“Pastor Jenkins, thank you for talking with me last week, and for arranging for me to see the chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospital. That chaplain got me into a clinic for a screening the next day. They said that I have PTSD, that’s post traumatic stress disorder. They said that’s why I haven’t been able to sleep, that’s why I’m having nightmares, that’s why I was startled when you touched me on the shoulder and I almost punched you out, that’s why my attention span is so short, and that’s why I seem to be a different person to my family. It explains a lot I didn’t understand. They are giving me some medication that is supposed to help, and I will be going to some groups with people who have the same symptoms. I’m actually looking forward to hearing what they have to say.”
“Henry, I am so glad that you followed up on getting help. I know that it took real courage to ask for help when you have been trained to be self-reliant, to think that everything is up to you. So what would you like to talk with me about today?”
“Well, Pastor, like I said, I am so filled with doubts. I grew up in the church, attended worship, Sunday School and went to membership classes. I thought of myself as a person of faith, someone who could be counted on to do the right thing. Oh, of course I goofed off as a kid, and there was a time I thought I might have gotten my wife pregnant before we got married, but I loved her and wasn’t as conscientious as I should have been. Still, before going into the service, I was able to forgive myself and accept God’s forgiveness when I took some missteps.”
“So what is causing you to doubt yourself now, Henry?”
“Well, it seems like almost everything?”
“When did that start?”
“Almost from the beginning of my enlisting in the service. Basic training wasn’t easy. I guess I had led a pretty sheltered life and some of the guys were doing drugs, sleeping around, and only knew how to talk by swearing. I wanted to fit in, so it was hard to know what was right. But that was the easy part. When I was sent to Iraq on my first tour, and later to Afghanistan, that’s when I really began to doubt myself.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, I saw terrible poverty for one thing. Then people lived by different rules, which was confusing to me. I wasn’t sure where my place was.”
“I could see why that would lead you to doubt yourself and your upbringing.”
“Pastor, that still isn’t the worst part of it. One day I was in a caravan. The vehicle in front of me hit an improvised explosive device and went up in flames. I went into shock from the blast and from what I saw. The VA hospital is going to test me for some traumatic brain injury. Anyway, then I saw one of my best buddies, Jack Rodriguez, on fire. He was trying to get out of the vehicle, but his leg was caught in the wreckage. It was like I was frozen. Then we began taking small arms fire. I was so scared I lost control of my bladder and bowels. But I still remember seeing Jack trying to get free until the gas tank blew up. That’s what bothers me the most. I used to think of myself as someone who would give his life for his buddies, but I froze, I didn’t help him. Ever since then, I have doubted that I am the person that I thought I was.”
“Henry, what you went through was horrible. You faced what no human being should have to face. You are having a very normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. Because you didn’t react in the way you imagined doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that there are times when situations overwhelm our capacity to respond. Sometimes things are out of our control, and we don’t do what we would have liked.”
“It just scares me because I thought I knew myself so well, Pastor, and I didn’t. The image I had of myself was so different than who I actually am.”
“You remind me of the apostle Peter. He was so sure that though everyone else might deny Christ, he would be the faithful one, loyal even up to his own death. Yet, as you remember, he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed even once.”
“Yes, I remember. I guess Peter was kind of naïve as well.”
“We are all naive when it comes to facing life and death situations that we have never had to face before.”
“Pastor, what can I do?”
“Henry, what you are dealing with is difficult. Self-doubt has a way of infecting every aspect of a person’s life. Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter after the resurrection?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“After the resurrection, Jesus approached several disciples who had gone back to fishing. They had fished all night, but had caught nothing. They did not recognize Jesus on the shore. He instructed them to throw their nets to the other side of the boat. When they did, they couldn’t pull the net back in because it was so full of fish. It was then that Peter recognized Jesus and jumped into the water to get to Jesus as fast as possible.
“Jesus fixed bread and fish for them to eat. Then three times he asked Peter if he loved him. Peter responded three times, ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’
“After each response, Jesus told Peter to take care of those whom Jesus loved, his ‘lambs’ and his ‘sheep.’
“Yes, now I remember.”
“Well, my sense, Henry, is that, like you, Peter had plenty of reason to doubt himself. He had denied his best friend, Jesus, three times as Jesus had faced his own death. Peter was not able to respond as he had promised in a life-threatening situation. He must have blamed himself big time. He had boasted to Jesus of his courage, his loyalty, his faithfulness to the end; and yet, under stress, Peter could not live up to his own expectations. Jesus knew Peter’s limitations better than Peter did.
“Yet, what I find so amazingly hopeful is this. Jesus responded to Peter’s less than perfect performance with forgiveness. Peter had tried to go back to his old life of fishing, hoping it would be the same, but it wasn’t – he was coming up with empty nets. To me this means he felt empty inside, because he was blaming himself for the death of his friend, he was doubting that he could ever be of any value to anyone again, and he didn’t feel he deserved to ever have joy in his life again. Yet, there was his friend Jesus standing on the shore calling out to him. It was a call to new life; it was a call to announce Jesus’ forgiveness to Peter. It was an invitation for Peter to forgive himself.
“Of course, Jesus had forgiven him. Jesus had forgiven Peter even before Peter denied him. Jesus was able to accept Peter with his limitations, and now he was calling Peter to forgive himself, to accept himself for the imperfect person he was, to let go of trying to live in a fantasy world in which he could always do the things he’d like to do.
“So, Henry, as I see it, this story is your story, an invitation for you to explore what Jesus might say to you through this and other Scripture passages. I am going to give you an assignment. First, a list of Scriptures. I want you to study them, not just read them. Then I am going to give you a list of questions to answer, and a prayer to pray each day until we meet for our next session. Are you willing to give that a try?”
“Pastor, I need help. I know it. I’m willing to give it a try and then see you for our next appointment.”