PTSD Spirituality: Judas, Peter, and Choosing the Right Path

Guilt corrodes our soul like acid on pink bunny slippers.  PTSD survivors often grapple with guilt. Guilt can lead us to despair and self-destruction.  It often causes us to give up hope, lash out at others, and even kill ourselves.  How do we live with guilt?  How do we get rid of it?  The New Testament narratives of Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter offer us examples of legitimate, self-earned guilt, and how to respond to it (or not). Both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus, what happened next?  Judas sold Jesus out for silver and later flees the Last Supper.  After Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing him three separate times.  One could dicker over whether Judas’ single act of betrayal and Peter’s three distinct denials really equate.  Neither helped Jesus, both felt immense guilt.  Interestingly, Jesus knew each of them would fail in their particular ways.

Judas Despairs and Commits Suicide

There are two equally strong biblical traditions about the suicide of Judas (Matthew 27:3-10, Acts 1:16-20).  The common factor is that he killed himself; probably by hanging (I tend to favor the Matthean tradition where Judas hangs himself as being the earlier).

Let’s take a look at the relevant passage from Matthew 27:3-10 (if you have a moment, take a look at the verses in your Bible.  If you don’t have a Bible, you can find them in many of our finer hotels and motels):

In verse 3, Judas sees the results of his actions and repents.  There are several things of interest here: first, Judas sees the results of his actions: that Jesus is condemned.  Judas then repents.  The Greek word here (metamelytheis) is one that can have meanings of deep regret, repentance, and changing one’s mind. Judas realizes that the outcome of his actions has brought misery and he regrets it.

In verse four Judas makes the statement, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” He says this to the religious leaders and they brush him off. In fact, they say “what is that to us? See to it yourself.”

The response of the religious leaders is a telling one, and unfortunately one that many modern people have also experienced. That is, someone realizes that they’re involved in a great moral dilemma, that they made a bad decision that harms others, and then seek a religious leader to help them sort it out. Many of us, regardless of our level of guilt or victimization, have gone to religious leaders, seeking help, seeking understanding, seeking a way to make sense of what has occurred, and have been brushed off and effectively told, “what is that to us? See to it yourself.”

Being treated this way is not only a disappointment, but a recipe for despair. When we seek help from those who are supposed to be the helpers and they disavow the significance of our suffering and of our confusion we are then propelled to despair as if we’re expelled from a slingshot. It is hardly any surprise that Judas, being rejected by his religious leaders and realizing the depth of his sin, is swallowed by despair and kills himself.

While the story of Judas, his betrayal, and his death have various narrative meanings, it is also narrative about a failure of pastoral care. Those who have set themselves up to be the moral arbiters reneged on their responsibility to a wounded soul. It is almost as if they tied the noose themselves and placed it around his neck.

Judas entered deep despair and it cost him his life.

The Denial of Peter

The denial of Jesus by Peter is told in each of the Gospels. The scene takes place after Jesus is arrested. Yet, even before he was arrested Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him. Traditionally, Peter denied Jesus three times. In fact, when questioned, Peter even went so far as to invoke a curse upon himself if he actually did know Jesus. Jesus had told Peter that before the cock crows in the morning that Peter would deny him. When exactly that happens, both Matthew (26:75) and Luke (22:62) state that Peter “…went out and wept bitterly.” In Mark (14:72) we read that Peter “broke down and wept.”

Peter had a legitimate fear of what the temple guard and the Roman soldiers would have done to him if he had acknowledged openly that he knew Jesus. From time to time one runs into the allegedly pious person who says they would never have denied knowing Jesus and at the same time cast an aspersion on Peter. That is easy talk in 21st-century America when no one is there to torture you for your faith in, or loyalty to, Jesus.

Peter chose to protect himself and denied knowing Jesus in the process. Yet, once the rooster crowed, he knew what he had done and instantly regretted it. All in fact, one can conclude he repented of his three denials. I like the Gospel of Mark on this account: “and he broke down and wept.”

Many of us know what it is like to break down and weep when the gravity of what we have done, or what has been done to us, strikes home.  Sometimes we feel this way because we should have done something when we actually did nothing.

At this point of self-awareness, we know what became of Judas when he repented of what we have done and realized the implications for Jesus: Judas despaired and killed himself.

We don’t get an immediate aftermath scene in Scripture for the actions of Peter. But the next time we encounter Peter’s name it is an interesting occurrence. When the women have discovered the Empty Tomb the angelic being inside tells them to go tell Peter what has happened. When Peter learns of it, he is the first man to actually enter the Empty Tomb. Of the male disciples he is the first to enter Empty Tomb (it is noteworthy to mention that the first human witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus are the women who went to minister to his body). In the world of first century honor-shame conventions, Peter is honored in being the first male to go inside the Empty Tomb.

