I was 14 years old when I first watched pornography. I had no idea images could puncture the heart. I didn’t know the poison would linger after Jesus saved my soul. At age 24, by God’s mercy working through the gospel, community, and repentance—again and again—I finally experienced a freedom I never dreamed was possible.
That was 2007. Looking back now, I can see there was a decade when I struggled. I struggled not only to fight temptation but also to believe I was forgiven. Seasons of success made me feel like I stood on a mountaintop, but often I was on the precipice of failure. And when I fell, I earnestly prayed for forgiveness, and I believed God had forgiven me. So why did the pain still linger? Why didn’t I feel forgiven?
Some friends will tell you to “forgive yourself,” as if you’re the warden of your guilt, holding the key to your own freedom. Others correct this advice. They say no word of forgiveness is more decisive than God’s, encouraging you to trust his Word because feelings aren’t facts.
To be comforted by grace, we must locate our grief.
I’ve received both kinds of counsel. And while I agree with the latter, I didn’t know how to “believe more.” I wondered, Why am I so unaffected by this truth? Why can’t I find comfort? I’ve learned that to be comforted by grace, we must locate our grief.
Locating Our Grief
Here’s what I mean: Only when we recognize that we’re feeling grief and are honest about what we believe we’ve lost can we see how God’s grace applies to that sadness.
What are some common places grief is located?
1. Grief for offending God: a loss of intimacy.
Godly sorrow is appropriate when we sin. All our sins are primarily against God, and we ought to grieve when we grieve his Spirit (Eph. 4:29–32). When we cause God grief, we experience a loss of intimacy with him. And even after our communion with God has been restored, we can fear he’ll no longer show warmth toward us. But our comfort when we’ve grieved God is that if we love him, it’s because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We must remember that the Father moved toward us and the Son loved us unto death, not when we were at our best but at our worst (Rom. 5:8).
2. Grief for grace given: a perceived loss of justice.
Godly sorrow, which should be a doorway to his grace, can sometimes become a revolving door of depression. For those with a strong sense of justice, God’s grace can be difficult to receive, and reminders of it may plunge us deeper into despair. Why? It feels unfair to be loved by God when we’re guilty. We’d rather be punished and sit in our sorrow. Those who feel this way need not only the comfort of God’s grace but also the comfort of his justice. In Christ, all our sins have been punished. There was a just judgment of our sins upon the cross. So God is entirely just to forgive us (1 John 1:9). He is both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
3. Grief for grace needed: a loss of perceived strength.
If our grief still lingers after knowing the comfort of God’s grace and justice, it may be that we mourn the death of our self-perception. Our sin as well as God’s justice and grace toward it expose that we’re not as virtuous as we thought, not as strong as we imagined. We’re shell-shocked at what we’re capable of in the face of temptation. Could this be the source of our sorrow—the reality that God always knew our sin but we’ve struggled to admit it until now; the truth that we’re weak, that we need a Savior far more than we imagined?
There are times when what haunts us most is not our sin but our need for grace. But truly the death of our false perception is necessary. We must feel this loss to see ourselves as we really are—broken sinners in need of the Savior.
Locating His Gaze
We’re not the first to overestimate our strength and weep bitterly for it (Matt. 26:75). When Jesus told Peter that he’d deny him three times, Peter assured himself and said, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26:31–35). His relationship with Jesus had begun with an awareness of his need for mercy: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). But somewhere along the way, Peter started to view himself as one who wouldn’t succumb to temptations others would.
We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
So, what comfort is there for us when our inflated sense of self leads us to be sifted like wheat (Luke 22:31)? We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. We may still feel the shock of our sins, but there’s freedom knowing God is not shocked. No, he gazes on us as Jesus looked at Peter. He sees through our pretenses and spiritual bravado. He’s not distracted by our inflated promises. He fixes his eyes on our limits, weaknesses, and sins (Luke 22:61), and then he mercifully determines to show us his grace, strength, and power.
We can rest in the truth that Jesus knows the ones he called. He knows the dimensions and limits of our love. He wants us to know there are no limits to his.
The Gospel Coalition