…. I'll spare you the details, but I feel very bad about the way I treated my wife while we were together. Looking back I can see that I didn’t treat her properly. I don’t mean physically but emotionally. I got into the way of being short and sulky with her. No one should have to live with that. And in the end she couldn’t of course. I feel like Judas. My sister hinted that to me last year. I asked her why she didn’t try to be a go-between, and she said it was better for [.…] to be away from me. There's no way back, I know that. But I'm trying to live with myself now and it’s way harder than I thought it would be. I have a lot of guilt. Any thoughts? Frank
I'm sorry to hear that your marriage didn’t work out. Guilt is a beast with a big appetite and it will devour you if you don’t pay close attention to how it works.
The first thing I noticed in your letter is that you had no word of blame for your wife. That is a wonderful positive thing. Many people are tempted to project their guilt onto someone else – even onto a perfectly innocent person – for the good reason that it is a hard thing to carry by oneself. You haven't done this, so you have a good start; you are able to get an undistorted view of your guilt.
Secondly, you are not a sociopath. Sociopaths never feel guilt or shame, or the least degree of empathy. So take a moment to appreciate your guilt! It proves you are a normal human being. That is a second positive.
In itself guilt is a good thing – just as pain, in itself, is a good thing. They are like red lights that tell us that something is wrong. I saw a programme about a child who suffered from CIPA, a hereditary condition that left him unable to feel pain. Far from being a happy condition, it was an appalling one: it left him constantly vulnerable to great injury…. Similarly twinges of guilt are not a bad thing.
This is different from wallowing in guilt. After the initial twinge, guilt is good for nothing but wallowing in. When people wallow in guilt for any length of time, they have to find a way out. The usual routes are denial or projection or flight into anything that will help them forget. All these are dead ends. So what to do?
Forgive yourself? That's a piece of advice you often hear, but I can't see that it makes any sense. Forgiveness is something you receive from another. You can no more forgive yourself than you can lift yourself up by your bootstraps. Self-forgiveness is a cheque that bounces.
Ask forgiveness of your wife. You said there is no way back for you. You can acknowledge that to her and still ask for her forgiveness. Do it any way you can: in person would be the best, if you can do that. If not, then a letter or a phone-call (not an email or a text message!). If she ignores your apology or refuses forgiveness, that is her issue, and when the time is right she may come to look at it. But you will have done your part – just as if she had forgiven you. You didn’t say whether there were children in the marriage. If so, ask forgiveness of them too, one by one.
Ask forgiveness of God. No half-measures. God is the ultimate source of healing and forgiveness. Just look at the gospels. You said you felt like Judas. Judas was an interesting case. Let’s look at him.
He betrayed Jesus. So did Peter (Peter swore that he didn’t even know him). But Peter waited, and was forgiven. Judas couldn’t wait, and committed suicide. Someone said there are two kind of repentance: ice broken and ice melted. Judas was ice broken. Ice takes time to melt, but Judas couldn’t take time. Peter waited. Peter betrayed Jesus out of cowardice. But why did Judas betray him? John said it was for money (John 12:6), but it is hard to see this. If money was his motive, he should have been happy, because he had the thirty pieces of silver in his pocket. It doesn't explain his suicide. Someone suggested a more complex explanation of the actions of a complex man. Judas attempted to manipulate Jesus: to force him to act by betraying him to the authorities, fully expecting that Jesus would triumph. But when he did nothing and was going to face crucifixion Judas flung away the thirty pieces of silver and hanged himself in despair.
I have a certain feeling for Judas: he followed Jesus for three years, while many fell away. He has been preaching the Gospel down through the ages – in a back-to-front kind of way, showing us how not to react, how not to be manipulative, how not to live the Gospel. There must be a good reason for the fact that he turns up in the Liturgy every day of Holy Week, while most of the others do not. He would have been forgiven too if he had waited. What he shows us is that there is no limit to God's forgiveness, except the limit that we place on it ourselves. If there’s no hope for Judas there’s no hope for any of us.
Take heart, Frank. God can make something great out of the worst that we can do. Don’t trap yourself in guilt, as Judas did. Just wait, with the full knowledge of forgiveness – and know that it is coming your way, unless you refuse it.