I’ve gone to confession, but I can’t forgive myself for what I did. How do you get over the feelings of regret, and forget the bad experiences?

As you are realizing, sin often leaves deep wounds in the heart. During this difficult time when you may want nothing more than to move on and feel forgiven, keep the following points in mind. Consider the story of the prodigal son. He returned home to his father and said, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Look at the father’s reaction. He welcomed him with open arms, threw the finest robes on him, put rings on his fingers, and celebrated.

The son stopped moping and accepted the father’s merciful love. He did not sit outside the celebration but allowed his father to rejoice that he had returned. The father’s joy embraced the son. This parable not only tells us of God’s mercy; it also shows us how to accept his forgiveness. We might feel as if our sins make us unworthy to be a child of God, but when we repent the Father looks into our eyes and sees his own life within us. He sees his own Son within us.

Nevertheless, it is true that sexual wounds take time to heal. Be patient and do not beat yourself up. All of us must come to terms with the parts of our past we wish we could erase. We are all sinners, and God’s work of restoring us to wholeness is one that will unfold in time. As he works to heal you, these feelings of remorse are bound to come to the surface.

In some ways, forgiving yourself for your own mistakes is similar to forgiving someone else who has hurt you. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that you do not feel the pain anymore. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.”[1] The pain you feel over your own failures can be transformed in the same way. You actually can use the bad memories and wounds of sin that rush back into your mind as a way to heal the past.

Because the past sometimes hurts, we try to suppress the memories and shove them to a place in our mind where they will stop haunting us. There is a better way. When the hurts of the past weigh upon your heart, take those pains and offer them as a prayer for all who may have been hurt in these past experiences including yourself. When the flashbacks happen, take that as a reminder to offer up a prayer for healing.

In time God will heal the past, and you may think about it less often. Let him work on that. Your task is to accept his forgiveness and to draw close to him. Do not give in to despair, thinking that you are of no use to God because you made some mistakes. Look at Rahab in the Old Testament. She was a prostitute who turned back to God, and Jesus was her descendant. You read that correctly. Jesus’ great, great, great, etc… grandmother had been a prostitute! The gospel of Matthew does not shy away from this, but lists her name in Jesus’ genealogy, when women were not typically included in such lists. Learn from this that your past does not prevent God from using you to accomplish great things for him in the future.

Also realize that God wants to purify you not only for your sake but for the sake of those you will lead to him. The Lord will be able to use you and your past to reach and heal others who are going through the same difficulties that you have been through. You are in a position to reach hearts that no one else could reach. Listen to God’s voice if he calls you to help others in big or small ways in the apostolate of purity. By ministering to others in this way, you will regain a sense of wholeness and peace. You will see for yourself that God can write straight with crooked lines.

It is also good to recognize that living purely in future relationships will begin to heal the past. Relationships can actually be healing, not scarring. To get relationships off in the right direction, be up front with regard to your values, and do not wait for an intimate moment to decide or announce your guidelines.

Finally, remember that forgiveness is not a feeling. Sometimes feelings of consolation are present, but when they are not, we need to trust that God has still forgiven us. His mercy is a free gift from a good God. Hannah Arendt wrote: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.”[2] Thankfully, because of the death and resurrection of Christ, the debt of our sins has been paid, and we are free to call God our Abba, Father. Your worth rests in God, and he loves you.

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[1]. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843.
[2]. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 237.

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