God’s forgiveness is staggering. I am constantly amazed at the number of Bible verses that touch on grace and forgiveness. Forgiveness goes against our human nature, but it is an essential characteristic of our loving God. And His desire is to impart this to us as well. Since God’s forgiveness is so strong and powerful, we see how forgiveness can transform our human relationships as well, releasing them from a prison of resentment, bitterness, and anger. There is no doubt about it: Without forgiveness in a marriage, the relationship will flounder. But with forgiveness, we can find intimacy and freedom even in the midst of our brokenness. Some of the finest marriages I know have experienced the lowest of lows and climbed back to A.W.E. because of the power of forgiveness.
Research shows that many marriages are destroyed by the resentment that builds up when couples hurt each other. The problem is, all couples hurt each other in one way or another. Some couples are able to get beyond the pain from put-downs, affairs, forgetfulness, bad decisions, negative interpretations, abusive comments, rudeness, thoughtlessness, as well as a hundred other harmful things, and still find happiness on the other side. How is it possible? I think it is because those couples have learned how to forgive.
Every couple has a need for forgiveness, because all spouses are dysfunctional in one way or another. The words we have said, the things we have done, and the brokenness and sinfulness in our own lives are often harshest toward our spouse. When you think about the many offenses we have done to each other, it is a wonder there aren’t more divorces than the 50 percent statistic we see in the news.
Your story may be different from your neighbor’s, but one thing is certain: You have offended your spouse because of wrongdoing and you need to ask for forgiveness. Jeff had an affair. Connie is addicted to prescription drugs. When Carol feels stress, which is most of the time, this sweet churchgoing saint cusses out her husband like a sailor. Hurtful words, wrong actions, lying, cheating, gossip, sexual impropriety — all are ways of describing your sinful nature. In the midst of all of this, God loves you and forgives you. Your response to this kind of forgiveness should be to do the same for your spouse. This doesn’t mean your spouse should not take responsibility for his/her actions. What it does mean is that we have work to do in our own lives before we focus on our spouse. They deserve from us the same kind of forgiveness God gives to us.
I love this story of Corrie ten Boom, who spent several years in a German concentration camp in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever heard about in human history. If she could learn the lesson of forgiveness and discover the freedom it brings, then there is hope for any marriage. The year was 1947. It was almost two full years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the camp where she and her sister had been kept captive by the Germans. Corrie was in a Lutheran church to share her story. As she stepped forward she prayed that God would use her words to bring about healing, forgiveness, and restoration in the lives of those who heard her. But what she was about to experience would change her life forever.
When she finished her message a man stepped forward, moving his way through the crowd of people waiting to talk to Corrie. He looked familiar, like she’d seen him somewhere before. As she looked into his eyes, it all became crystal clear. She recognized him … the uniform … the whips … walking past him naked at the selection. She remembered her sister dying a slow and painful death at his hands. The memories came flooding back to her … memories from Auschwitz and this man who had been a guard at the camp.
“I’m a Christian now.” He spoke with his eyes looking sadly into hers. “I know that God has forgiven me, but will you forgive me?” He stretched out his hand to receive hers.
She stood there for what must have seemed an eternity, although it was probably only a moment or two. She knew that she needed to make a choice. Would she forgive the man at whose hand she had experienced so much hurt, pain, and humiliation? Would she? Could she?
Silently she prayed, “Jesus, I need your help. I can lift my hand, but you need to supply the feeling.” She slowly raised her hand, reached out to the man, and took his hand in hers. As she did so a warm sensation filled her heart. God was indeed faithful. “I forgive you, brother — with my whole heart!”
That day, former guard and former prisoner were both healed and set free from the bondage of bitterness and anger. Obviously, this is not a story about a marriage relationship (and the guard never became Corrie’s best friend), but the same lesson she learned is what marriages need today as well: When we act in obedience to extend forgiveness to someone who does not deserve it, God will supply the grace for us to be able to follow through. As in Corrie’s case, we sometimes even experience the warm feelings that confirm how right the decision was.
It is not always easy to extend forgiveness, but it does bring tremendous rewards. Is there a block in your relationship with your spouse that keeps you from freedom, healing, and ultimately intimacy? If so, I hope you will press on. Learning to forgive may do more for you and your marriage than any other part of this book.
Here is what the Bible says: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Just about the time I want to hold something against Cathy, I read that verse and am reminded that whatever she has done to me is not as bad as what I have done to God. Yet God through Christ has forgiven me.
