Forgiveness -Articles

The young pastor moved his family halfway across the United States because he believed he heard a call to help carve out a new church. Everyone was excited about the possibilities. In the joy and excitement of the moment, promises were made to the pastor.

After two years of joyful and purposeful partnership in the grand adventure of church planting, a pivotal player in the new church moved to another city. Then, one by one, other members slowly drifted away from the once-glorious mission. Financial resources began to dry up. The pastor and his wife felt abandoned. He had to get a job; in fact, he had to work two jobs. His wife went to work. They ended up declaring bankruptcy. The dream was dead.

He told me about the depth of betrayal which he felt . . . from people and from God. But, one day as he drove – “I can show you the spot in the road where it happened” – he suddenly saw a financial ledger sheet. He saw columns of numbers representing what was owed to him. But, he also noticed the ledger contained no columns of what he owed to others. Suddenly, his heart broke. He groaned out to God, “No one owes me anything. The ledger is clear.”

And, in that moment, he chose to forgive. Giving up all hope for a better past released him to walk into a new future.

Forgiveness as a Way of Life

It could accurately be said that forgiveness is the remission of debt. The debt is justly owed; payment can righteously be demanded. But, what happens when the one to whom it is owed chooses to forgive it?

For example, Jesus told a story of a king who forgave a debt to one of his servants who begged forgiveness. However, when that man encountered one of his debtors, he physically abused him until it was clear the debtor had no capacity to pay. At that point, the recently-forgiven man tossed his own debtor into prison (Matt. 18).

That man had received forgiveness but could not walk in it. He was too conscious of the ledger of columns showing what was owed to him.

In his book, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright says, “Forgiveness is a way of life, God’s way of life, God’s way to life; and if you close your heart to forgiveness, why, then, do you close your heart to forgiveness. . . If you lock up the piano because you don’t want to play to somebody else, how can God play to you?

“That is why we pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ That isn’t a bargain we make with God. It’s a fact of human life. Not to forgive is to shut down a faculty in the innermost person, which happens to be the same faculty that can receive God’s forgiveness.”

How do we Forgive?

First, I think it is helpful to recognize that offences and injuries are always bottled in our past. So, forgiveness requires us to deal with our past – not our present or future. We have to let go of our past in order to fill up the present and bless the future. When we fail to deal properly with our past, we are like someone whose elastic belt is caught on a barbed wire fence; we can make very little forward progress until we unhook ourselves from our pain and injustice in our past.

Once we understand and settle that, we can walk into a forgiving way of life. Consider these specific components of walking in forgiveness:

1. Look at the larger picture

Bitterness and unforgiveness are almost always the results of boring into a very small perspective. Living in that smallness is trying to gaze at the great vista of your life through a tiny and very dirty fisheye lens.

For example, rather than focusing on your embarrassment at being fired, remember that your next job became a doorway to a brand new chapter of life. So, in fact, the humiliation was a gift from God to move you from one dead-end job to a place of purpose and fulfillment.

2. Celebrate your life

Do you understand that your life represents a multi-generational miracle? All your ancestors were protected from death until the lineage which produced you was passed on. That is an enormous gift.

So, to forgive is an act of celebrating that gift. To forgive is to boldly declare that your life does not belong to the offending party or incident in your past; it is God’s gift to you. Moreover, you choose the freedom to fill up your own life with the joy and purpose which God intended.

3. Release your need for justice

Forgiving is also the choice to surrender and reject your own view of, rights to and desire for “justice” (more accurately known as “revenge”).

4. Choose the Kingdom of God

Life without Christ consists of an impossible calculus of justice. It represents meticulous ledger sheets of obligations and endless partial payments. We can never tear up the note.

Jesus is the continental divide of history. He changed the calculus. He gave His Own life as “payment in full” for the crippling legacy of sin as well as for specific transgressions. Because of God’s abundant mercy, we are forgiven – released from – the obligation to pay our own account.

Dallas Willard has written, “Once we step into this kingdom and trust it, pity becomes the atmosphere in which we live…It is not psychologically possible for us really to know God’s pity for us and at the same time be hardhearted toward others. So we are ‘forgiving of others in the same manner as God forgives us.'”

