Rev. Geoffrey Butcher, Priest-in-Charge Trinity Episcopal Church, Russellville

Many years ago I did clinical pastoral care at a state mental hospital. One of the patients I worked with was a woman who spent most of her day curled up on the floor in a catatonic state. She often resisted speaking, but eventual I was able to get her up from the floor and to speak with me. It was a slow process because she was trying to hide herself from her world. In conversation, I discovered that the reason for her withdrawal was shame from the past. She couldn’t forgive herself for the wrongs she had done. Her pain caused her to withdraw from an active life.

Later in my ministry, I met a veteran of the Vietnam War who many years after the war had ended suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He reflected on his years in the military remembering the loading of bombs on to airplanes to be dropped on the enemy. In particular, when he saw Asian or Vietnamese children he thought about the many children he must have killed because of his participation in the bombing. He felt deep guilt that led to lengthy psychiatric care. Eventually, he recovered somewhat, but not completely. It was difficult for him to forgive himself.

From my experience, I have found that some who suffer from serious guilt may eventually believe that God can forgive them but they still can’t forgive themselves. A simple absolution doesn’t free them from the grief they feel. Their sorrow goes so deep that they don’t want to trivialize their guilt by accepting a simple assertion that God forgives them. They need to go through the many stages of grief before they arrive at a place where they can accept themselves…even with a past they wish hadn’t happened.

Judas Iscariot grieved so much for betraying Jesus that he committed suicide. Others in their grief have done the same. We strive to rescue people from this final judgment on themselves by expressing compassion, not more judgment and strive to give them a chance to live again. This may take a long time to accomplish.

And we ourselves have to come to a place where we believe that we are dearly loved by God even in our weakness and failures. The generous love of God may be hard to believe, but Jesus forgave even those who put him to death. There is no end to God’s love for us. God doesn’t say, “I love you, but…” Those who speak about others using the word “but” manage to damage any good said previously about the person by qualifying that person’s worth with a “but.” God’s love, however, doesn’t keep a scorecard. The New Testament is filled with examples of Jesus’ abiding love for sinners and those considered outcasts from society. His ministry was to forgive, to restore, and to give new life. That is our vocation too. As we love others deeply they can begin to forgive themselves and be restored to new life.

The lady I spoke with at the mental hospital improved as she began to accept forgiveness for herself and to respond to love from others.