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Understanding Forgiveness

As my husband and I left the theater and walked along the avenue, images from the movie we’d just seen brought back the familiar ache I’d struggled to suppress.  It was all too reminiscent of the painful three-year separation from which we’d recently emerged.

Did you see how his wife suffered after he left her?” I asked. “It really is like that.  That’s exactly how it feels.”

I could feel my husband tensing next to me.  “Every time we go to a movie you do this," he said. "Can’t we get over this?  I’ve said I was sorry.”

“I know.  But if you’re really sorry, you wouldn’t get so annoyed.  It doesn’t sound like you’re sorry.”

I didn’t know how to put what I needed into words at the time.  And even if I did, I’m not sure that would have made any difference.  He figured once I forgave him for leaving, that was that.  I should be over it.  We should move on.  That’s what I wanted too.  But the pain churned in my heart and wouldn’t go away.  Later, when I realized how forgiveness really works, it finally did. 

Forgiveness is complicated, both in serious situations like this and in the everyday circumstances that pester our married lives.

We make mistakes, and worse, we’re often in denial of our offense or too proud or stubborn to admit it. It’s a bad day at the office or we’re experiencing PMS, and our tempers sizzle at the tiniest spark of irritation.  Our spouse retaliates with indignation, and the situation escalates.  Who’s at fault?  Who asks forgiveness?  Who admits to being wrong?  Blame lies with each, but “she started it” or “he insulted me” becomes the mantra. We’re both fallen creatures. We both fail.

Realizing our common fallenness can help us have the grace to ask and give forgiveness.  Both need to ask and both need to forgive, with the keen understanding that nurturing a forgiving marriage can prevent the bitterness of accumulated offenses that gradually harden hearts and build walls. 

But sometimes forgiveness is not that simple.  Kristen and her husband were students when they married, and despite busy schedules, Kristen expected them to spend their free time together. Instead, her husband spent many evenings in bars drinking with the guys.  When she became angry, he accused her of nagging and trying to control him.  Their words dug in deep and wounded each other.  After seven months of marriage, they separated.

Other times forgiveness feels impossible.  Nick and Penny were married several years when Nick was arrested with a prostitute.  Although he was repentant and Penny’s pastor urged her to forgive him, she didn’t see how she could.

It’s hard to forgive in situations like these.  We know forgiveness is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask God to forgive us the same way we forgive others. On the cross Jesus forgave the people of their sins even as they mocked him and watched him die. But when we have been deeply hurt, the idea of forgiving may feel like we’re being asked to tear our hearts out and give them to the very people who trampled on them. So, either we offer a perfunctory, “I forgive you,” while still holding the bitterness in our hearts, or we harden ourselves and physically or emotionally walk away.

In these particularly difficult situations, we sometimes put an unnecessary burden on ourselves. We think if we forgive, we must completelyforgive and get over it immediately. What I discovered is that forgiveness is often a process, not a one-time act.  While it begins with the decision to forgive, it may take time before the heart fully accepts what the will has set in motion.  How long it takes may depend on the severity of the pain of the offense, and we must give ourselves the grace our healing requires as we move forward to full forgiveness.

Even Joseph, one of scripture’s greatest examples of forgiveness, allowed the full forgiveness of his brothers to marinate over time.  When he first recognized his brothers in Egypt, he did not run out to them with extended arms.  After his initial decision to forgive, he tested their hearts, giving them a chance to reflect on their sin. When he finally forgave them, his forgiveness was complete and glorious.

When we’ve been deeply wronged something inside yearns for justice.  If we don’t forgive, our desire for justice becomes revenge, subjecting us to the bondage of bitterness and self-righteousness.  When we choose to forgive, the justice we seek is for the other person to feel our pain.  As my husband began to listen without getting impatient or defensive, forgiveness became a mutual endeavor of grace.  My heart of forgiveness was able to expand, and my husband forgave a period of scab-picking relapses, while together we moved forward to complete healing and brought the process to a close.

Kristen and her husband worked through their problems with the support of other Christians, and as Kristen put her focus on God and allowed Him to strengthen her heart, she was able to fully forgive.  A month later they reunited, and as they both became grounded in God’s word, their marriage flourished.

Penny realized forgiveness was a choice she was making, not because she’d been told she must, but because she recognized the tremendous mercy and power in God’s forgiveness of her own sins. She knew she’d made mistakes too, and if God was able to forgive her, the forgiveness of her husband was a small thing for God to ask.  With humility, they submitted themselves to leaders in their church who shepherded them until their marriage was fully restored.

True forgiveness takes place when we release our hurt and let go of it, acknowledging that our spouse is a fallen human being, who is perhaps doing the best he or she can with the limited resources in their emotional, relational, and spiritual arsenal. When we anchor our hearts on the rock of God’s love, the forgiveness of our spouse enables us to release our pain into God’s healing hands. As grace shatters the threat of growing bitterness, it plants the seeds of a more intimate relationship. Husband and wife experience the refreshing rush of freedom and the ability to fully love. 

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