What If I Took a Major Wrong Turn in Life?

A young woman recently wrote to me the following, poignant letter (the letter was anonymous, so I'll just refer to her as "Mary"):


I recently read about St. Faustina's vision of Hell. It terrified me. I, myself, had a vision of Hell that led me to my conversion. I still am terrified of Hell. Recently, I got married, but I have my doubts it was God's will. I did not seek God's will on the matter but pushed forward on to the sacrament. I am worried that I chose this world over God's will and that I am going to Hell for my decision. Should I be concerned about my situation? Or with every doubt, should I simply deny myself and love my husband? I do love him, but even leading up to the marriage I had doubts. I trusted in other's opinions about my marriage decision and not in God.

Well, Mary, it sounds as if you are in a great deal of anguish about this.

First of all, marrying someone rashly, or in a hurry, in most cases is not a mortal sin. It may have been an imprudent way to proceed, and it may not have been God's will at the time. But, at worst, it is a venial and not a mortal sin, and therefore your eternal salvation cannot be in jeopardy over such a thing. The next time you go to confession, just open your heart to the priest and tell him about all this and receive His absolution, by the authority of Jesus Christ. Then even the venial sin will be washed away.

Second, remember that God's mercy is so great He can even "write straight with crooked lines," as the saying goes. Thus, even if it was not His "Plan A" for you to get married recently, He always has a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D up His sleeve, if need be, to make it all come out right, if we will only start to cooperate with Him.

As St. Paul wrote: "All things work together unto good for those who love God" (Rom 8:28). So, perhaps as a married woman, you are now taking part in His Plan B for you. That's OK. The path can still be filled with blessings. Just love the Lord with all your heart, and love your husband as the one He gave to you. I really mean that: "the one He gave to you." Even if it was not His Plan A for you two to get married, you did go through with it; you said your marriage vows to each other freely and with full consent, so God mercifully blessed your marriage with sacramental grace anyway. (Remember that the grace of the sacraments is poured out upon the Church by our merciful Savior ex opera operato, which is a fancy way of saying that when the sacraments are done by the priest with the proper form and intention, then God will always do His part and pour out His promised graces upon us). So lean on that matrimonial grace to love your husband with all your heart. That is the path to holiness for you now.

Finally, Mary, I am not so sure that you were not guided by God in your decision to get married. You say you did not consult Him. But you also say "I trusted in other's opinions about my marriage decision."

The people who offered those opinions: Are they generally wise and good people? If so, how do you know that God was not speaking to you through their good counsel? Sure, it was foolish of you not to consult God directly at the time, but He is a God of merciful love, and He loves you so much He may very well have been trying to get through to you anyway THROUGH THEM. Turning to God for guidance is very important indeed when we have important life decisions to make. But do not think for a minute that God is totally helpless in situations when we fail to turn to Him. He does His best anyway to reach out to us and come to our aid in every way He can, as a Good Shepherd always searching for His lost sheep.

In short, Mary, I think you are far from the dangers of hell here. If you tried to get into hell just on the basis of what you wrote to me, I think the demons down there would probably throw you out, shouting "Go do something really bad if you want to get in here. No half-hearted sinners allowed!"

Mary's predicament, however, is not unique to those who fear they might have married the wrong person. The fact is that all of us can wonder sometimes: What if I made a huge mistake with one (or more) of my biggest life decisions? Maybe I was really supposed to be a doctor and I ended up a real estate agent instead? Or maybe I was supposed to be a female religious caring for the poor and ended up married and the mother of five children instead? Or maybe I went to the wrong college, or entered the wrong profession, or married the wrong person, or practiced contraception and blocked the birth of some kids we were supposed to have ... ? In short, What if I took a major wrong turn in life - maybe from not praying enough and not listening to God enough at the time? Am I just stuck on the road to eternal loss, or at least trapped in a life of earthly unhappiness, with nothing to look forward to at the end of it but a long stint in purgatory for all my foolishness?

Well, there is no question we can make a lot of extra headaches and heartaches for ourselves along life's path by not listening to God for His guidance. There is a reason God wants to guide us along certain paths rather than others: because they are the easiest and quickest ways for us to become the saints that He made us to be. So, we buy ourselves some extra trouble and struggle for sure when we miss those paths.

But all is not lost. Far from it. The Good Shepherd is the world's best expert at finding the lost and bringing them home on His shoulders rejoicing! (see Lk 15: 3-7)

Let me close this column by sharing with you some wise words from a spiritual classic of the 20th century: Dom Eugene Boylan's This Tremendous Lover. Boylan reassures us that in this life we can never definitively and irrevocably lose our way, cutting ourselves off from the path to heaven. God can always find a new path for us no matter how many turnings we may have missed already, if only we are willing to repent and turn to Him with trust. In fact, for those of you who love the children's stories The Chronicles of Narnia, you may recall that this is one of the central messages of the volume in the series entitled The Silver Chair. Two children are called by Aslan, the Great Lion, from our world into the magical world of Narnia to undertake a quest to rescue a kidnapped prince. Aslan gives them four "signs" that they are to follow in order to successfully complete their quest - and they completely botch the first three! Yet, by owning up to their faults, and not losing hope, and remaining faithful to the last sign, they are able to complete the quest in the end. The same is true for us: Our Good Shepherd can always find a new path for us that leads up the mountain of sanctity and peace of heart. All we have to do is turn to Him with trust - now, today - and follow where He leads. I'll let Boylan say the rest:

There is always a great temptation to discouragement and distrust even after our sins have been forgiven. We feel that God still holds our sins against us, that His providence will be less favorable to us in the future, that He no longer trusts us not to offend Him again, and He will be reserved and sparing in His graces. We feel too that no matter how great our progress in the future, the ultimate result will always be spoiled by that unfortunate past. The phantom of what might have been had we always been faithful mocks our efforts, lessens our hopes, and disheartens us. There is a certain height, we imagine, which we might have reached, but which is now impossible.

All that, natural though it may be, is quite wrong. It is based upon a wrong notion of God and is the result of a failure to understand His power and goodness. ... God can always give us the means to make up for lost time. To them that love God, all things work together unto good, writes St. Paul, and St. Augustine would include in "all things" even their sins. It follows then that God can use all things for the good of those who love Him. Even if we conceive of His plan as setting a certain height of holiness for each man, we should also remember that He can lead us to that height from any point we reach in our wanderings. If we lose our way and leave the path He has marked out for us, He can still bring us to the goal by another route. ...
Let us be convinced that no matter what we have lost, what we have ruined, or how far we have wandered into the wilderness from the right path, God can give us back all we have lost or damaged. God can show us a road - or if necessary, build a new road for us - that leads from our present position, whatever it may be, to the heights of sanctity. (Chapters 11 and 17).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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