Roman Catholicism often has a reputation for focusing too much on guilt and shame – things like the sacrament of Reconciliation and acts of penance are all about acknowledging oneself as a sinner and trying to make amends for that. But in my own Catholic upbringing, and continuing into my life as an independent Catholic adult, this was never a central theme that I particularly felt. Certainly I knew when I wasn't being as good a person as I could – the moments when I made fun of people behind their backs, or when I lied to get out of an unpleasant obligation – but what stayed with me in these times was not a feeling of shame, but of hope. The God who had been with me through my life was not a God who valued guilt; instead, I relied on His forgiveness and love to sustain me as I moved forward in my efforts to better myself as a person. Why wallow in shame and regret when I could rejoice in mercy? As I found out, however, there are times when a merciful God can be infinitely more painful and terrifying than a vengeful one.

I used to believe there were some acts that were just unforgivable. All my life, I'd been told this wasn't true – told that God would forgive us anything if we would only come to Him and repent – but still I believed it. Some things were just too awful to be forgiven, I thought, and woe betide the man or woman who could do such things and expect mercy from above.

And then I did one of those so-called "unforgivable" things: I had an affair. My whole world changed. Once there, in that horrible place of shame and self-loathing, everything looked different. I began to see that the world wasn't as straightforward as I used to believe, and that people aren't "good" or "bad" the way I once thought. In fact, I realized, people are people, and circumstances are often surprising and unexpected, and no one is immune to mistakes and bad decisions. Unfortunately, none of this helped me forgive myself; everyone I had hurt or betrayed or ignored forgave me, but I held on to my anger. If they wouldn't punish me, I would do it myself.

So I grabbed a shard of glass, knuckles white, and I pressed it to the soft flesh of my arm. One jagged line at a time, I paid for my sins. Cutting had been a part of my life on and off since high school, but never before had it seemed so necessary to my very survival. Without those cuts lining my skin, I just knew I would drown – the love, compassion, and forgiveness around me would be too much to take. I hid from my friends and quietly hated myself.

But more than anything, I hid from God.

Through all the greatest trials of my life, I had turned to God for strength and comfort. When, at the age of 16, I lost my father to cancer, my faith sustained me in a way that nothing and no one else could. To be suddenly unable to take refuge in that faith scared me and isolated me completely. My friends, with only the best of intentions, asked me if I had prayed about my troubles, if I had "given them up to God." They reminded me that God's grace is limitless, that forgiveness was waiting, that God's love knew no bounds and all I had to do was turn to Him. Not one of them understood that everything they said only made it that much harder for me.

I knew God would love me, forgive me, embrace me if I returned to Him. I had heard the story of the prodigal son, the one who had come home expecting to be punished for his bad behavior, but instead had been welcomed with a large and lavish party. I had sung "Amazing Grace" for years: "I once was lost but now am found." In my heart, I knew what was waiting, and I could not accept it.

The scars across my arms tell the story better than I ever could, how I ran away from the loving God I had heard about my whole life. Every time I cut myself, I hoped I would feel better – this was the punishment I deserved, so at some point, wouldn't my penance be done? After enough cuts, wouldn't I feel I had repaid my debt? Wouldn't I be able to turn back to God again? But actually, each cut only made things worse, because deep down I knew that every time I hurt myself, I hurt God too.

It took a long time, but eventually I realized that running away and denying my mistakes wouldn't work. I was going to have to go to God with the truth and accept the consequences, only this time, I knew there would be no yelling. This time I prepared myself for the love and understanding.

I once heard someone refer to religion as a "crutch" to be used in hard times. And I can understand how, to some, it might seem that the always-loving God of the Christian faith makes a believer's life easy and worry-free. But what I learned was that accepting God's love and mercy takes a greater strength and courage than I ever expected. Putting down the broken glass and letting my arms heal was incredibly hard, but a step in the right direction for a positive and healthy life. And turning back to God, acknowledging that His love had never abandoned me, was also hard, but just as necessary for leaving the self-loathing behind and moving forward towards the future.

Worshipping a merciful God isn't easy when we make our biggest mistakes, but truly believing was never meant to be easy. If, as a Christian, I am meant to be following in the examples of Jesus and his disciples, I should be prepared to walk a challenging path. But it took me 25 years to learn that one of the biggest challenges along the way would be accepting that my God will love me no matter what – even when I fear I might be at my least loveable.
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