It is hypocritical for me to hold something against Cathy and at the same time be grateful to God for forgiving me for my sins. As I already mentioned, this thought goes absolutely against our human nature, but we can’t deny its truth or its power to change our hearts. Forgiving others for their offenses against us doesn’t mean we should just bury the offense or refuse to deal with the issues raised by the sin. If we do that, the offense will come back to haunt our relationship. What it does mean is that we face issues and deal with them through healthy communication, and then find the strength to forgive. The following thoughts may help.
God’s Forgiveness Is Staggering
Not everyone reading this book is a Christian, and by no means is this meant to be a theological work. There are far better people to write on the subject. However, the biblical teaching on forgiveness is very helpful when we attempt to forgive our spouse, as well as others. God’s ways are different than our ways. While He loves unconditionally and sacrificially, we tend to hold grudges and make our love conditional. The word gospel literally means good news. Yet many Christians and non-Christians alike have a hard time fully comprehending God’s love and the unmerited favor He gives to us. Look at these words from the Bible:
As high as heaven is over the earth, so strong is his love to those who fear him. And as far as the sunrise is from sunset, he has separated us from our sins. (Psalm 103:11-12 The Message) No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it. I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool. (Isaiah 1:18 NLT) But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. (1 John 1:9 NLT)
These words from the Bible are just about the opposite of how we have been treated by others and how we at times have treated our spouse. God’s grace and forgiveness are radically different from the world’s standards.
A man and woman came up to me after I had just finished speaking on this topic. They poured out their story, and it wasn’t pretty. Both had addiction issues and both had deeply betrayed each other. It was obvious that only God’s intervention and an imparting of His healing forgiveness could change their hearts. The man was sorrowful for his horrible actions toward his wife. He asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks: “I have done so many things wrong in my life and experienced countless betrayals toward my wife. I have come to God before and with my whole heart asked for His grace and mercy. Can I really come to God again after failing Him and everybody else so many times? I don’t deserve His forgiveness.”
At that moment I remembered something Max Lucado had said about a similar situation and I paraphrased him in my response to this man. “Pardon my bluntness, but you didn’t deserve forgiveness the first time you came to Christ. He knew your every sin and thought, past and present, and He forgave you anyway.”
Before you work on forgiving your spouse, you must know why you were forgiven. You were not forgiven because of what you did, but because of what Christ did. You are not special because of what you do, but because of who you belong to; you are a child of God. Forgiveness brings healing. First the healing comes to you, and then you can offer it to your spouse. Max Lucado explained this so well: “Because you have been forgiven, forget taking shortcuts, stay on the road. He knows the way. He drew the map. He’ll take you toward health and healing.” As you work on this important concept, live like you are forgiven. Be healed by God’s staggering words of acceptance and love.
Get Out of the Judgment Business
Nowhere in the Bible does it say to confess your spouse’s sins or your children’s sins. It says, “Confess your sins” (James 5:16). In fact, Jesus said, “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3 NLT). He was rather clear about that issue, wasn’t He? People who are judgmental, critical, and constantly negative are unhappy people. Have you ever met a judgmental person who was happy and positive about life? It is very hard not to be judgmental toward our spouses, because we know their faults and sins so well. Yet again, Jesus did not mince words: “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged…. Whatever measure you use in judging others, it will be used to measure how you are judged” (Matthew 7:1-2 NLT).
Life-Changing Decisions Natalie was a very bitter woman. She had her own problems with alcoholism, but her husband had betrayed her with numerous affairs early in their marriage. Finally after twenty years of marriage, he confessed his infidelity that had taken place during their first five years together. He was wrong. She had every right to be angry. She had been betrayed and lied to over and over again. In her anger she continued to medicate her pain with alcohol. She then asked for a divorce. She spent most of her waking moments harboring venomous hatred toward her former husband and as a result became a bitter, judgmental woman.
After the divorce was final, her husband pulled his life together. He was involved in a small accountability group with other men in his church and ended up going into full-time ministry. He was a broken man with a wounded heart, but somehow he was able to accept the forgiveness of God. He told Natalie that he deserved her anger and sought her forgiveness for what he had done.
She remained angry. She was angry that the kids liked their dad more than her. She was angry that the church had restored her husband, even allowing him to work in full-time ministry. She was angry with the counselors and pastors who came alongside her husband during his healing process. I had been one of those people, and I knew her husband well. He was devastated from his past, but by receiving the forgiveness of God he was able to move on. Sure there is a hole in his heart from his past actions, but they were committed more than fifteen years ago. He could either wallow in his sinfulness or accept the staggering forgiveness of God. He chose the good news. His ex-wife chose the path of bitterness and pain.
Because we live in the same neighborhood, I ran into Natalie at the mall one day. I went over to greet her. Knowing I had been spending time with her ex-husband, she started our conversation by giving me a litany of his past sins. I said, “I am so sorry you had to go through so much.” Then she turned on me and said, “How can you even stand to be in his presence?”
