Breaking the endless cycle of guilt, shame

Published 8:05 am Thursday, September 29, 2016

During our first visit, she began to weep. “I’m so sorry.” For the next hour, I heard a sad story of mistakes, misunderstandings and family disagreements. None of them seemed all that serious, but her speech was tortured with words of guilt and hurt. “Will God ever forgive me?” she asked. We talked of God’s healing comfort and grace and studied the appropriate biblical passages. Finally, we said a prayer together with her asking God for forgiveness. All in all, it was exactly what a pastor should do on a visit. I felt satisfied.

This happened two more times. During each visit, I felt I did exactly what a pastor should do, but after the second visit I felt puzzled; after the third visit, I was concerned and confused.

Why did she continue to torture herself with guilt and bitterness? God forgave her, so why couldn’t she forgive herself?

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Jesus spoke often of forgiveness but he also spoke about reconciliation. He said: “So if you are standing before the altar, offering a sacrifice to God and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there beside the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” (Matthew 5:23-26)

Reconciliation means to settle an argument or make adjustments in a difficult relationship. You cannot reconcile without getting actively involved and making compromises necessary to resolve a particular situation. One reason the woman I was visiting suffered was because she expected God to wave a magic wand of forgiveness over everything without active participation from her.

Armed with newfound knowledge, I prepared to visit her a fourth time. Again, she began to weep and tell her sad story of mistakes and misunderstandings. This time, I interrupted her and began to talk about God’s gift of healing reconciliation. At first, she looked as if I had lost my mind, but didn’t stop me. After a moment, we prayed and I left having no idea what would happen next.   

Months later, during a family gathering, she was given the opportunity to tell her story. It wasn’t easy, but after hours of talking and crying, years of misunderstandings and deep hurts were brought into the open and God’s wonderful grace began to heal a broken and deeply divided family. Reconciliation may be one of the most difficult responsibilities we could ever face but the potential rewards make it all worthwhile.

On a later visit, after a few moments, she began to weep. “I’m so sorry,” but then she laughed. ”So much has changed!” For the next hour, I heard about family get-togethers and exploits of wayward grandchildren. Her speech was more animated and full of life and hope. For another few minutes, we talked about community and church concerns. Finally, we said a prayer together.

All in all, it was exactly what a pastor should do on a visit. I felt enormously thankful.

Rev. Larry E. Davies can be reached at