The Search for Inner Peace, Chapter Three: Feeling God’s Forgiveness
There is no use talking about inner peace unless we deal with the issue of guilt. All normal human beings are guilty.
Let me share a couple of letters with you that illustrate the problem. One is from a young woman named Diane, age 22, a beauty contest winner, life-long church member, virgin, and honor student. She writes:
“I am glad to hear a minister confess that he too is searching for the same kind of peace that I don’t have. I have no peace because I am guilty. I don’t know what I’m guilty of—I just have this feeling of being unworthy, like I don’t measure up or something. I have this hole in my soul. I need to hear God say, ‘I love you Diane—I always have, I always will—even though there is not a lot there to love.’ How can I hear that voice?”
The second letter comes from Bob, age 78:
“I’m dying with cancer and will soon meet my maker. On the surface, I appear great. I am respected in the church, my family, and the community. Some would say I am a saint. But I have carried a dark, dark secret for over 50 years. I sexually molested my only daughter when she was a child. It only happened one time, but I have never spoken of it to anyone. To make matters worse, she was killed in an accident at the age of 16 and our secret was buried with her. God help me! At times I have even felt relieved because my sin was covered up. I know I am going to hell. I deserve it, but I still need mercy. If I could only see my daughter one more time and tell her how sorry I am. If I could only have God’s forgiveness. Do you think there’s any hope for someone like me?”
What we have here are two examples of guilt. False guilt and true guilt. Diane hasn’t done anything really bad, but she has been shamed from without—that’s false guilt. Bob hasn’t measured up to what God created him to be—that’s true guilt. But we all experience feelings of guilt, one way or another.
The question is, how can we feel the forgiveness of God? That is a problem that has haunted me all of my life. I think I get a handle on guilt and then it weighs me down again and makes me do all kinds of weird things.
King David—after murder, adultery, and exposure—was struggling with a deep sense of guilt when he prayed the prayer recorded in Psalm 51:1-17. In this great prayer for forgiveness, he models the process of how to deal with guilt. We can summarize this passage by using four simple words: Contrition, Candor, Conversion, and Community. These four words reveal how we can feel God’s forgiveness.
People who experience forgiveness are people who feel bad enough about what they have done to ask for mercy. There can’t be any mercy unless we ask for it, and we can’t ask for it unless we feel the pain of our own errors. David is filled with remorse in his prayer. He says, “My sin is ever before me. I must have been conceived and born in sin. Wherever I turn, the gravity of what I have done is weighing and pressing on my soul.”
There can be no forgiveness until we accept the fact that we have done something wrong, that we are broken, and that we can’t really do anything to correct it. People will tell you that you aren’t supposed to feel bad about yourself. For about 50 years now, we have been telling people, “It is wrong to feel bad about yourself.”
One time I had the privilege of hosting Dr. Carl Menninger, the dean of American psychiatry, while he was in our city for a speaking engagement. As I was driving him to the airport for his departure I said, “Dr. Menninger, I’ve been watching you for the last two days and my life has really been changed. I am thinking about resigning the ministry and going back to school to become a psychiatrist.”
He said, “We have enough of those. I have been watching you for the past few days as well. You keep doing what you are doing because you can give people something that we ‘shrinks’ can never give them.”
“What is that?” I asked.
He said, “You can introduce them to forgiveness.”
“Can’t you do that?” I questioned.
“No,” he answered. “We ‘shrinks’ are so afraid to make people feel guilty enough to ask for mercy that we don’t ever let them get to the place where they can ask for it.”
The first step to forgiveness is contrition—feeling bad enough to ask God for mercy.
King David didn’t say, “I’ve committed a dumb error.” He didn’t say, “I am a victim of bad PR.” He didn’t even say, “God forgive me for committing adultery” or “God forgive me for committing murder.” He said, “God I have sinned against you—only against you.” He went to the root cause of his problem, not the symptoms. He didn’t deal with the results of his problem, he dealt with the root cause—his own sinful condition, the fact that he had decided to break relationship with the God who made him.