I replied, “Natalie, he reached out for help, so I have stood by him. I don’t condone his infidelity toward you. I grieve for anyone who has been betrayed. But he is getting better and healthier. I’m afraid this has caused you, on the other hand, to become so angry and bitter that you are miserable.” I went on to say, “I hope you find it in your heart to seek help for your own healing. And again, I truly am sorry for your pain.”
She looked at me with burning eyes, and said, “Go to hell, Jim Burns!” Then she walked away. I wrote her a note and tried to mend the broken relationship, but she chose to be the one who would not forgive. In that one act, even though she was not the one to blame for the betrayal, she resigned herself to a life of misery.
Your first step toward your own healing is to get out of the judging business. The principle before us goes like this: The other person may be as wrong as wrong can be, but I’ll not be the judge of them. I’ll leave that to God. The key to forgiving others is to quit focusing on what they did and focus on what God has done for you.
Forgive Your Spouse and Find Freedom
If your marriage relationship is broken, you can’t possibly be healed of your emotional and spiritual hurt until you forgive your spouse. As shown in the illustration about Natalie, unforgiving people always end up in prison — a prison of anger, broken relationships, blocked faith, guilt, and personal brokenness. In these cases God doesn’t have to put us in jail. We create our own prison.
If you are carrying a load of bitterness and resentment that is heavy to bear, do yourself a favor. Forgive, and be set free. Corrie ten Boom put her hand out to the guard and she was freed. Natalie, on the other hand, chose to bear the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual burden of resentment and she remains in a prison of rage. The mountain of life issues in any relationship is too steep for anyone to continue to carry. Let the heaviness of anger and resentment go. Forgive as God forgave you. I guarantee you will not be called upon to give any more grace than God has given you.
Before we move on, I do need to mention that it is possible in relationships to forgive and not necessarily reconcile with the offending person. If you are in an abusive relationship or one filled with affairs or addictions, then you will want to get the wisdom and counsel of a trusted counselor to help you work through your own brokenness caused partly from the traumatic relationship you have been in. You don’t want to adopt a Pollyanna approach, forgiving and then moving back into an abusive relationship. There are consequences to sin and brokenness, and sometimes that means you have to do your part to create healthy boundaries. Get the help you need from someone who can understand your situation and your patterns. Don’t move back into a relationship where you are in danger.
Keep in mind that forgiving someone does not mean you won’t feel any more pain over the incident. Also, when you forgive it doesn’t mean that the person who has hurt you shouldn’t take responsibility for his or her action. It isn’t your job to judge them, but it doesn’t mean you have to be friends with the people you forgive either.
How to Forgive Your Spouse
Every time you are on an airplane, the flight attendant comes on the intercom and says, “In case of an emergency, first put on your oxygen mask, and then help the person next to you.” The reason is obvious. If you don’t have adequate oxygen yourself, you won’t be able to help anyone else. In the same way, the process of forgiving your spouse focuses first on you, and then extends to your spouse.
A wonderful mentor in my life years ago taught me a simple method for applying forgiveness, and it has been invaluable in my own marriage. Even if the issue that needs forgiveness in your marriage is usually more about your spouse than it is about you, there are six questions to ask yourself that are helpful. They can bring great understanding and the freedom to either forgive or be forgiven. This process is meant to be done alone, before you would ever talk with your spouse about the incident.
The Process of Forgiveness Sheet
- What happened? What was the offense that continues to bother you? Be specific and give as much detail as you can. (I actually write it out in my journal.)
- How did I feel? What were my emotions: Disappointment? Hurt? Do I feel angry or resentful? Did it cause me to be lonely or depressed?
- How did I react? Did I get angry? Pout? Refuse to talk about it? Pull inward?
These first three questions help me get in touch with my feelings, emotions, concerns, and reactions. They also help me to focus on what exactly it is that is causing my hurt. The next three questions move toward reconciliation, but again I am looking at my issues, not Cathy’s. These three questions involve some very spiritual-sounding words: confession, forgiveness, repentance. They will bring us toward reconciliation and forgiveness.
- Confession: What was my part in the conflict?
- Forgiveness: What do I need to forgive my spouse for and is there something I need to ask forgiveness for in this conflict? I need to ask forgiveness for _____. I forgive my spouse for _____. (Remember, I can still feel pain and hurt. Yet in faith, I choose to forgive my spouse. Often the positive feelings will come later.)
- Repentance: What will I do about it?
