This video segment is one of six lessons in the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.
The GCM series are marriage preparation and marriage enrichment level resources. If your marriage needs restoration level care consider one of the other options available at summitchurch.com/counseling, or visit bradhambrick.com/findacounselor for help finding a counselor near you.
If you are interested in the pre-marital mentoring program built around these materials, you can find everything you need at www.bradhambrick.com/gcm.
NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the GCM seminar notebooks. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at firstname.lastname@example.org (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).
C.S. Lewis hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive (p.115; Mere Christianity).” We instinctively realize there are few gifts that we can give or receive which are more precious and costly than forgiveness.
While it may not be the most popular topic on the marriage seminar tours, there are few skills that predict the longevity and quality of a marriage like the ability of each partner to forgive. Yet misconceptions and fears about forgiveness cause many people to be cynical about this essential part of a healthy marriage. Often those who struggle to forgive significantly misconstrue what it means to forgive.
What You Don’t Need to Forgive
Not everything that bothers or annoys us needs to be forgiven. Forgiveness is only for moral offenses. Here are three types of interpersonal disruptions you don’t need to forgive.
1. Human Weakness: Being clumsy, having aptitude weaknesses, experiencing the limitations of a physical illness or injury, succumbing to the degenerative influence of aging, and similar experiences can negatively impact a marriage. These things can be upsetting, fear-provoking, or upsetting, but they are not moral and, therefore, do not need to be forgiven.
The appropriate response to human weakness is compassion, patience, and assistance. A couple should be able to discuss the impact that each other’s weaknesses has on the other. One of the most bonding aspects of marriage is creating a safe environment to acknowledge our weakness and be loved anyway.
2. Differences in Personality or Perspective: Being extroverted vs. introverted, optimistic vs. pessimistic, cautious vs. adventurous, concrete vs. abstract, and organized vs. fluid are all examples of difference in personality or perspective. These differences impact marriages in many ways, but they are not moral, and, therefore, do not need to be forgiven.
The appropriate response to differences in personality or perspective is appreciation, learning, and cooperation. Well-managed and humbly-discussed differences will be what provides a lifetime of enjoyment to your marriage.
3. Attempting to Do Something and Failing: As we do all that life requires together we will attempt many new tasks. Frequently these love-motivated efforts will fail (or, at least, not achieve the desired result). These moments may elicit a sense of disappointment or shame, but they are not moral, and, therefore, do not need to be forgiven.
The appropriate response to differences in these instances is affirmation and encouragement. Attempting to do a good thing and failing should still be viewed as a good thing. It is at least two steps ahead of attempting to do a bad thing and failing, and one step ahead of being passive.
When we use forgiveness as the method to resolve relational irritants that are not moral, several bad things happen.
- We establish our preferences as the moral standard for our spouse – pride.
- We begin to feel as if we forgive more than we are forgiven – self-righteousness.
- We gain an increasingly negative view of our spouse – judgmental.
- Our marriage begins to be built around an elaborate number of rules – performance-based acceptance.
- We begin to feel as if God were asking too much of us – God-fatigue.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Many of our points of resistance against forgiveness are reactions against distortions of what forgiveness truly is. While the reality of forgiveness is never easy, forgiveness is not as foolish or outlandish as our fears make it out to be. In this section we will look at four common misconceptions about forgiveness.
- Forgiveness is not containing hurt. If this is how we think of forgiveness, then forgiveness becomes a synonym for being fake. Forgiveness becomes a form of self-imposed silencing. Forgiveness is what allows us to express hurt as hurt rather than hurt as anger. Even after forgiveness the hurt still hurts. When you forgive, you are not making a commitment not to hurt or to be silent about your pain. You are making a commitment about what you will do with hurt when it flares – speaking for restoration, not revenge.
- Forgiveness is not an excuse. Forgiveness does not reclassify the offense from a sin to a mistake. Mistakes are excused. Sins are forgiven. Sometimes we resist forgiving because we do not want to ratify this perceived downgrade in the significance of the offense. Forgiveness is not a downgrade. Forgiveness inherently classifies an offense at the top level of wrongness. When you say, “I forgive you,” you are saying, “Christ died for what you did, and I will accept his sacrifice on your behalf.” That is definitely not a downgrade or excuse.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not the culmination of a journey but the commitment to complete the journey. This conception would make forgiveness a disposition to achieve, rather than a promise being given and kept. Memories are reinforced by repetition. Forgiveness is a commitment to how you will respond to memories, not the declaration that memories have been erased.
- Forgiveness is not necessarily restoration. Forgiveness and restoration are distinct but overlapping terms. All restoration is rooted in forgiveness, but not all forgiveness will result in restoration. If your spouse is unrepentant, forgiveness is still good for your emotional healing but restoration of full trust would be premature.
What Is Forgiveness?
At its most basic level, forgiveness is canceling a debt. But, to stick with the financial metaphor, canceling a debt doesn’t necessarily mean living as if the debt never happened (erasing history), giving another loan (trust), or starting a business together (reconciliation). You can cancel a debt while being aware of someone’s financial habits, declining to lend more money, and refusing a joint business venture.
Forgiveness is an act of faith that the penalty for sin was sufficiently paid by Christ on the cross or will be paid by the sinner in Hell. Forgiveness is a willingness to treat the offender as gracious wisdom would allow given the offender’s response to his/her sin. Based on this, the commitment of forgiveness can be expressed in four promises.
