When you discover that your husband is cheating on you, or using pornography, should you forgive right away and work on rebuilding the marriage?

Or if you discover that your wife is cheating on you, should you put that aside for the sake of the marriage and work on restoring the relationship?

That’s the question that I was asking earlier this month when I looked at a book that Focus on the Family was publishing which had the wife asking the question “what role did I play in the affair“? I disentangled that and explained why both parties may be responsible for drift in marriage, but only one is responsible for cheating. And you cannot work to rebuild until the cheating is confessed and repented of.

In doing so, several side conversations started where people on Facebook and on the blog were saying something to the effect of:

You can’t control your husband’s behaviour. You need to leave that up to God. To require your husband to repent is to try to control him. Instead, you just do what you can do to love your husband and then entrust your marriage to God’s hands.

Now, this sounds like you’re being giving and sacrificial, and isn’t that what Jesus calls us to?

But I actually think this is quite harmful teaching when it comes to affairs and other big betrayals, and I’d like to delve into that today to see what the Bible says about restoring relationships that have been broken by one person’s sin.

1. A Covenant is a Two-Way Street, with requirements for both parties

In Scripture, God compares His relationship with His people to a marriage, so that gives us a helpful comparison to use when we’re trying to figure out what the marriage covenant should look like. God created a covenant with Israel, where He would be their God and would bless them, and they would obey Him and follow Him and not go after other gods.

But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. But

those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction;
he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. 

Deuteronomy 7:8-10


He also says repeatedly that He will bless the Israelites if they follow the commands, but He will curse them if they do not. Thus, God’s blessing is conditional on Israel keeping the covenant that He has made with them.

If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. 

Deuteronomy 7:12


2. A covenant, like a marriage covenant, can be unilaterally broken by one party cheating

Even though God has promised that He will be Israel’s God, and will bless them, that relationship can be broken unilaterally–by one party not fulfilling the requirements of the covenant.

What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? (verse 5)

I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, [you] made my heritage an abomination. (verse 7)

Jeremiah 2


God had nothing whatsoever to do with this; the people themselves had done it. That doesn’t mean that when covenants are broken there is always only one person to blame; it’s just that it’s incorrect to say that it takes two to break a covenant. No, one person’s sin can do that all on their own.

3. When a covenant has been broken, keeping a facade up that nothing is wrong becomes offensive

When Israel was in full covenant with God, there were all kinds of things that they were supposed to do to show their worship and devotion to Him–the “trappings” that signified their relationship to Him. However, as soon as Israel turned away from God, these trappings were no longer pleasing to Him. They actually made God sick:

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation–I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, and I am weary of bearing them. 

Isaiah 1:12-14


When the core of the relationship has been broken, acting as if everything is fine is an abomination. It’s a lie. It further tramples upon the covenant, because it treats it as if it meant nothing.

4. It is better to live in truth than to live a lie.

God did not allow for the facade of a relationship. He held back His blessings and His protection when Israel was cheating and was running around after false gods and ignoring his commands. God did not allow Israel to have the benefit of a relationship with God while also cheating.

And, when it went far enough, God Himself issued Israel a certificate of divorce. This wasn’t God breaking the covenant; this was God publicly acknowledging that Israel had already broken the covenant, and so that covenant was null and void. Here the prophet Jeremiah is talking about how God divorced Israel, but the nation of Judah (for at that time, the two nations were separate) wasn’t taking the hint:

She [Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce…

Jeremiah 3:8


Why does God do this? Because God is not interested in a relationship with us that is based on a lie. He doesn’t want the outer trappings of a relationship with us; He wants a real relationship with us.

5. God does not unilaterally restore the relationship. He requires repentance.

So what did God require in order for this covenant relationship with Israel to continue? It was actually quite simple. He just wanted Israel to return, and when you read the minor prophets, that’s the message you get, over and over again: “return to me”:

‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
    ‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
    ‘I will not be angry forever.
 Only acknowledge your guilt
    you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
    under every spreading tree,
    and have not obeyed me,’”
declares the Lord.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.”

Jeremiah 3:12-14


All they had to do was return, and then God would be their husband again. But they had to return.They had to confess and repent.

What we learn from God’s actions, then, is that the covenant is serious. When one party breaks the covenant, you can’t ignore it. You can’t get the benefits of the covenant without keeping the vows of that covenant. The relationship can be restored with repentance, but it can’t be restored without it.

Let’s now look at how we should act when the marriage relationship is being compromised:

6. A marriage is based on trust

The covenant between Israel and God was based on several fundamental things: That God would be their only God, and that they would follow His commands, and that if they did that, they would be blessed. (There was more to it than that, including circumcision, and much more, but in a nutshell, that’s it).

The modern marriage covenant is also based on a few things: that we would be each other’s sole sexual partner, and that we would love and cherish each other until death do us part. This means that marriage is based on trust.

So let’s separate these two things for a moment:

The Commitment: I will stay with you and love and cherish you and have you as my only sexual partner until death do us part.

The Relationship: I will live with you, do life with you, serve you, be sexually involved with you, and carry your burdens.

The relationship is based on trust that the other will abide by the commitment. One comes before the other. Just as God did not give the blessings if Israel was not obeying the covenant, so we cannot have a relationship if the commitment has been broken, because a marriage has to be based on trust–on keeping that promise.

