Chapter 1: When we doubt ourselves
“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.”
Readings from the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures
Feelings of doubt and inner conflict were expressed by many of the psalm writers. They poured out their hearts to God, seeking forgiveness.
LORD, don’t be angry and rebuke me!
Don’t punish me in your anger!
I am worn out, O LORD; have pity on me!
Give me strength; I am completely exhausted and
my whole being is deeply troubled.
King David had plotted to have Uriah the Hittite killed in battle so he could marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, who was already pregnant with David’s child. David tried to hide his sin, but Nathan, the prophet, made it clear that God knew what David had done. David approached God in prayer, seeking God’s forgiveness.
Be merciful to me, O God,
because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy
wipe away my sins!
Remove my sin, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Create a pure heart in me, O God,
and put a new and loyal spirit in me.
Call upon God who is merciful and loving.
Praise the LORD, my soul,
and do not forget how kind he is.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
The LORD is merciful and loving,
slow to become angry and full of
Readings from the New Testament
The apostle Paul, writing in the first century A.D., describes the inner conflict he was experiencing. He concludes by acknowledging God’s love and mercy in being set free from sin and the anguish he was feeling about not always doing the good he intended.
We know that the Law is spiritual;
but I am a mortal, sold as a slave to sin.
I do not understand what I do;
for I don’t do what I would like to do,
but instead I do what I hate.
Since what I do is what I don’t want to do,
this shows that I agree that the Law is right.
So I am not really the one who does this thing;
rather it is the sin that lives in me.
For even though the desire to do good is in me,
I am not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do;
instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do.
Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him.
“Where are you going, Lord?” Simon Peter asked him.
“You cannot follow me now where I am going,” answered Jesus;
“but later you will follow me.”
“Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” asked Peter.
“I am ready to die for you!” Jesus answered,
“Are you really ready to die for me?
I am telling you the truth: before the rooster crows
you will say three times that you do not know me.”
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. That other disciple was well known to the High Priest, so he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, while Peter stayed outside by the gate. Then the other disciple went back out, spoke to the girl at the gate, and brought Peter inside. The girl at the gate said to Peter, “Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man?”
“No, I am not,” answered Peter.
It was cold, so the servants and guards had built a charcoal fire and were standing around it, warming themselves. So Peter went over and stood with them, warming himself.
Peter was still standing there keeping himself warm. So the others said to him, “Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man?”
But Peter denied it. “No, I am not,” he said.
One of the High Priest’s slaves, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, spoke up. “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” he asked.
After Jesus had been raised from death, he appeared to Peter and six other disciples early one morning while they were fishing. Peter learns how much Jesus loves him; Jesus’ three questions counterbalance Peter’s three denials of Jesus.
Jesus appeared once more to his disciples at Lake Tiberias.
This is how it happened. Simon Peter, Thomas
(called the Twin), Nathanael (the one from Cana in Galilee),
the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples of Jesus were
all together. Simon Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.”
“We will come with you,” they told him. So they went out in a boat,
but all that night they did not catch a thing.
As the sun was rising, Jesus stood at the water’s edge,
but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
Then he asked them, “Young men, haven’t you caught anything?”
“Not a thing,” they answered.
He said to them, “Throw your net out on the right side
of the boat, and you will catch some.” So they threw the net out
and could not pull it back in, because they had caught so many fish.
The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”
When Peter heard that it was the Lord, he wrapped
his outer garment around him (for he had taken his cloths off)
and jumped into the water. The other disciples came to shore
in the boat, pulling the net full of fish. They were not very far
from land, about a hundred yards away. When they stepped ashore,
they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it and some bread.
Then Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”
Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore full of big fish,
a hundred and fifty-three in all; even though there were so many,
still the net did not tear. Jesus said to them, “Come and eat.”
None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew
it was the Lord. So Jesus went over, took the bread,
and gave it to them; he did the same with the fish.
This, then, was the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples
after he was raised from death.
After they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John,
do you love me more than these others do?”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my lambs.”
A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, “he answered, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.”
A third time Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time,
“Do you love me?” and so he said to him, “Lord, you know everything;
you know that I love you!”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.”
Claim the promise that you are a beloved child of God.
For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior.
Thoughts for Reflection
- In what way has your expectation of yourself been unrealistic? When you do not live up to your own expectations, how do you feel about yourself? How do you treat yourself?
- Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold others? If so, what has led you to believe that you need to perform so much better than the average person?
- Do your actions indicate that you are seeking to earn God’s forgiveness? What has happened in your life to lead you to believe that God will not accept you just as you are?
- Can you, in this moment, believe that God’s forgiveness for every way you have fallen short of your own expectations?
- Based on God’s free forgiveness for you, are you willing to forgive yourself? If you are not willing to forgive yourself, why not?
Dear God, I want so badly to be a good person, to always do what is right and good. Right now I am confused because what I want to do, I sometimes fail to do. I feel guilty and ashamed when I fall short of my own expectations.
I admit that I have not stopped to ask if you expect me to be perfect. I guess I just expect it of myself. I truly need your help to admit that my greatest failure is my failure to accept your unconditional love for me, as imperfect as I am. Please forgive me for trying too hard to be someone I cannot be. Help me accept myself as a limited person, like everyone else. Help me forgive myself for being less than perfect. Help me dare to let the joy of your love into my life, that I may live and sleep in peace. Amen.