Walking in forgiveness is choosing to live a large life. It rejects the suffocating smallness of the old calculus. It releases everyone (including ourselves) from our own claims. To forgive is to finally walk away from the miseries and mistakes of the past and onto the higher ground of a life so large that it could only be gift from God.

The condition of our life has been shaped in part by people, groups and ideologies which we will never see or understand. Regardless of who or where you are, the life you are living has been curtailed or diluted by forces which are historical, global, invisible and inaccessible.

For example, many people feel accused and violated every time they fly because of the security checks at the gate. And, they have to endure that humiliated matrix because of nothing they did. It is inflicted on them because of terrorism and bureaucracy and they will probably have to submit to this systemic insult every time they fly for the rest of my life. And, they did nothing to cause it. Injustice is the most difficult thing to embrace.

Accused and Violated

On a much larger scale, how do African-Americans forgive the pervasive and unrelenting culture of racism which killed, raped and robbed their ancestors and created an exclusive, elitist and often unresponsive power structure which continues to this day?

These are very tough issues; they trace the far horizons of organized cruelty and injustice. How does forgiveness play out in the context of these hidden sources and offenders? When you cannot face the one who injured you and constricted your borders, how do you forgive? Is it even possible to walk away from such overwhelming injustice? How would a Jewish father ever transcend the memory of his daughter being torn from his arms and sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz?

I recently sat beside a woman on a long airline flight. I was tired; she wanted to talk. She won. In the course of her opening up her life, she revealed the searing pain of her husband’s cruel rejection and the trauma of divorce. She talked about it for more than an hour.

Asking Forgiveness on Another’s Behalf

When she finished, I said very spontaneously, “As a man, I am sorry you had to suffer this injustice. I despise what he did; he violated who you are. But, he is not here and I am. So, I’m asking you to forgive me on his behalf.”

Tears filled her eyes. She said, “I didn’t know I needed to hear that until this moment. I accept your apology and I forgive you.”

As those who are forgiven, we are free and empowered to be agents of forgiveness. It does not matter that we are not the specific offending party. If we represent them at all, we should ask forgiveness. The prophet Daniel repented for things he had not personally done. He represented others in going before God to ask forgiveness.

Asking Forgiveness for Another Generation

I once asked an African-American friend to forgive me for what white people have thought, believed and done. I broke down in a very public place – for a moment I felt like I stepped into the sin which had abused and oppressed so many. I personally identified with it and was more reviled by it than ever in my life. My apology groaned up out of my guts. And, he broke down, wept and forgave me.

Don’t Walk in a “P.C.” Culture

Don’t misunderstand; we should not live in some politically correct posture of running up to people and asking their forgiveness. But, as we sense “the moment” of redemptive grace and invitation from the Lord, I believe we should always be ready to serve as an agent of forgiveness.

I can and must forgive the 9-11 hijackers and others unseen, unknown and unreachable because I choose to give up all hope for a better past. Giving it up is not at all to condone it. But it does release me to walk beyond the reach of what they did.

Forgiveness also releases me to live beyond my own capacities and walk in the everlasting provision of the One who does for me what I cannot do for myself.

Why Do We Find It So Hard to Forgive?

One reason we resist forgiving is that we don’t really understand what forgiveness is or how it works. We think we do, but we don’t.

Most of us assume that if we forgive our offenders, they are let off the hook — scot-free — and get to go about their merry ways while we unfairly suffer from their actions. We also may think that we have to be friendly with them again, or go back to the old relationship. While God commands us to forgive others, he never told us to keep trusting those who violated our trust or even to like being around those who hurt us.

The first step to understanding forgiveness is learning what it is and isn’t. The next step is giving yourself permission to forgive and forget, letting go of the bitterness while remembering very clearly your rights to healthy boundaries.