Let me give you a personal illustration of how this worked for Cathy and me. In a conflict that I was having with her, I found myself being very upset with Cathy, because I felt like she was not paying enough attention to me. She was busy with the kids and her church activities, and in addition she had volunteered to co-chair the Grad Night committee at my daughter’s high school. (This task was more than a full-time job, and the list kept going with her various involvements.) I didn’t think she was being malicious. In my mind, she was just preoccupied with spinning too many plates in her life and, in my humble opinion, not paying enough attention to poor me. So I filled out the Process of Forgiveness Sheet, not really knowing what to expect.
- What happened? Cathy is so busy with everything else that she is not spending quality time with me.
- How do I feel? I feel hurt and lonely. I feel isolated, like I’m not very important in her life.
- How did I react? At first I pouted and crawled into my own cave. I spent more time at work. Then I dropped subtle and not-so-subtle hints through sarcasm that she didn’t pick up on. She basically ignored my hints.
Now I needed to focus on my issues. I really didn’t know what would come out as I did this sheet.
- Confession. What was my part in the conflict? As I stared at the sheet, I realized that during the first ten years of our marriage I had not really given the right priority to Cathy and our relationship. As discussed in chapter 2, I had often put my job ahead of our relationship. I was gone a great deal of the time. The result was that Cathy had learned to develop outside interests to work around my not always “being there” for her. I was resenting something in our relationship that in essence I had created!
- Forgiveness. What do I need to forgive Cathy for and what do I need to ask for forgiveness for? I needed to forgive Cathy for not paying enough attention to me. (But now this was not as major an issue as it was before because I needed to go back to those first ten years and ask for her forgiveness for my self-centered actions). I need to say to her, “As we have talked about in the past, I did not give you the proper attention and focus during the first ten years of our marriage. Too often I put my work and sometimes other relationships ahead of you. I am truly sorry and I ask for your forgiveness.”
- Repentance. What will I do about it? I needed to tell her my concern about feeling a bit isolated from her and reassure her that I want to be more involved in her life. Actions speak louder than words, so I need to act upon my desire to build a more intimate relationship.
* * *
Here’s what happened. I worked the sheet and then asked her out to dinner. I told her I had something I wanted to talk about. She immediately started asking about health issues and other things spouses are supposed to worry about! I reassured her it was none of that. I told her I needed about five minutes to get the whole story out before we had dialogue. (In the past, when we had conversations about issues of concern, we ended up getting defensive before the entire story was told and we often missed the point.)
Over a plate of pasta, I told Cathy what was happening in my head. I shared my feelings and how I had been reacting to them by pulling back and feeling resentment. However, I quickly added that after thinking about it, I had a revelation about our relationship and now I could see that the issue was more about me than about her. I asked for her forgiveness for how I had put work ahead of her at times — especially during the first ten years of our marriage. I said, “I ask for your forgiveness.”
She said, “Jim, we have covered that, and it really is not an issue in my life anymore. I trust you, and I have seen the changes you have made.” I was thinking we might be gearing up for a conflict, but she went on to ask: “So you think I have been ignoring you?”
I said, “Well, yes, I do think that at times — especially in this busy season that has taken so much of your time.” Her suggestion was for us to take a weekend away and just focus on each other. She made changes, and I made changes. The process worked! (Incidentally, because I told her we weren’t spending enough time together, she made me her assistant as the co-chair of the Grad Night committee so “we could spend more time together.” I was such an easy target!)
Forgiveness is a key that unlocks a blocked relationship. It is possible to forgive without God’s help, but my suggestion is to make your process of forgiveness a part of your spiritual discipline. With God’s help you will find it easier to do than when you try to do it on your own.
You can be bitter or better. I hope you choose the freedom to forgive. I still remember the history lesson from high school about Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross. When one of her colleagues asked her about a situation where she could have had a great deal of bitterness, she replied: “I distinctly remember that I chose to forget that offense and move on with life.” Still good thoughts from Clara after all these years!
Is there something you are holding on to with your spouse? Do you have a difficult time choosing to forgive and move on? If you struggle, you are normal. However, the most courageous marriages find intimacy and freedom through forgiveness. Yes, you have to face the issues. You can’t bury or repress the problems. It’s complicated, and no one said it would be easy. But choosing forgiveness for you and for your spouse is one of the healthiest decisions you can ever make. The choice is yours; the help comes from God.
Copyright © 2006 Jim Burns, Used with permission.
Read more from Jim at homeword.com In response to the overwhelming needs of parents and families, Jim Burns founded HomeWord (formerly YouthBuilders) in 1985. HomeWord is a Christian organization designed to provide assistance to adults worldwide as they help young people make wise decisions and lead positive, vibrant, Christian lifestyles. Multiplication and Leverage: While absolutely committed to young people, HomeWord equips parents, grandparents and youth leaders; those who daily reach out to kids. By equipping adults, and leveraging those adults to reach kids, HomeWord reaches more young people more cost effectively.