I had an interesting text conversation with a fallen pastor recently. He fell in the ministry some time ago and is still dealing with a lot of issues. He still has a lot of guilt over his actions. I was sharing with him about the forgiveness of God and he was telling me he has prayed for forgiveness many times.
I had to consider that for a moment. His question cut through so many different layers of me that it really confused me for a moment.
The first layer it hit was my hardened seminary layer. My knee-jerk reaction was, “Forgiveness, in a theological sense, doesn’t feel like anything.” You have to understand my background to get that. I was raised listening to some staunch biblical teaching. It was solid, but there wasn’t a lot of grace in it. Feelings and emotion were acceptable, but only in a black and white world.
But I had to reject that. The whole purpose of my ministry here is that people need forgiveness. In the case of many fallen pastors who have been humbled, they are seeking forgiveness. They are thirsty for it. And when it is finally realized, it feels like nothing else.
The second layer the question hit was the world of the modern church in which we live. It’s not true everywhere, but the modern church is a place that is often devoid of forgiveness. When a church leader, pastor, or member sins, many times, there is often no seeking after restoration for that person in regards to Galatians 6:1.
A local pastor and I had lunch recently and he wanted to clarify with me what I meant about restoration. He was exactly right. The church should seek to reconcile with those who sin. I often use the terms interchangeably. Every church should seek out the fallen Christian actively, to restore them to the path to holiness.
But reconciling one another to fellowship is non-negotiable. But too often, we are quick to throw sinning members and leaders overboard when they commit great sins by isolating them, gossiping about them, or sending them away after they sin. Those who sin may not feel any kind of forgiveness for a while. The lack of reconciliation/restoration by the church or attempt to do so may actually hamper it.
Don’t get me wrong – when someone sins, it is their fault. They bear the responsibility before God. But Scripture is clear that when one among us sins, we are to chase after them. If they are unwilling to listen, then that is to be taken into consideration as well.
The final layer his question hit was the essence of his question – “what does God’s forgiveness feel like?”
I can tell you what it felt like for me. After months and months of running from God and justifying myself, He humbled me. I cast myself before Him and confessed my sin. I was overwhelmed by His presence and His grace like I had never been before.
It was not merely a theological process. It was an amazing and overpowering feeling of being free of the sin that had been upon me. At first, it hurt. It hurt because I had realized as David did in Psalm 51 that ultimately, I had sinned against God and God alone. My sin had been poured out upon Christ at Calvary. The pain that I felt in my confession was difficult, but necessary.
But that emotion was quickly followed by a sweeping away of my pain and a sudden realization of God’s grace toward me. I was undeserving of it, but in total need of it. He was under no compulsion to grant it to me, but He did. And He loved me. Even a pitiful sinner like me.
What did it feel like? Like the greatest thing ever. Like a man who had been starving who had just been invited to the banquet table. Like a man who had gone without water for weeks who had just been allowed to drink from a crystal clear stream that would never end.
I won’t lie to you either. There are days I struggle with guilt from the past. Where my old sin likes to creep up and say, “Hey, you’re still worthless. You’re still a fallen pastor who everyone hates.” There are moments when I listen to that voice in my head and it brings me down. There are days when someone will say, “You never really repented. You are still in your sin.”
But Christ is there to remind me that I am His, that the sin I committed is gone. And because of Him, I have new life. And there is no one left to condemn me.
Ray Carroll is author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World.”