Granting Forgiveness

  • Forgiveness is not letting the offender off the hook. We can and should still hold others accountable for their actions or lack of actions.
  • Forgiveness is returning to God the right to take care of justice. By refusing to transfer the right to exact punishment or revenge, we are telling God we don’t trust him to take care of matters.
  • Forgiveness is not letting the offense recur again and again. We don’t have to tolerate, nor should we keep ourselves open to, lack of respect or any form of abuse.
  • Forgiveness does not mean we have to revert to being the victim. Forgiving is not saying, “What you did was okay, so go ahead and walk all over me.” Nor is it playing the martyr, enjoying the performance of forgiving people because it perpetuates our victim role.
  • Forgiveness is not the same as reconciling. We can forgive someone even if we never can get along with him again.
  • Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It might take some time to work through our emotional problems before we can truly forgive. As soon as we can, we should decide to forgive, but it probably is not going to happen right after a tragic divorce. That’s okay.
  • We have to forgive every time. If we find ourselves constantly forgiving, though, we might need to take a look at the dance we are doing with the other person that sets us up to be continually hurt, attacked, or abused.
  • Forgetting does not mean denying reality or ignoring repeated offenses. Some people are obnoxious, mean-spirited, apathetic, or unreliable. They never will change. We need to change the way we respond to them and quit expecting them to be different.
  • Forgiveness is not based on others’ actions but on our attitude. People will continue to hurt us through life. We either can look outward at them or stay stuck and angry, or we can begin to keep our minds on our loving relationship with God, knowing and trusting in what is good.
  • If they don’t repent, we still have to forgive. Even if they never ask, we need to forgive. We should memorize and repeat over and over: Forgiveness is about our attitude, not their action.
  • We don’t always have to tell them we have forgiven them. Self-righteously announcing our gracious forgiveness to someone who has not asked to be forgiven may be a manipulation to make them feel guilty. It also is a form of pride.
  • Withholding forgiveness is a refusal to let go of perceived power. We can feel powerful when the offender is in need of forgiveness and only we can give it. We may fear going back to being powerless if we forgive.
  • We might have to forgive more than the divorce. Post-divorce problems related to money, the kids, and schedules might result in the need to forgive again and to seek forgiveness ourselves.
  • We might forgive too quickly to avoid pain or to manipulate the situation. Forgiveness releases pain and frees us from focusing on the other person. Too often when we’re in the midst of the turmoil after a divorce, we desperately look for a quick fix to make it all go away. Some women want to “hurry up” and forgive so the pain will end, or so they can get along with the other person. We have to be careful not to simply cover our wounds and retard the healing process.
  • We might be pressured into false forgiveness before we are ready. When we feel obligated or we forgive just so others will still like us, accept us, or not think badly of us, it’s not true forgiveness — it’s a performance to avoid rejection. Give yourself permission to do it right. Maybe all you can offer today is, “I want to forgive you, but right now I’m struggling emotionally. I promise I will work on it.”
  • Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It’s normal for memories to be triggered in the future. When thoughts of past hurts occur, it’s what we do with them that counts. When we find ourselves focusing on a past offense, we can learn to say, “Thank you, God, for this reminder of how important forgiveness is.”
  • Forgiveness starts with a mental decision. The emotional part of forgiveness is finally being able to let go of the resentment. Emotional healing may or may not follow quickly after we forgive.

If you’re like many people, you may want to be free of past offenses, but you still carry bitter memories of or hard feelings toward those who have wronged you. Take comfort: Forgiving even the worst offenses against you is not impossible. You can find freedom from the past and peace that comes from God by learning to really forgive from the heart.

Forgiveness is easier to grasp when broken into a five-step process.

Admit the Pain

Offenses always cause pain; our pride makes us deny it. Some take an attitude, “Who cares? You’re insignificant in my life. You can’t hurt me!” This insulates us from the acute pain of the moment, but it allows the infectious agent of resentment, like toxic bacteria, to enter our soul where it festers, creating a spiritual disease of bitterness. Such a condition gradually estranges us from others and even from God.

Denying pain keeps us from starting on the path to forgiveness. But the degree of pain required in this exercise is bearable. Honestly experiencing it long enough to understand the exact nature of the offense is actually the beginning of healing.

Work Through Confused Feelings

When an offense has occurred, we often need to clearly and carefully sort out responsibilities in a particular incident. As children, we believe the world revolves around us. Although this tendency is strongest in our formative years, it also persists somewhat into adulthood. When traumatic events occur, kids believe it’s mostly their fault. (“If I hadn’t made Dad angry, he wouldn’t have had a heart attack and died.”)