We are created for relationship with God and others. We are not fulfilling the purpose for which we were created when we are out of relationship with God. David knew that. He knew he couldn’t do anything about his adultery and murder. He couldn’t rewrite history. The only thing he could do something about was his broken relationship with the Father, so he asked God to restore it.
My friend, Loften Hudson, wrote a book entitled, “Grace Is Not A Blue-eyed Blond.” He has a chapter on sin entitled, “The Big Sins of Little Sinners.” He says that we all know we are sinners, but we usually think we are “little” sinners. We are not big sinners. He describes how Jesus taught about sin. Jesus never said, “This is what sin is.” Instead, He gave us little cameos or video-clips of sin in action…
- …He told about a farmer who had a bumper crop and declared, “Now I’ll sit back and do nothing for the rest of my life.”
- …He told of a man who went up to the temple to pray and said, “Oh God, how grateful I am that I am so righteous. I am not like these other sinful people.”
- …He told the story of a young man who came to his father and said, “I want my inheritance right now—I want out of here! I don’t care who I am hurting. Me, my, I, give me, go!” —and he took off for a far country.
Out of these stories, mammoth sins emerge. We all have them. They are typical of our human condition. One is ingratitude—a denial of our indebtedness. We think that we deserve what we have. We worked hard for it. It’s ours and we are going to keep it because God wants us to have it as a result of our being so good.
Another mammoth sin is stagnation—not living up to our potential—the refusal to blossom, to grow, to unfold. Underlying ingratitude and stagnation is our real problem: Closedness—not giving God access into every area of our lives because we fear that we will lose our life instead of gaining. We let God into some places. We call on Him when we need Him, but we keep Him out of other areas.
These are mammoth sins that affect us all. That is why there is no need for us to point our fingers at other people and moralize. That is why Jesus said, “Do not judge, because you will only be judging yourselves.” We are all in the same boat. The human condition is that we are all broken, except on different subjects.
Often we talk about the symptoms of our problem but we never get to the real causes.
Candor is admitting that we have broken our relationship with God, and that is why our lives have gone to pieces.
The third step to feeling God’s forgiveness is conversion. Forgiveness is experienced by people who change their direction—who convert what they are doing to a different way of doing it. Conversion means taking action. Forgiveness happens to people who change directions.
In his prayer in Psalm 51, King David asks for a whole new way of doing life. Listen to his appeals:
- “God, give me a new heart.” The heart is the seat of all we do. He is saying, “I don’t need a little touch of polish, I need a new heart.”
- He prays, “Give me a new spirit” —a new source of motivation to act.
- He prays, “Give me a new joy” —I’ve forgotten how to enjoy the right things. I’m enjoying all the wrong things.
- “Give me a willingness to obey you,” he prays. David asked for a whole new way of doing life. Forgiveness comes to those who change directions.
The song, Amazing Grace, is a timeless well-known hymn that penetrates the soul of anyone who sings it. When the rock group, Guns and Roses, appeared in a soccer stadium in England, they took up most of the night. Jesse Norman, the great diva, was scheduled to follow them. When she walked out to do her aria, the crowd was still screaming for Guns and Roses. She began by singing quietly, without instrumentation, the hymn Amazing Grace. During the first verse people were shouting, “Give us Guns and Roses.” By the time she got to the second verse, everything was quiet. When she got to the third verse, a few began to sing along with her. When she got to the last verse, the whole stadium stood and joined her.
I read a short biography of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. He was a slave trader who caused a mutiny on his own ship and—some say—threw the captain overboard. He was a slaver trading in human beings. When he was at sea one night, he was caught in a great storm and cried out for God to save him. The ship was spared and Newton became a believer. But he kept trading in slaves. He was actually sitting in a harbor in Africa with a shipload of slaves when he wrote the hymn, “How Sweet The Name of Jesus Sounds.” He was listening to the sounds of whiplashes and human wailing while he wrote it, yet he saw no contradiction in what he was doing.