- I will not think about this incident. God promises to remember our sins no more (Jer. 31:34). This is different from forgetting; an omniscient God cannot forget. But God does resist calling to mind those offenses He has forgiven (Psalm 103:12). We are to mirror this when we forgive. This means, when we forgive, we are committing to redirect our thoughts when this offense comes to mind. A good measure of our forgiveness is the dissipation of memories we have about the offense and surrounding details.
- I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you. Past failures are powerful weapons in an argument. Forgiveness is an agreement to disarm. This promise involves both verbally using past sin against your spouse and mentally using past sin to justify your response against your spouse. This promise keeps the marriage “safe” to have disagreements.
- I will not talk to others about this incident. This promise says, “You are safe when you are not present,” and protects the marriage from “his friends” and “her friends” being on separate teams and contributing to division in the marriage. A gospel-centered marriage exists within community. Therefore, a couple should have mutually trusted friends from which they grant the freedom for each other to seek guidance and support.
- With the appropriate precautions in place, I will give you the benefit of the doubt again. It is the aftermath of forgiveness – renewed vulnerability – which is often most intimidating. Except in those cases where significant deception or relational betrayal are involved, forgiveness does mean the prompt re-issuing of trust. A good measure of the level of repentance and forgiveness in a marriage is a couple’s ability to agree upon what constitutes “appropriate precautions.”
As you reflect on the importance and challenge of forgiveness, consider this common pattern of marital deterioration.
“As [they] lost sight of their daily need for forgiveness, they quit being so willing to forgive one another. As they quit forgiving one another and putting away their offenses, they began to keep a record of the other’s wrongs. As they kept a daily record of wrongs, they were increasingly aware of how much their life was affected by the weakness and failure of the other. As they carried this awareness with them, they became increasingly irritated, impatient, and intolerant with one another. So since they were not fighters, they dealt with their disappointment with one another by protecting themselves from one another with distance and busyness (p. 263).” Paul Tripp in What Did You Expect?
Emotions and Forgiveness
What do we do with the hurt, fears, and other emotions that emanate from the offense? It’s not selfish to ask this question. However, if we demand the benefits of forgiveness before we take the risk of forgiveness, we become trapped at the crucial point. In effect, we would be demanding to see the fireworks before we light the fuse. All of that to say, if you want this section to “convince you” to forgive, you will most likely be disappointed. But if you want to understand how forgiveness positively impacts your emotions (even in difficult cases), then you should find encouragement in this section.
In the section below we will trace the seven-phase journey of forgiveness that is traveled by the one forgiving. If you need a more in-depth examination of this kind of material, consider reading The End of Memory by Miroslav Volf.
- The context of forgiveness is always hurt. Forgiveness never begins as a pleasant experience. The emotions of pre-forgiveness are always raw. We never think this is a “good time” for us to need to forgive. The person we need to forgive is always the person who just sinned against us. We should never minimize the painful context in which forgiveness is granted.
- Hurt is an experience that does not remove itself. Time does not heal moral offenses. If time heals an offense, then it was likely not one that merited forgiveness. We begin to feel trapped in the emotional bind; either we will forgive (which is not fair) or we will continually carry the weight of bitterness and mistrust.
- Justice does not erase history (or emotion). Neither consequences nor punishment provide the relief that we hope they would. Our offender loses the benefit of his/her offense and may learn valuable lessons, but these do not provide restitution to us. Even if we are rightfully given something as compensation for the offense, its value either seems to trifle the offense or come across as penance. Justice doesn’t satisfy.
- Repentance does not erase history (some emotion). Repentance is much better than justice at resolving the emotional pain. It now feels like apples are being traded for apples; prideful, self-centered response of sin for humbled, other-minded response of confession. But there is no sense of guarantee or control that would provide assurance that future pain could be avoided, so some emotional turmoil remains.
- Forgiveness means something must die. We begin to realize exactly how devastating sin really is. Nothing short of death will stop it. Without being overly dramatic, we clearly see that something will die—love, trust, hope, a dream, dignity, respect… or Christ in their place. The only way to escape this maze of moral offense without losing someone or something we love is with a substitute.
- We chose who/what to send to the cross. We begin to realize that the words “I forgive you” can be translated, “I apply Christ to your account. His death satisfies what your offense deserves.”
- We are reminded of a peace greater than our pain. In this memory, we find that forgiveness is not only a commitment or a promise, but also a dramatization or re-enactment of the gospel. Forgiving gives us another taste of hopelessness turned to victory and we remember (because life had distracted us) that our ultimate security and emotional safety is in Christ, not circumstances. This fresh realization places the offense back in its appropriate perspective; without minimizing the offense, it is swallowed up in the greatness of the gospel.
By contrast to the journey above, bitterness is a form of meditation, but on hurt instead of the gospel. The journey above allows the processing of the hurts which precipitated forgiveness in a way that “the meditations of our hearts” (Psalm 19:14) center on the gospel and point us to hope instead of doubt or dissatisfaction.
What does it look like to forgive your spouse of real wrongs over a lifetime? How can we motivate ourselves to forgive without having a negative attitude towards our spouse or becoming a doormat? C.S. Lewis offers great perspective.
“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated these things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things (p. 117).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Forgiveness is seeing the person God made your spouse to be, loving that person so much that you hate the sin they commit (without overly personalizing it), and then living out gospel forgiveness before them in hopes that it will make God’s forgiveness more real to them (and us).
 For more on this aspect of God’s forgiveness see bradhambrick.com/forgiveness10.