Later on, Peter is present at the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. And in the early history of the church, the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is one of the leaders of the Christian church.

The point being made is that even though Peter denied Jesus three separate times, Jesus does not deny him. Peter goes on to continue to experience the Risen Lord and lead the first century church. Peter committed one of the most grievous sins known to Christianity, he denied Jesus. Yet in Peter’s actions we see the results of repentance. When the text says he broke down and wept it is an indication of his repentance.

Even though Peter denied Jesus, Jesus did not deny Peter.

Even though our actions may deny God and ourselves, God does not deny us, and neither should we.

Peter and Judas as Two Paradigms of Sin Response

Both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus. The gospel writings indicate each was devastated by what they had done. Both of them pursued very different paths in order to reconcile themselves with their sin. Judas chose self-murder and Peter chose to get on with the building of the church.

Both of these men committed roughly equivalent sins. Yet, the outcomes of the self-realizations of their sin were vastly different. Besides teaching us about early church history these narratives also teach us that regardless of whatever we have done, no matter how guilty we are, that we can be forgiven and go on to build new and better lives. And, if we set our minds to it, we might even be able to help others.

Sin and PTSD-Identity

There are two options when we sin and then realize the damage that we have done to ourselves and others. One option is the path to death and the other option is the path to life. If we are overtaken by the PTSD-Identity then any sin we commit will be magnified in our minds and the PTSD will tell us to give up, to enter despair, to kill ourselves. The PTSD-Identity will want us to think we can never be forgiven. It will want us to think we can never make up for what we have done. It will want us to feel always and fully alienated from each of our relationships. This is because the way of PTSD, is the way of death.

We are right if we think that we can never fully make up for the particular harm that we have caused to others (if I killed somebody I can’t resurrect them). And, it is right to feel regret for my sinful actions. Where possible, there are things we are supposed to do ourselves to try and improve the situation. But, repentance and forgiveness are metaphysical realities that are a blend of what we can do ourselves here on earth and of the grace that God allows healing.

If we recognize the insufficiency of our own efforts to undo the effects of our sin then we can experience God’s grace.

That choice, that recognition, is the path of life.

This path of life, the dependence upon the grace of God, is not one that will make the past unravel and undo all the harm that I have done. But, it is a path that will help me to do good (or at least less harm) in the future. It is a path that will enable me to choose life over death.

Remember the PTSD-Identity wants you to kill yourself in despair. It does not want you reaching out to God and the metaphysical reality of forgiveness here and now. Yet while I cannot undo the actions of the past I can be forgiven them by God. I do not have to enter into a violence and despair cycle that will seek to destroy me and those who care for me.

In the stories of Judas and Peter we see that you can choose life. We see that one can go on to help others. We find an example of how PTSD seeks to make one feel that they can never be forgiven, can never be worthy, can never be healed.  This is why many PTSD sufferers will abuse themselves with alcohol, drugs, or hundred feet, and/or violence.

The same PTSD that killed Judas is the same PTSD that causes us to harm ourselves and those who care for us. Seeking the grace of God is the cure.

We Can Always Turn (or Return) to God

If you feel guilty about something then you need to ask yourself if it is reasonable and honest to feel that guilt.  If it is, then be sure to avoid the self-medication behaviors of the PTSD-Identity. Trying to numb oneself through alcohol, drugs, illicit sex, pornography, and/or reckless behaviors is not the solution. In fact, those behaviors will make the PTSD even worse (oddly, some will self-medicate this way in order to feel alive what others will self-medicate this way to feel numb). This is because these behaviors will reinforce the feelings of worthlessness and despair.  These behaviors lead to death.

If I have legitimately incurred some guilt I need to admit it to myself and to God. I need to know that no matter what I have done, or anything I have failed to do, will cause God to deny my existence. The grace of God, the forgiveness of God, the healing that goes with a healthy and growing relationship with God, is not smaller than the power of any sin I may have committed. Simply put, the love of God is greater than my capacity to sin. This does not give me a free ride to sin, but it does give me a free ride to repent and improve my life.

Remember, your life has value. Do not let the PTSD-Identity lure you into the path of self-destruction through despair.  Take the path of Peter and not the path of Judas.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  1. This has been very intriguing to read. I have been meditating on the impact ones’ response to sin has on the outcome of an individual’s life and am so glad I came across this blog. God bless you and keep you. Lynnelle Harrell, licensed clinical social worker

    • Hello Lynnelle, Thank you! Many of us get knocked down by what is done to us by others, and sometimes we get knocked down by what we have ourselves done. Yet, we always can decide how to respond and which path we will follow when we catch our breath. Semper Pax, Dr. Z