Later, Newton realized that he couldn’t live in the grace of God and remain a slave trader. It was then that he quit the slave trade, became a minister, and wrote the great hymn, Amazing Grace. Feeling forgiveness requires changing course.
The fourth word that reveals how we can experience God’s forgiveness is community. Forgiveness is experienced by people who create a community of forgiveness. For me, the forgiveness of God alone isn’t enough. I need to be around other people who have been forgiven by God who will forgive me. I need a community of forgiveness.
In his prayer for forgiveness, Kind David declares, “If you forgive me, I will use my tragedy to turn others back to You.” Don’t forget that David’s prayer of forgiveness became a hymn to be sung in worship. His plea was sung every time he went to worship from that day forward. He joined a community of forgiveness. I don’t know of anyone who experiences forgiveness on a conscious level who isn’t involved with a group of forgiving people. That is what the church is all about.
Almost 20 years ago, I set out on an adventure with 60 people when we founded Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas. When we began the church, I asked myself one question: “God, what can we offer people that they can’t get anywhere else?”
We couldn’t offer them a big building, the best music, or the best moral teaching. (If you want good moral teaching, study the eight-fold path of Buddhism.) We couldn’t give the best bible study. I kept asking myself, “What did we have to offer that people couldn’t get anywhere else?”
The answer was the unconditional acceptance of sinners. We call it grace. If you are already together, straight, and just waiting for the train to Heaven, then Riverbend Church is not the place for you. It is a place for broken people who know they are broken. Soon after we founded the church, we went after Baptist drunks. Other churches didn’t want Baptist drunks in their church. Baptists didn’t even admit to each other that they drank. We went after divorced people who had been “wounded and shot” by their own. We went after people who didn’t go anywhere else. We told them, we don’t have a lot to offer except we are broken and in the process of mending—welcome to the fellowship of the broken. We don’t come here to celebrate our sins. We come to celebrate the forgiveness of God.
I had no idea that there was such a hunger out there for grace, but it was there. When people ask “What is the secret of Riverbend’s growth,” I answer: “Getting people to accept God’s acceptance of them.”
You see, most of us have a subtle kind of pride. We think our sins are too bad for God to forgive them. We think we are more than average, garden-variety sinners. So we refuse to accept God’s forgiveness and continue to wallow in our guilt. We humans have a way of turning every good thing into a bad thing—even God’s grace. It seldom occurs to us that to refuse to forgive ourselves is to refuse to forgive one whom God has forgiven. God help us!
How do we experience the forgiveness of God?
- Contrition: We must feel bad about our brokenness.
- Candor: We must be honest about what is really wrong—we have chosen to be separated from God.
- Conversion: We must change the way we are doing life.
- Community: We must create and be part of a community of forgiveness.
My highest hope for you is that you would experience the forgiveness of God. If you can’t, it is not God’s fault. If you can’t experience it, it is not because God is not trying to forgive you. It is because you are not following the process of letting Him.
No matter what you are doing or what you have done, allow God to come into your life and cleanse you of the real problem—your separation from Him. Become a new person by accepting God’s unconditional acceptance.
It is the only way you will ever experience true inner peace.
- This series of Posts is based upon Dr. Gerald Mann’s book The Search for Inner Peace. The author and the MakeTrix have received the permission of Gerald Mann’s wife, Sandy Mann, to use the contents of his wonderful masterpiece in this series of articles. We are honored and humbled and wish to thank her for her generosity. This series is of course, and as always, provided free at no cost to the reader.
- Dr. Gerald Mann, The Search for Inner Peace (Austin, TX: Gerald Mann Ministries, 1999), pp. 35-49. ISBN: 0-9678502-0-7, Out-of-Print.
- For more information, read our previous posts:
Introduction: The Search for Inner Peace
Chapter 1: Challenging Our Illusions
Chapter 2: Accepting the Truth About God