“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. “ —Dietrich Bonhoffer

When someone drinks or uses drugs to forget or not remember, it is usually something so traumatic that the memories become intrusive. Often this boils down to things they have seen, things they have done, or things they failed to do. This often means something they feel guilty for. To be fair, we all do or have done things we feel guilty about. Guilt is a universal emotion.

Oftentimes the way forward is to go backward, to convince oneself that what one did, had to be done. A prime example of this is in taking a life. Taking a life goes against our very nature. And so it should, thank God. There are heavy consequences to taking a life. And yet, there are some situations, like combat, that call for this. So, if we go against our human nature, is it any wonder we feel guilty?

Please note that I am not speaking about the rightness or wrongness of the action, but about the feelings engendered. There are often times when the taking of life is substantiated. But, the reality is that there is often a cost. The cost may be guilt. Guilt should be distinguished from shame. In guilt, one is acting, “I have done wrong” (deed) but in shame, one is being acted upon, “I am wrong” (core identity). Many Veterans feel both shame and guilt.

There are instances when it is not about taking a life but about destroying someone’s humanity. To refuse someone their humanity, like desecrating a body, may often be done in a fit of rage, a ‘berserker’ moment. The realization of what was done may have a cost. The cost may be to our moral view of self, to our moral center. This moves beyond guilt to shame.

Both guilt and shame require forgiveness. Often when we speak of forgiveness, we refer to the forgiveness of others. While this is important, another aspect of forgiveness that is often overlooked is that of forgiving God. While purists would state that God can’t be forgiven because He doesn’t sin, I respond that we are dealing with the sufferer’s perception of reality. A person’s perception of reality is reality for that person. So I work within that reality. Someone may get angry and blame God for allowing or causing an event. While not theologically palatable, it is a practical reality. My thought is that if God gave us our emotions honestly, He wants to hear them back honestly. Just admitting that one is mad at God is a way to lessen that anger, and move past it.

For some the harder part of forgiveness is to forgive oneself. Any time someone thinks that God cannot forgive them for what they have done, the result can be devastating. This is often the result of shame, a pain beyond guilt. While not going into detail about what was done, one Veteran suffered guilt, violated and injured his moral center and incurred shame, and rationalized that he deserved the pain as penance for what he had done. In some way, the pain was part of him and how he saw himself. This Veteran said, “Even if God could forgive me, I can’t forgive myself.” I told him, “Your God is too small. You’ve put Him in a box. It’s time to open the box.” I shared with him Scripture verses that spoke about God’s power, as well as His love for us and desire to forgive us if we repent of our sins. After much prayer, he finally came to the point where he realized he had God in a box and was ready to let Him out.

Often I remind my Veterans of the Scripture passage found in Luke 4:18-21 where Jesus begins to read from the scroll of Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” One thing many people do not realize is that they are often in a prison of their own making and they are their own jailers. God has already set them free, if they would just let Him. When they see the reality and consequences of their thinking, many can then change their thought processes. Others, it takes much prayer. 

Scott Jimenez is currently a Department of Veterans Affairs Chaplain working with Veterans struggling with substance abuse and PTSD. He was a Navy Chaplain, often serving Marines. Prior to that, he was an enlisted Marine, then an officer of Marines. Scott's DMin dissertation was on the spiritual effects of combat PTSD.