As adults we need to develop firm ground within ourselves — to set boundaries and defend them when limits are violated.

Seek Information

Once we’re clear as to who’s responsible for what, the next step is to discover why the offender hurt us. This keeps us from dwelling single-mindedly on how we were hurt or how we wish to see the other person punished. If appropriate, we may need to ask friends or family members for information. Or we can use our imagination and place ourselves in the offender’s position.

What we’re not doing is looking for an excuse. No reasoning can excuse, for example, crimes against humanity such as torture, rape, extortion, blackmail, murder and the like. But gathering information is important.

Consider Rita’s experience. Her husband had an affair with an emotionally disturbed woman. He eventually broke off the relationship and tried to repair the damage he’d done to Rita, whom he still loved. But Rita couldn’t forgive her husband or the other woman. It was bad enough he’d had an affair — but to choose such a wretchedly unhappy and abused woman added insult to injury.

Inadvertently, Rita learned a bit about the other woman’s history. As a little girl, she’d often been made to bend naked over the bathtub while her father beat her with a belt until blood ran down her legs. As Rita heard this story, she found tears running down her cheeks. Any child raised by such a criminally abusive father might wind up seducing men in a desperate search for love. This information also lent credibility to her husband’s story that he’d first befriended the woman because he felt sorry for her; he then felt affectionate toward this “hurting soul.” … Eventually, the lines between affection and sexual involvement blurred. Further searching unearthed events in her husband’s life that explained his vulnerability to such a strange relationship.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the more Rita understood the facts, the more she was able to relinquish her anger and pain. She could truly forgive and sincerely pray for the woman. Understanding was not condoning the affair. And much work had to be done to heal her husband’s past to prevent further offenses.

But for Rita, the restoration process took a step forward when the truth was known.

Allow Information to Become Insight

Once the facts are clear, we might imagine that forgiveness occurs automatically. Too often, however, our humanity gets in the way. Our self-protective and vengeful impulses can pitch us into rounds of self-pity, bitterness and anger.

It takes heroic effort to move beyond our own pain to understand what prevents us from saying, “I forgive you.”

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes the most extreme abuses imaginable perpetrated on her and the other inmates of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Months after the war was over, Corrie was traveling through Germany speaking in churches about God’s love and forgiveness. Inwardly, though, she knew her words had a hollow sound.

After speaking in a church in Munich, she was approached by a man she recognized as one of her former guards, a particularly cruel one. He now reflected a semblance of humanity and smiled brightly as he talked about his newfound faith in God. Looking Corrie in the eye, he held out his hand. “Fraülein, if you can forgive me, then I’ll know what you say is true — that God forgives me.”

Gripped by a terrible conflict, Corrie wanted either to turn her back on this man or do violence to him. In her mind’s eye she could see her father and sister, who were both killed by the Nazis; she’d wanted to forgive those who were responsible. And this moment brought insight as to why she’d been unable to do more than speak hollowly about forgiveness. She was daily reliving the horror of the camp.

Corrie also realized that she would continue to be haunted by old feelings and memories if she did not move beyond them. This was her chance. But could she do it?

Her arm remained frozen at her side, while the man’s remained outstretched. As he stared at her, Corrie prayed for strength she could not find in herself. Giving her will over to God, unable to change it on her own, coldly she stuck out her hand and clasped the palm of her former enemy.

“In that moment,” she later wrote, “something miraculous happened. A current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.”

Forgiveness is a gift of God’s grace. What Corrie described — the healing of one heart, the freeing of another — is a true miracle. The wonder of it is that God gives us insight into our own heart and involves us with Him in the freeing of another.

Choose to Relinquish the Whole Event

It was, interestingly, in a psychiatry class that I (Grace) learned relinquishment.

The class was discussing how to let go of past tragedies and trauma that hurt and scar. One man, Lou, had been weeping copiously, obviously reliving some pain of his own.

