penance: (n) punishment inflicted on oneself as an outward expression of repentance for wrongdoing. ‘he had done public penance for those hasty words’.
When I first separated from my (now) ex-wife, I was miserable. I wrestled with a sense of guilt and confusion, searching my mind for what I could have done differently to make a better marriage. It wasn’t as if I had shut God out of my life, or the life of my family. Faith, while admittedly mixed with many of my own flaws, was evident in who we were and how we behaved. My mental illness had certainly played a strong role, but even that didn’t seem like an adequate reason. Granted, over 90% of people with bipolar who marry wind up divorced. Yet, I held out hope that God would bless us to be the slim exceptions.
My time alone after I left my family behind was excruciating. I couldn’t get this commanding, condemning voice out of my head that screamed at me that I was all wrong, that I was beyond redemption, that no punishment was too great to bear for what I had done and failed to do. My life became a pitiful mix of seeking some measure of relief, looking for a nod of approval, not from God but from others.
Out of this downward spiral, I became enmeshed in a relationship that was mutually detrimental to our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. In the parlance of pop psychology, you might call this co-dependant. But it was much more malignant than that. Out of a desperate need to fill the void within us, we stripped each other of the shards of our broken selves and rubbed them against our own shattered souls.
Around this time, I stopped going to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I stopped praying. I replaced these spiritual exercises with obsessive behavior that kept me from any form of spiritual self-examination. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t think. Day and night I wallowed around in an undefined mass of shame.
In my desperation, I reached out to a Christian counselor. He was an intern at the church and was just beginning his formal theological training. At first, he seemed intimidated by my “head knowledge” and was reluctant to share the “heart knowledge” within himself I could tell was there.
At some point in one of our sessions, I was going on about what a mess I had made of my life, how I had fallen into a pit of my own making. My counselor motioned for me to pause. Then he raised a question I’ll never forget:
Do you want to pay penance or would you like to receive forgiveness?
I went silent. Tears welled in my eyes. That was it. Exactly. I was trying like hell to pay a penance I could never afford rather than receive the forgiveness Christ freely offered me.
I’d like to say at that moment, I laid all my burdens at the foot of the Cross and went merrily on my way. It hasn’t been that easy. I still had to walk through the dark valley of divorce. I have still had to experience the slings and arrows of a mental illness. I still lay in bed, crying out to God for the strength to face one more day, one more moment.
Yet, there are key differences between when I have tried to pay penance and when I now bear the cross of Christ’s suffering. Penance depletes what little spiritual energy I have. Cross-bearing plugs me into the Source of all life. Penance strips me of the faith that gives me strength. Cross-bearing connects me to the One strong enough to save the world. Penance robs me of hope. Cross-bearing fills me with a life-giving promise.
Are you trying to pay penance or are you ready to receive the forgiveness of Jesus Christ?