I get the emails or comments on this blog all the time: “My husband confessed he uses porn, and I can’t get past it. How do I forgive him?” Or “my wife had an affair and I can’t see my way through this. How can I ever treat her normally again?”
Forgiving your husband (or wife) is hard.
A while ago I reviewed Vicki Tiede’s book When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography, and she said something very interesting about forgiveness. In essence, she said that God does not ask us to forgive in a way that He does not. He asks us to forgive AS He forgives. And how does He forgive? He forgives fully and graciously, but only when people repent and turn to Him. He doesn’t forgive everybody.
1 John 1:9 says:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The confession comes before the forgiveness.
Jesus’ blood covers everyone’s sins, but it is only applied to those who repent. And if that’s how God forgives, then God does not ask us to forgive lightly, either. God does not say that if someone confesses a sin, but doesn’t really turn from it, or doesn’t really have any intention of changing, that we need to forgive.
I thought about that long and hard, because that’s quite contrary to what I’ve normally thought about forgiveness. Yet Vicki makes a good point.
She says that “cheap forgiveness” can do more harm than good.
Let’s say a guy is addicted to porn, for instance, and his wife finds out. He acts all contrite because he knows he’s in trouble, and asks her to forgive him. She does, because she feels that she has to, and so she tries her best to treat him exactly the same as before. He goes on sneaking around behind her back again because there is no need to actually change.
God wants us to do the hard work of healing and repentance, and if we offer forgiveness quickly, when there is no change of heart, we take away the need to do that hard work.
I agree with her. I do. And yet I was uncomfortable with this line of thinking. I have tended to think of forgiveness as something we offer partly for ourselves. We grant forgiveness because it frees US. We can’t carry around this anger anymore, and we can’t live always tied to something from the past. We need to walk forward with God.
Perhaps much of this problem is that we mean so many different things by the word “forgiveness”. Vicki was using it to mean a fully restored relationship: you cannot have a fully restored relationship if there has not been a change of heart from the one who has done wrong. Reconciliation demands true honesty and repentance.
But there is an element of forgiveness that does not depend on the other person, and this is how I’ve come to see it:
To me, forgiveness means taking the hurt, no matter what it is, and placing it in God’s hands and saying: I don’t want it anymore. Take it from me. I leave it to You to bring justice. I leave it to You to work out dealing with my offender. I leave it to You to fight for me. As for me, I will walk forward, with this left behind me.
That’s saying, “God, I believe that you are a just God who loves me and will go to battle for me and will work out your purposes for me and for this person, and so I trust you. I’m not going to try to manipulate the circumstances or extract an apology or demand restitution. I’ll leave it all up to you, and I trust you with it.”
Forgiving your spouse is really more a matter of trust than anything else.
And forgiveness is about letting go. When I walked through the whole forgiveness process with my father, who left when I was very young, I had to come to terms with the fact that he would never apologize, because he didn’t really understand what he had done. He did not get the magnitude of how much he hurt me. And I realized that a part of me was hanging on to the dream that one day he would sit down and spill out all of his offences, and apologize for them, and ask me to forgive him. Forgiveness, though, means letting go of the dream that he will one day ask that. Forgiveness means putting that dream in God’s hands. God will be the One to fight for you. There is justice, and God will work it out. Perhaps the person will come to repentance and will claim Jesus’ forgiveness. And perhaps they will not. But regardless, God will go to bat for you. You don’t have to. And if we let go of this dream of an apology or acknowledgement of our hurt, then we can move forward.
Recently I was out with a young friend of mine who had been a victim of a violent random attack. She’d been skittish since this happened, and had experienced a difficult time processing it. We were just chatting about nothing in particular, but I was in the middle of writing the review for Tiede’s book, so I was just talking out loud about some of these thoughts. And I told her what I was thinking about forgiveness: it’s not saying it didn’t matter, and it’s not saying we’re best friends now. It’s just putting the whole thing in God’s hands and letting Him deal with it. It’s letting go of the need or dream of any apology or acknowledgement because you know God will handle it. And it’s turning away from it and walking forward.
A few weeks later her mom called me and said, “I don’t know what you said but she’s been so much LIGHTER.” That made me lighter, too.
I think in marriage that this can be the hardest thing. We want the other person to pay. We want them to list out all their sins in great detail and grovel. And yet I believe the proper model is that if there is true repentance, which is always accompanied by confession, not secrecy, and by a dedication to work hard to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, then you forgive your husband, let it go and are fully reconciled. If there is not that repentance, and the sin is one that could seriously endanger the marriage (like adultery, or addictions, or porn), then you act smart. You draw boundaries. You do not become fully reconciled yet.
But you also leave it to God. You don’t punish your spouse. You don’t demand. You don’t play scenarios over and over in your mind where your spouse humiliates himself or herself before you. You hand the offense over to God and ask Him to take care of it. You let go of the need for that sin to ever be fully acknowledged, or to ever receive a full apology. That’s what that waiting period means: you trust in God to take care of it. And in the meantime, you act in love, but also in wisdom, not reconciling when there isn’t full repentance, but not living trapped in this sin, where everything in your life revolves around your anger and your need for restitution.
Forgiveness, then, is not so much about the sin as it is about trust in God.
And that’s hard. It’s so, so hard. But it’s also so freeing.
What have you found? Have you ever had to forgive and leave something in God’s hands? Have you ever had to let go of the dream of a full apology?
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