“Lou,” the professor said, “I want you to wrap up that handkerchief and hold it tightly in your hand.” After a long silence, he said, “Now, let it fall.” The bunched handkerchief landed on the floor.

In a few moments, Lou reached down to pick up his handkerchief. But another student observed him and suggested that this was the way we all tried to “pick up our old burdens again.” With a smile now, Lou left the handkerchief there.

We all saw that it’s our choice — an act of our will — that sets us free from burdens of the past.

It seems that human beings have always had trouble with the idea of forgiving someone who has wronged them. It’s just not natural to us. But Jesus Christ, the master of forgiveness came to show us a new way, a supernatural way, to live. He teaches us how to adopt new attitudes of the heart that help us live “above” our natural impulses.

You, too, can be healed and set free as you learn to walk the path of forgiveness. The gifts of personal wholeness in Jesus Christ can be yours, even when you think forgiveness is impossible. The question is, are you willing to begin?

Hurdle #1: Wrong Thinking

Many people mistakenly think that adultery is simply a wrong action, but it is also a violation of God’s divine order for marriage. A person who has had an affair must seek his spouse’s forgiveness, not just for the adulterous act, but also for violating the marriage covenant, or sacred commitment. An intact marriage covenant creates an atmosphere of security and trust. That security and trust is what Kim needs in order to give herself freely to Jim. Only a restored sense of security and trust, borne of Jim asking and receiving forgiveness for breaking the covenant, can begin to restore Kim’s confidence, peace and joy.

Hurdle #2: A Multi-Faceted Struggle

It is important to realize that a wounded spouse, such as Kim, will struggle with multiple issues. On one hand, her own sexual identity has become confused. Because of Jim’s act of immorality Kim finds herself asking deep in her soul, What is wrong with me that he would want someone else? There is also the issue of shame emerging in her spirit: shame that he would want any other woman, and especially that it was her friend Bonnie. How could it be Bonnie? Bonnie of all people! Another facet of Kim’s struggle is her confusion over her lack of peace. Although she has forgiven Jim’s acts, she needs to process and eventually forgive him for the ways she has been affected by his violation of their marriage vows.

Hurdle #3: Getting to the Real Problem

On the surface, it may appear that one’s behavior is the problem, and that a promise “to change” is the solution. However, the real problem with someone like Jim is the fact that in his mind, he granted himself permission to break his marriage vows. To address only his behavior and overlook this issue of permission will leave both Kim and Jim in limbo. Without getting to the real problem, both spouses are destined to continue feeling as though something is wrong, but neither will understand what. They will limp along, wondering why their relationship is so tentative and distant.

Hurdle #4: Inability to Trust or Be Trusted

This ties in closely with Hurdle #1. Once a marital covenant has been breached, trust will be difficult — but necessary — to restore. Without trust, a couple cannot know intimacy. To set the stage for restored trust, Jim must be able to humbly admit that he is unable to manage his sin or keep his promises, and that he is deeply addicted to the pleasure of sin. At that point, he will be in a position to receive God’s freeing grace and empowerment to choose differently. By being humble and openly dependent on God, Jim will also be putting himself in a position where Kim can begin to trust him again. As renewed trust grows between them, the couple will be able to enjoy rich intimacy, true fulfillment and sustaining joy.

By conquering these hurdles together, hurting spouses can overcome the damage of infidelity. By learning to trust God in a new, much deeper way, they can enjoy a stronger, more fulfilling marriage.

One of the most wonderful gifts of a loving marriage is the ability to trust your mate—trust that he will be true to you emotionally; trust that she does what she says she will do; trust that he is the same person on the inside that he presents on the outside; trust that she has your best interest in mind. This creates safety, security and a deeper capacity to love. Successful marriages are built on trust. So how do mates develop and maintain this virtue in their relationship?

Understand the Nature of Trust

One of the Old Testament words for trust (batach) has a meaning of “careless.” Think about it: When you trust your spouse, you feel so safe that you are careless—or free of concern—with him or her. You don’t have to hide who you are or be self-protective.

Talk about this definition with your spouse. Ask yourselves, “Are we careless with each other? Or are we guarded in some ways?” It’s sometimes difficult to be vulnerable with your spouse, but doing so gives your mate a chance to love and understand you.

