Forgiveness is the oil that lubricates and keeps the mechanisms of marriage running smoothly. Unforgiveness, on the other hand, often resembles a self-erected wall intended to protect us from further harm. The problem is this: the same wall that is erected for protection also shuts off the flow of love coming our way from others. It’s a no-win situation.
If we hope to have a healthy, God-honoring marriage, we must decide in advance each day to be a forgiver. In the same way we must decide to change the oil in our car from time to time, we must decide to grant and receive forgiveness. If we don’t make that decision over and over, the “engine” of our marriage will eventually implode and grind to a halt in a cloud of smoke.
I. Some Basics–Here are some basics concepts (which align with Scripture) that should guide our understanding of forgiveness:
- Acid of Unforgiveness–Unforgiveness is like ingesting an acid that can destroy a vessel from the inside out. It simply eats away at the fabric of our ability to have healthy relationships. We react to others with self-defensiveness, anger, and bitterness. We build self-protective walls that may give us a sense of safety, but the same walls designed for protection also keep out the genuine love that others may want to transmit our way. That love is the very thing we probably need to get through our valley of unforgiveness.
- Inside and Outside the Marriage–We need to hold ourselves to the requirement of total forgiveness, not only toward our mate but toward anyone else in our life. Unforgiveness produces anger, and anger toward a person outside the marriage will eventually spill over onto our marital partner.
- Satan’s Deception Plan–God has called us to forgiveness for our own good — knowing that our refusal to do so eventually renders us impotent and ineffective in our Christian walk. Satan, the great deceiver, attempts to confuse the importance of forgiveness by offering us several other alternatives — from self-justification to self-pity. None of them can substitute for the life and freedom that flows through pure forgiveness.
- Starting with the Vertical–Resolving conflicts in interpersonal relationships starts with resolving the conflict in our relationship with God—our self-focused, sin nature. This starts with receiving the forgiveness God has made available to us.
So, what exactly is forgiveness? Forgiveness is:
- A gift to both the forgiver and the forgiven
- A tool that allows us to relate well to others
- A weapon of warfare because it neutralizes
one of Satan’s favorite tactics (2 Cor. 2:11)
II. A quick review of Scripture leads us to several clear conclusions:
- If we want to be forgiven by God, we must forgive others (Mt. 6:14; Mk.11:25).
- We are to forgive others “just as in Christ God forgave” us. (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
- Confession and repentance is a prerequisite to granting and receiving forgiveness (I Jn. 1:9; Lk.17:4) (However, if another person refuses to confess and repent for their misdeeds against us, we must still stand against the tendency to harbor bitterness and resentment).
- By refusing to forgive others, we fall into the trap of grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30-32).
- When our marriage partner has sinned against us—and vice versa–we are commanded by Jesus to confront, to forgive, and to keep on forgiving:
“So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3).
Here is more on those three requirements of Luke 17:3:
When we find ourselves hurt, offended, or sinned against, most of us either “nurse and rehearse” the offense, or we strike back with a defensive counter-punch of our own. One of the most challenging things for Christians to do is to respond correctly by honestly “speaking the truth in love” (Eph.4:15), to confront, and to “rebuke” as the Scripture commands. The word for “rebuke” in Greek means to “speak frankly, honestly, and politely” as you tell a person how you feel that he or she has wronged you. Although most of us find direct confrontation very difficult to practice on a consistent basis, it sure beats the alternative: holding onto offenses year after year, fueled by a demonically-empowered diet of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness. If you have not yet started practicing Scriptural confrontation, there is no time like the present. You may need to seek some outside help to learn this important way of life.
The word “forgive” in Greek means to “set free, to let go, to release, to discharge or liberate completely.” It includes the idea of pardoning someone from their offense or canceling a debt without it being fully paid. Someone has also written that it means to surrender your perceived right to extract restitution or punishment.
For those of us who like to see some level of justice in this business of forgiveness, it is very freeing to find in Scripture that repentance and confession seem to be prerequisites to our obligation to forgive. This does not mean, of course, that we are allowed to harbor bitterness and judgmental attitudes toward those who have not yet sought our forgiveness. Someone has written accurately that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.
Letting It Go
The “letting go” aspect of forgiveness is probably the hardest for most people. In short, it means that once a person has confessed a wrong and sought our forgiveness, we must release them in a way similar to how God releases us (Ps. 103:12). We cannot succumb to the temptation to extract restitution, wish for their “deserved suffering,” hope they “get what they have coming,” etc. We must also give up the tendency to continually dredge up the wrong over and over until our pain is gone. In fact, we are exhorted by Scripture to decide to forgive and keep on forgiving (70 times 7).
III. What Forgiveness is Not—Another helpful way to study forgiveness is to focus on what forgiveness is NOT:
- It is not denying the gravity of the offense or deeming someone not guilty. [For instance, a criminal who steals should be forgiven by his victim, while still being held accountable for his actions. The thief on the cross received the justice set down by law while also receiving total forgiveness from Jesus. (Luke 23:40-43)];
- It is not justification or making excuses for unacceptable conduct;
- It is not refusing to confront something in the name of peace and “spirituality”;
- It is not extending unsanctified mercy to the other person by not requiring confession and repentance;
- It is not allowing the conduct to continue because the offender has previously sought forgiveness;
- It is not side-stepping the need to grieve lost happiness and lost dreams;
- It is not a substitute for discipline. (In the instance of a teenager who has shown himself to be irresponsible with the use of a car, we should freely forgive while withholding the key to the car.) In 2 Samuel 12:13-14, we see that David sinned and was disciplined by God. This did not alter the fact that he was totally forgiven.
- It is not to be confused with wisdom (A woman who is being abused by her husband is called by Scripture to an attitude of forgiveness but may clearly need to remove herself from the threat of physical harm).
IV. The Other Side of the Coin
The Biblical business of forgiveness is a two-sided coin. One side is the “act of the will” forgiveness that we are commanded to practice as Christians, as outlined above. The other side of the coin is the “healing side”–dealing with the wounding and consequences that flow from the conduct being forgiven. In short, wherever there is a need for forgiveness, there is very likely a need for healing as well. This means that when we are the offender, even after we have confessed our offense and sought forgiveness, we must stay engaged with our marriage partner through the healing process—the pathway of restoration through prayer. May the Lord grant to every person reading this piece a fresh calling and resolve to live a life of forgiveness in their marriage.
V. Keeping the Ground You Regain
After couples have honestly confronted offenses, given and received forgiveness, and decided to move forward with their lives, they still stand at a critical intersection in the road to relational healing. At this point, couples must be very intentional in living like they have received and given the gift of forgiveness. