While was assisting at a retreat healing service, I met a widow in her 70s I’ll call Anne who had recently lost her husband to a sudden fatal stroke. He had been, to that point, in good health fora man his age. Besides her grieving the sudden loss of him, she now found herself full of regret over all her faults, failings, and the personal mistakes she had made during their marriage of almost fifty years. For example, there was so much she now saw in hindsight that she could have done to show him how much he meant to her. During all the years focusing on making a home and raising their family, she now believed that she had so often just taken him for granted and not truly been attentive to him and his needs. Anne could not shake the suspicion that the sudden death of her lifetime sweetheart was somehow a punishment of God for all her neglect of her husband over the many years of their marriage. Anne’s eyes glistened with tears as she told me al’ this.
More people than you might think who experience great pain, such as that in losing a spouse, wonder if that great pain is somehow a punishment of God. While almost no one judges herself or himself as perfect, the vast majority of people judge that they do not deserve a catastrophic punishment such as the deep pain they experience in the death of a spouse. While it is true that everyone should expect painful consequences of one’s poor personal choices, most people judge that the devastating end of their marriage (often with collateral damage to children and other loved ones) is out of proportion to the normal mistakes and poor personal decisions made during any marriage. And rightly so. It is very difficult to understand how the vast majority of people could ever deserve the painful end of their marriage.
First of all, we need to look at the ancient religious belief, found in several religious traditions, in a punishing God. We can see a common belief in human free will crossing many religious traditions including the Jewish and Christian traditions. In fact, in the Jewish and Christian faith traditions, human free will is seen as the essential gift of God to human beings in creation. It is what essentially separates human beings from the rest of creation. Thus, consequences of one’s poor personal choices are not punishments. They are just (sometimes very painful) consequences. What about all the other painful events which are part of human living such as the serious accidental injuries or debilitating illness of oneself or loved ones, or the death of loved ones (not to mention devastating natural disasters) which are not the direct (proportionate) consequence of personal poor choices and decisions?
While there are many stories in the Christian Bible (especially the Old Testament part) which describe an angry and punishing God, our core Christian belief (based on the assurance of Jesus in the Gospels) is that God loves us unconditionally in the face of our personal weakness, brokenness, and even sin. While God may not spare us from the painful consequences of our poor personal choices and decisions, the Abba (Father) God of Jesus does not send us pain out of anger or to punish us or to discipline us! Painful events and life conditions are part of every human life, whether one is virtuous or wicked or anywhere in between. Our Christian belief, again rooted in the assurance of Jesus in the Gospels as well as the letters of Paul to the first Christian communities, is that somehow all human suffering and dying are joined to Jesus’, and that our God is somehow with us (whether one is aware of it or not) in the midst of any (even if somehow deserved) human suffering and dying!
In our conversation, I told Anne that, of course, there is always more that could have been done to strengthen any marriage relationship by either spouse. Marriages are always composed of two imperfect persons who struggle to be in loving relationship and to work together during the years allotted to them. She may judge herself guilty for not doing more for her husband during their marriage. Bur realistic guilt can only be assigned for decisions made calmly knowing full well the consequences. For example, therefore, decisions made in passion such as anger carry less responsibility. I told Anne that, from what she had just told me, she was judging herself guilty in hindsight for mistakes and poor choices made during her marriage. That, I assured her, is unrealistic guilt! She admitted that this idea of realistic and unrealistic guilt was a new one for her, and she needed some time to consider it. We parted after told her of local grief support groups which assisted people in healing as well as in sorting out things such as guilt arising from the marriage relationship as it had been lived out.