Be Trustworthy

Trust isn’t given unconditionally. You have to be trustworthy to receive trust. Even Jesus submitted himself to the trust test, teaching people to see if He was really who He claimed: “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does” (John 10:37).

What does that mean for you as a couple? It means checking with your spouse on how you affect him or her. Ask your mate, “In what ways have I not been trustworthy?” For example, perhaps you have been critical or harsh when your spouse admits a fault or weakness. This erodes trust and shows you can’t be trusted with more vulnerable parts of the heart. Or maybe you have not delivered on your promises. Asking your spouse for honest input will reveal areas that you may need to work on to build trust in your marriage.

Put an End to Deception

Trust and truth go hand in hand. That is why deception of any sort is the biggest trust killer.

There is no such thing as a white lie. Being honest with your spouse includes telling the truth about where you were, whom you talked to, what you said and where you spent money. Many marriages have been saved because both spouses committed to being honest, even if it involved painful truths.

Give Change a Chance

Let’s suppose your marriage has experienced a breach of trust already. The hurt from that experience can cause you to withdraw your heart and decide never to trust again. But don’t give up on your spouse. Give him or her a chance to earn your trust so that your marriage can be restored.

But remember: There must be more than apologies. To earn your trust, your spouse needs to make some real changes. Maybe the offending spouse needs to join a support group or talk to a mentor. Maybe he or she needs to be more accountable to you and even accept consequences for bad behavior in the future.

One couple I counseled experienced a crisis of trust that could have torn their marriage apart. The husband flirted with other women: waitresses, co-workers, even their mutual friends. He thought it was harmless until his wife told him how alone and scared it made her feel. He saw how it was affecting her, and he was a changed man.

He told her, “If you see me being inappropriate with a woman again, tell me right there and I will stop.” He became more accountable, and she was finally able to trust her husband.

Trust can be built and rebuilt, and couples can enjoy the intimacy that comes from being secure in each other’s love.

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 completely forgive 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.

Once Upon a Time

Marital conflict and discord don’t blindside couples out of the blue. Self-protective natures and divisive issues start taking form long before we awake to their existence. And they often begin in childhood.

“My mother was schizophrenic,” Mark recalls. “She hallucinated every day and showed no interest in her appearance or health, nor was she under treatment. She also refused to acknowledge that my brother, sister and I were growing up.

In fact, it wasn’t until I interviewed psychiatric patients during my second year of medical school that I realized my mother was mentally ill!

“My father was emotionally unavailable. He worked two jobs, one a night shift, and defined himself by his work and paychecks. And that’s how he valued his kids. For each A on our report cards, we received a dollar. Any other grade earned nothing. Not surprisingly, I graduated from high school with only one B.”

Liz’s childhood had been more carefree. Or so it appeared. “My mom stayed home to raise three daughters while Dad worked,” she explains. “We enjoyed eating out and lacked little in the way of comforts. On the outside, ours was a happy life.

“But Mom didn’t have an identity outside of being ‘Mom,’ and her resentment played out in anger. As the oldest, I thought I had to fix everything, to please everyone and always to look happy.” Liz even went to college simply because her parents wanted her to go.

So when Mark completed medical school in 1988, “I had arrived!” Liz says. “I was a doctor’s wife. Now we could live the way we wanted to – like my parents did – and even buy a big house. I could stay home with Emily, who was just 3 at the time, become more involved in church and do and have everything I’ve always wanted.”

More than anything, she wanted to be taken care of. Little did she know, that expectation was something Mark simply could not fulfill.

The Demise of Prince Charming

“My ninth-grade science teacher told me my drive to achieve would take me as far as anyone could go,” Mark says. And after enduring 80-plus grueling hours each week and occasional 36-hour stretches of sleeplessness during his internship, he reached that point. Trying to make ends meet and care for his pregnant wife and young daughter were more than he could handle.

“Liz had no idea what my life was like,” Mark explains. “She didn’t understand our financial situation and why it was putting so much stress on our marriage. And I didn’t sit down and tell her.”

