After a Moral Injury and Repair group, a veteran said to me, “I can’t shake it – I am going to go to hell and there is nothing I can do to stop it but I don’t want it to happen.”
He still felt guilty for something he did as a result of combat many years ago. He shared the details of the event and went on to unpack how he has tried to alleviate his sense of guilt over the years through good practices and prayers of repentance but found no spiritual relief from painful guilty feelings and memories.
Nevertheless, he remained a man of faith and was an active part of a worship community with his family. At times, he considered forfeiting his faith, thinking that it might be related to his sense of guilt. He was confused and didn’t know what to do. He reached out for a spiritual/pastoral perspective.
He consulted with a pastor and then a chaplain because of his faith in God. He sensed that his inner pain was somehow related to his struggle between experience and faith. It made the most sense to him to try to consider his pain with someone who might share important parts of his beliefs.
He had a desperate spiritual intensity about him, and I thought he may be experiencing a Crisis of Faith,1 a time of intense doubt and internal conflict about one’s preconceived beliefs or life decisions. When one feels that the assurance of heaven is in jeopardy, spiritual doubt may occur, and create significant spiritual pain. This can manifest itself as anger and/or fear.
I continued to listen to him. It was observed that he took responsibility for his actions, applied a prayer of repentance to God, continued in his journey of faith and sought to practice that faith authentically.
It was at the end of our second meeting that he reported a spiritual breakthrough.
Because he was operating in an authentic manner according to his beliefs, I had begun to wonder if he was suffering from a sense of regret and not guilt. Guilt occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or violated a moral standard and bear significant responsibility for that violation.“ Regret, on the other hand, is “to feel sad, repentant or disappointed over something that has happened or been done, especially a lost or missed opportunity.”
So, I shared my curiosity with him in the form of a question. “Do you understand the difference between regret and guilt?”
He said, “Not really.”
This veteran with prolonged spiritual pain did not need to change or abandon his faith
Offering the notion of regret as the primary object of confusion afforded him a different angle to look at his problem. As a result, he was able to make peace with God and felt spiritually safe. He smiled and said, “I think that’s it, chaplain. That’s it!”
Some might ask, “If his pain was coming from regret, why didn’t it just go away over time?” We talked about that, and I learned that he was maturing in his faith walk in a way which might not keep pace with his adult circumstances such as combat. His faith was confronted with the complexities of war. It was suggested that he might want to consider studying more about the spiritual concepts of repentance, forgiveness and appropriation; and their application to his life situation.
During this second encounter, “this all came together,” for him, he said.
This veteran with prolonged spiritual pain did not need to change or abandon his faith. Rather, he needed to re-consider the origins of his pain and re-frame his experience within his world view. Together, we were able to reinterpret his pain as an appropriate and validating experience consistent with his world view and faith.
Clinical chaplains, among others, seek to use the insights of mental health sciences in conjunction with religious world views in an effort to address the inner pain of warriors who seek their help.