We have all felt unforgivable at times. We believe the lies that we are told and absorb the judgment of others, and of our own selves. Prone to sin by nature, we bury ourselves in shame and forget that the mercy of God is so close to us that all we must do is ask for it. But asking is terrifying. Restoration is a journey, and if we push ourselves so far away from God, even if we know He is there and believe in Him, the pain can be excruciating.
One of my close friends is starting to feel the lightness that comes with believing we are forgiven. Her story is painful, and she suffered greatly once she believed she was beyond the reaches of the Church. She knew that God was there, and she has slowly begun the process of restoration. She recently shared her story with me, and I believe it resonates with many of us who accept the false belief that we are not forgivable.
“Rachel” (name changed) grew up in a conservative Catholic family. Whenever she struggled with her feelings, wanted to question the beliefs of the Church, or felt the need for deeper conversations about life, her parents painted a picture in black and white, giving concrete answers to complex questions. They believed because they believed. That was what the Church taught and she needed to accept it. It felt more like memorization than actual understanding, without room for challenges so she could better understand what she believed and why. The given solution to every problem, every time, was to pray harder.
In high school, Rachel felt she had to hide any parts of herself that were not seen as acceptable or perfect. She experienced a continued unwillingness to discuss hard topics, brokenness, and the messiness of life. Because she could not ask the hard questions or feel the validation that comes with understanding and security within herself, she sought solace externally. She developed a sense of shame regarding everything not seen as correct or perfect.
Rachel stopped going to church after high school and moved far away from home at her first available opportunity. She could not participate in a church where she felt like everyone was a follower and where judgment and reminders of her sinfulness overshadowed her. She experienced accusations and suspicions from her family because she was not “towing the family line.”
In her upbringing, Rachel lived with the constant impression that feelings, enjoyment, and everything indulgent was off-limits. She struggled with friendships and began to find brief moments of validation in casual sexual encounters. She was shocked when men found her attractive, as she had struggled with her appearance and believing she was beautiful. Starved for affection, she continued to seek it out. Affirmation and feeling wanted, though fleeting, felt good. Deeper feelings remained buried far below the surface, and keeping secrets became second-nature to her. She was hiding.
Rachel stayed away from any kind of spiritual involvement. She worked as a bartender, continued to have random sex, started drinking more, and lived aimlessly. She strived for happiness but did not know how to find it. After she found a new job away from the bar, she began to feel a small tug toward a life direction and that she was not just flailing anymore. She went back to college, and there she met her first solid friend in many years. No one questioned or criticized her, and for the first time, no one judged her as she shared parts of herself.
She listed the myriad of disagreements she had with church teaching and spoke of her anger and bitterness. Her new friend challenged Rachel to change the narrative: “So you tell me all of these things you do not believe. What DO you believe?” The desire to re-form a spiritual life and to act on her belief in God was slowly reignited. Rachel shares that she never stopped believing in God but that she could not find a way to express it and develop it. There was a void in her life without spirituality, and she felt encouraged to search for herself.
While in college, Rachel was in a relationship that became unstable. Then, she found out she was pregnant. Her boyfriend’s reaction to the news was to take her out drinking. Facing an incredibly difficult situation, not ready to become a mom, scared to tell her family, and with no job and an unsupportive boyfriend, Rachel chose to have an abortion. For many years, Rachel had pushed the church away, but she knew that having an abortion meant that she now had no place. She endured the pain in secret, physically recovered alone, and attempted to continue life as normal. But it stayed with her. That year, she spent the holiday season weeping. She desperately wanted to tell someone. Still, when she broached the subject with family and friends, she received the same answer: abortion was murder, and anyone who participated was a murderer. She hid her grief and shame, and the pain worsened.
She began to drink more. Her next relationship started well, but the goodness did not last. She wanted to be led, but the balance was off, and she relied on her boyfriend for stability because she didn’t trust her own instincts. She doubted her ability to make good decisions, and she was confused. She was repeatedly reminded that she was not good enough. She occasionally went to church, sometimes even a Catholic church. She felt small solace in her belief in God, but she also knew she was banned from Communion due to the “unforgivable.”
After her relationship ended, Rachel’s drinking became worse. It was her way to cope with and bury the grief and pain that had infected her. She desperately needed support from someone, and wanted badly to tell another person so she was no longer bearing this burden alone. After six years she decided to confide in her sister on a spontaneous lunch outing. To her surprise, she received compassion, empathy, mercy, and openness. Relieved, she sat and recalled her experience. There were no judgmental questions, criticisms, or accusations. She had needed and finally found safety, and the weight of her sin eased.
Rachel recently made a decision to start recovery. She knew that the drinking was a coping mechanism that was not working and that she needed deeper healing. Then she decided to go to confession after learning that priests were given the authority to forgive abortions. Confession was the oldest form of healing that she knew, but it was still excruciating to sit in the confessional and listen as the priest used the word “murder.”
The first time she went to Communion after her confession, she cried. She felt lifted, and as she put it, she “thinks she thinks that she is forgiven.” She no longer experiences the heaviness and burden of all of it. With COVID, she has not been physically back into a church building. She still struggles with the judgment she believes she will experience from others if she opens up about her story. She knows there are healing groups for women who have had abortions, but she is not sure she would attend.
Rachel feels closer to God, and for the first time in her life, has a relationship with Jesus. Until now, she felt unworthy of Jesus because of feelings of rejection and shame, but she chooses each day to believe she is forgiven. Being in recovery for alcohol use has helped. As she hears that other women love, rely, and depend on God, she realizes she cannot live this life according to her own will.
She is hopeful. She desires a good relationship and family and finally feels and knows (most of the time!) that she deserves it. She is trying to be the person God wants her to be, knowing that there must be a better way than ours! She is learning the letting go and surrender that comes with a life dependent on God. She now knows that good ways of coping exist, and she is learning them. She is working to build up a support system, of which I am a grateful member.