Never having learned how his needs should be met while growing up, Mark looked elsewhere, finding comfort in an on-again-off-again affair with another woman. News of her husband’s infidelity crushed Liz. “The one person I loved more than anything – even more than God at times – had betrayed me. He moved out, we separated. I was three months pregnant and now had Emily to raise by myself,” she recalls. “I was paralyzed with fear. Plus, my best friend, Mary, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt like Cinderella after midnight, dressed in rags and all alone in a pumpkin patch. It wasn’t pretty.”

Yet that’s precisely where God met both Liz and Mark.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

For Mark, feelings of abandonment and shame crept in. “I drifted away from church and God and everyone I knew,” he says. “In fact, I blamed Him for everything; after all, He was the one who allowed me to be born into such a dysfunctional family. And, He allowed my relationship with Liz to unravel.”

Liz, too, faced many emotional ups and downs. In spring 1989, she gave birth to their second daughter, Kate. Then she watched her friend Mary succumb to cancer over the course of the next two years. “Caring for Mary and eventually losing her was so painful, and it required me to seriously examine rooms in my life I never before had entered,” she says.

“But my relationship with God began to grow by leaps and bounds. I realized that no one person can meet another’s needs completely – that’s the Lord’s job. But instead of looking to Him, I had made Mark responsible. God also taught me that life is not a fairy tale, but an intimately detailed story; one that takes time – His time – to tell.”

“Working at the hospital was all I had,” Mark continues. “Like my father, work defined who I was. No one could tell me how to do it better; in fact, I was quick to pass judgment on others.

“Then, despite my protests, one of the attending physicians sent me home on Christmas Day 1990, saying I should be with my family. Never had I felt so alone.”

Staring at the walls of his one-room apartment was a turning point in Mark’s life. “I remembered a story in John 5, where Jesus heals an invalid. He asks the man, ‘Do you want to get well?’ At that moment, I felt God asking the same of me. ‘Yes!’ ”

Waking Up to Reality

Another question remained: Would the Mannenbachs’ marriage make it? “It had nothing to grow on,” Liz says. “No give and take, no nurture, no intimacy. My view of marriage was purely functional – two people having children, not a relationship; in other words, it was just like my parents’. I even cooked many of Mother’s meals and kept house the same way she did.”

For two years, the Mannenbachs sought the help of a counselor, as a couple and individually. “Even Emily, young as she was, needed help sorting out all the anger, fear and loss that goes with broken relationships,” Liz says.

“We spent so many hours in counseling,” Mark quips, “we qualify for a master’s degree in family therapy!”

But toward the end of that time, Liz found herself sitting in their counselor’s office with the sinking feeling that the marriage was truly over. “I set boundaries with Mark and wouldn’t budge, and he didn’t easily accept these limitations. I was at the end; the loss and pain were too great,” she says. “I also knew God had taken care of me and would continue to do so, whether I was married or not.”

As Mark sat in his apartment that Christmas day in 1990, he also remembered something their counselor had told him: “God loves you for who you are, not for what you’ve done – good or bad. Let Him love you!”

Those words began a long road to mending their marriage, which included a recommitment ceremony in December 1991.

Happily Ever After?

In the years since their reconciliation, the Mannenbachs have grown in their faith and in their relationships with each other and the Lord. The births of two more children, Evan and Ben, have helped cement the entire family. “We are now very aware of how crucial it is for us to leave behind our childhood views and beliefs in order to live a life of committed marriage and service to Christ,” Mark says. “There are still many times when the glass slipper just doesn’t fit either one of us, but we are still in counseling, working on communication and learning to be vulnerable with each other and with God.”

And often that vulnerability takes them out of their comfort zones. “Ten weeks after Ben was born, we moved from Milwaukee to Rochester, Minn., because we felt God could better use us here,” Mark continues. “That wasn’t easy for either Liz or me, what with a new baby, new house and new job. But we have learned we need to put God first in our lives and not keep Him out of any part of it – to have a ‘with-boots-on’ kind of faith. James 1:22-23 says, ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’

“So, I stepped out and did something I knew was not for me. In January 1995, I joined 13 others on a medical missions trip to the Philippines. What an experience! While there, God planted in me a heart of compassion. He reminded me that, much as I’d beg to differ, He’s the One in complete control.”

