When I Don’t Feel Forgiven
by Ian Hamilton
The Christian life is a constant battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. If these forces had their way, it would destroy every single one of God’s blood-bought and dearly loved children. But our Lord Jesus assures us that not one of those for whom He shed His precious blood will be lost. Nothing and no one can snatch a Christian, even the weakest Christian, from the strong hands of our omnipotent heavenly Father (John 10:29–30). But this glorious truth does not mean that our Christian lives cannot be disturbed, even deeply disturbed by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
One of the most disturbing experiences a believer can face is losing the felt sense of God’s forgiveness. This desolating experience has touched the lives of many Christians throughout the ages. It can happen “all of a sudden.” In Ephesians 6:16, Paul writes about “the flaming darts of the evil one”—sudden, perhaps unexpected assaults on our standing in Christ. Or it may be that the loss of the felt sense of God’s forgiveness happens slowly over a period of time as we experience sore, unexpected providences.
Whether suddenly or slowly, this is an agonizing experience for any Christian to go through. What are believers to do when they do not feel forgiven?
Root out Sin
First, we must ask ourselves if we are harboring sin in our hearts. Sin natively dulls our hearts and minds to God’s grace in His Son. There may be a good and godly reason why we do not feel our Father’s forgiving love. It may be that our ever-gracious God is removing the sense of our Christ-won comforts from us in order to awaken us to the sin we are refusing to put to death in our members (Rom. 8:13). The words of Psalm 139:23–24 should never be far from our thoughts: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Remember the War
Second, we must remind ourselves that we are engaged in a relentless warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The devil will use every strategy he can devise to rob us of our gospel comforts, turn us in upon ourselves, and so overwhelm us with our circumstances that God seems far off or even heartlessly unconcerned about our sad spiritual state (read Pss. 42–43). The Word of God never hides from us the potential costliness of faithful discipleship. In Isaiah 50, God’s prophet addresses the Messiah’s servants who “walk in darkness and have no light” (v.10). It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be a true believer and yet be so overwhelmed with “darkness” that not even a pinprick of light penetrates the gloom. This, of course, was the experience of the prototypical man of faith, our Savior Jesus Christ. All the lights went out in His life not because He was a disobedient Son but because He was a perfectly obedient Son. The Lord never promises that the life of faith will be a life of unbroken, unsullied communion with Him. The godly life is a natively embattled life, albeit an embattled life punctuated with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
Recall Our Standing
Third, we must recall that our standing in Christ does not rest in anything in us (our feelings) or done by us (our works), but on the finished work of our Savior on the cross and His continuing work at God’s right hand as our Great High Priest. The Christian’s whole comfort lies outside of herself. Perhaps this has nowhere been more memorably expressed than in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
God’s truth and the grace of Christ are not qualified, far less nullified, by our feelings. However we might feel, however desperately wretched we might be, if we have believed in God’s Son and are resting the whole weight of who we are on Him alone, we are the most blessed and privileged of beings in the cosmos, whether we feel it to be so or not. We are loved in Christ with an everlasting love (Rom. 8:37–39). So, “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isa. 50:10).