The problem you describe is one that has come up many times in the sacrament of confession. Sometimes people deeply regret a past sin or sinful period in their lives and they question whether or not God has forgiven them. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this struggle. Many saints experienced the same temptation to doubt God’s forgiveness.
So how do we know God forgives us? Because He promises that He will and God is always faithful to His promises. There are hundreds of Scripture passages that attest to this. For the sake of brevity, I’ll offer three. In Isaiah 43:25, the Lord says, “It is I who wipe out, for my sake, your offenses; your sins I will remember no more.” The First Epistle of John states, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Finally, we have the famous quote from the Gospel of John: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). These and other passages reassure us that God forgives our sins and, what’s more, He ardently desires to forgive us. God’s forgiveness is never reluctant. It was for that very reason that Christ came among us.
For people struggling to accept this, often the problem comes down to their image of God. They know on a cognitive level that God promises to forgive. But if they grew up in a home where love was given or withheld based on good behavior, or if they were taught that God is an ill-tempered judge, then they will need to work on attaining a healthier image of God. That doesn’t always come easily and may require the help of a spiritual director or counselor. Certainly the support of a loving faith community can be a great source of healing.
Lastly, a failure to forgive oneself for a past sin can undermine trust in God’s forgiveness. None of us is perfect, and we all have serious sins in our past. That’s part of our story, but only part of it. God sees beyond our sins and loves us for who we really are: His beloved sons and daughters. The whole of salvation history is based on God’s desire to claim us for Himself. The more we can accept His unconditional love, the more we will be able to forgive both ourselves and each other.
Father Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.