Relinquishing that control has led the Mannenbachs to go public with their story, something else which has been neither comfortable nor easy for them. “But Liz and I know there are many others physicians and medical families who face the same or similar circumstances,” Mark says. “And they need to know there is hope and possibility, even after obvious sin.

“All through my life, ” Mark continues, “I asked, ‘Why?’ Why was my mother mentally ill? Why didn’t Dad pay more attention to me? Why doesn’t my wife understand my needs?”

His answer? “For me, and for Liz as well, I believe the reason for our struggles is the same as it was for a blind man Jesus healed. It’s not a matter of ‘Who sinned?’ but that the healing would bring glory to His name.”

What if I Can’t Forgive?

Dear Dr. Bill: I’ve heard you talking about forgiveness on this program and I wonder if you can help me. I’m having trouble forgiving my husband for his adultery. I discovered the truth back in February and kicked him out of the house. Now he wants to reconcile but how can I stay married without losing my self-respect? Maybe I can forgive my husband, but I don’t think I can love him like before. And if I divorce him and lose my house, it would feel like I was being punished for something I didn’t do. What do you think?

Kendra, I’m very sorry to hear about your husband’s affair. I’m sure the past 10 months have been very difficult for you, and that you’ve experienced feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and betrayal.

If your husband is truly repentant, I believe you should give reconciliation a chance. You may find it hard to believe, but many couples whose marriages were devastated by adultery have been able to put the pieces back together and go on to have a fulfilling, loving relationship again.

Every one of those couples will tell you the process involved a lot of hard work, and that the feelings of love didn’t return overnight. But some would tell you that their marriage is healthier now than it was prior to the affair.

If you are willing to at least consider reconciliation, I’d encourage you to find a Christian therapist who is experienced in working with marriages impacted by adultery. Our Focus on the Family counseling department may be able to help you locate a therapist in your area.

Also, let me recommend an excellent book that I know you’ll find helpful. It’s titled Unfaithful: Rebuilding Trust After Infidelity. The authors are Gary and Mona Shriver, a couple whose own marriage survived an affair. We recently aired their story on the Focus on the Family daily broadcast.

How Do I Restore My Relationships?

Dear Dr. Bill: Several years ago, my marriage was struggling and as a result, I became involved with another woman. The affair cost me five years of my marriage, five years of watching my children grow, and about five years of my life. Thankfully, my wife has chosen to forgive me and we are back together. But what I’d like to know is this: How can I rebuild the relationship with my wife and with my children to what it was before?

I appreciate your vulnerability and willingness to share this very difficult issue. First of all, I need to commend your wife for the strength and courage she has demonstrated in forgiving you. Many spouses who have been cheated on are never able to forgive their husband or wife.

From your e-mail, it sounds like you are truly repentant and have renewed your commitment to your wife. So you’ve already taken the first step toward healing.

It’s also important for you to understand that when a violation like an affair has occurred, it often takes a long time for trust to be rebuilt, both for the spouse and for the children. You can take specific actions to help re-build trust, such as joining a men’s accountability group at your church. You’ll need to find a group of men with whom you can be completely open and transparent, and who will be willing to hold you accountable to your commitment to your wife and kids.

You also need to understand that your family may still harbor feelings of anger toward you for what you did. It’s important that you not get defensive when they are angry with you or bring up the past. The fact is that you messed up and now you need to be willing to accept the consequences.

Most importantly, you, your wife, and your kids need to commit to family counseling. First, you and your wife need to work through those things in your marriage that caused the conflict in the first place. Basically you need to perform an “autopsy” on what died in the relationship and led to the affair. If you don’t, unresolved issues in your relationship will surface again. After you’ve dealt with the marital issues, it’s critical that your kids join you in the counseling process. They’ve got a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, and that needs to be done with a Christian family therapist. I want to urge you to call the Focus on the Family counseling department. You can speak to one of our caring counselors who will then refer you to a licensed therapist in your area.

By the way, a great book that will help you and your wife is called Torn Asunder: Recovering From Extra-Marital Affairsby the Rev. Dave Carder.


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