves up over sin, then they’ll be motivated to do better. But just the opposite is true. When we berate ourselves over past sins, we’re blind to the truth of God’s forgiveness. We need to take our eyes off of our failures and focus them on our God’s love. Why? Because forgetting our past sins are forgiven will keep us from growing these qualities!

Remember you’re forgiven and move on. You’ll gain these qualities in ever increasing amounts.

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. Isaiah 1:18

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