What I was being told by people on Facebook and here on the blog was that you should continue to have a relationship with someone who has broken the commitment, even if they don’t repent, because God calls us to be faithful to our marriage vows. But that’s asking us to do more than God even does! In that Isaiah passage above, God says: I won’t have the trappings of a covenant (the relationship elements, in other words) without having the commitment. We’re getting things backwards, thinking that if we give a cheating spouse the relationship, we’ll lure them back to the commitment. But when we do that, we deny the very nature of marriage, which must, first and foremost, be built on that commitment, not the relationship.

There’s a reason that God allowed divorce in the case of adultery–because adultery is a very special case. Adultery annihilates the very covenant that marriage is built on. It shouldn’t be treated like just another mistake, because it is unique. 

That’s why, even if you were involved in breaking the relationship apart because you weren’t a good spouse, you still can’t repair that relationship until the trust is restored. The commitment to the marriage must be present to work on the relationship. You can’t rebuild without that commitment.

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If your marriage is in a communication rut, it’s time for some change.

7. Intimacy requires vulnerability, which requires trust

To take it even further, a true marriage relationship is supposed to be about intimacy–about truly knowing the other person. So let’s add another element:

The Commitment: I will stay with you and love and cherish you and have you as my only sexual partner until death do us part.

The Relationship: I will live with you, do life with you, serve you, be sexually involved with you, and carry your burdens.

The Completion: I feel as if I am known, and am fully known. I feel loved and accepted, and I love and accept you in return.

When we have the commitment, and we practice the different elements of the relationship, we achieve the completion of the covenant: the feeling of true intimacy, the “knowing” each other intimately that is talked about in Scripture.

However, often in our desperation we think that we can achieve this “knowing” and this “loving” simply by acting out the relationship elements.

If I serve him enough, if I’m nice enough, if I’m giving enough and sexual enough he’ll love me. He’ll leave that other person and he’ll love me.

But you can’t build intimacy on the back of a lie. Intimacy requires truly knowing a person. Knowing someone requires complete vulnerability, where we’re able to share ourselves. Vulnerability, however, requires trust. You cannot open up to another person if you fear that, by opening up, they will leave you or will continue in an affair. Thus, we cannot create intimacy without the backbone of commitment. It just doesn’t work, no matter how nice you are, because:

A marriage is a joining of two people’s spirits, meaning that two people matter.

You matter, my friends. YOU MATTER.

The advice that is often given to women (and to men whose wives cheat on them) is that we should be self-abasing like Jesus was, and deny ourselves, and love sacrificially so that we can woo them back. However, this is not how God acts. In order to start a relationship with Christ, for instance, you need to repent and confess.  Yes, Jesus is all-forgiving, but Jesus does not unilaterally restore us; He requires us to confess first.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

1 John 1:9


8. When we put the marriage first, we make an idol of it–over truth. God never does that. God lives in reality.

When we say, “I committed to this marriage, and I will not break up this marriage, even if my husband strays”, then we do more than God even does and we run the danger of making marriage into an idol.

God does not value marriage above all. God values us. God values people. God wants people being transformed into the likeness of His Son. When we enable sin by not drawing boundaries and holding others accountable for what they have done, we are not valuing truth. We are valuing the trappings of a marriage over the heart of the marriage, over Truth.

Be careful about making marriage into an idol, or trying too hard to make a marriage work, at the expense of your relationship with God. Keeping a marriage together does not always end up advancing God’s kingdom, as I talk about here:

Other posts  you may like:

9. Betrayal causes trauma. Ignoring trauma causes long-term problems.

When we are betrayed through infidelity (whether it’s an affair or pornography use), that sears our soul. Our very personhood has been rejected. This person who was supposed to completely know you and love you has betrayed you. That can cause trauma. The first reaction many of us have when we discover a spouse having an affair is to panic. We don’t want to lose the marriage. And so we turn ourselves inside out trying to keep that trapping of a relationship intact. What that does, though, is further destroy our sense of worth. Our spouse did that by betraying us; now we are agreeing with our spouse that our needs don’t matter.

If  you try to reconstruct the trappings of a relationship without confession and repentance on the cheater’s part, you further wound yourself. Those wounds will resurface later–that’s the very nature of trauma!

And all of that is why:

10. Real forgiveness requires admitting the fullness of what the other person did, not choosing to ignore it. Reconciliation never occurs without repentance.

We are called to forgive, yes. But we are not called to reconcile necessarily, because rebuilding a relationship cannot be done unilaterally. It can only happen when the other person repents.

To rebuild and restore real intimacy, you need honesty. You can’t minimize the harm that’s been done. You can’t forgive that which you’re too scared to actually name.

You have to face it full on. You have to admit it. You have to not shy away from looking it full in the face. And then, and only then, can you truly choose to let it go. That’s the forgiveness part.

But you can only reach the restoration part when your spouse similarly looks it head on, names it, and admits it. Only when your spouse does that can the restoration and rebuilding part start.

First the commitment; then the relationship, and THEN the completion. It must be done in that order. You can’t rush it. You can’t shortchange it. And you can’t minimize it.

God didn’t. And God does not ask more of you than He did Himself.

What do you think? Do we try too hard to rush forgiveness? Let’s talk in the comments!


Want more information? Here are some other posts that may help:

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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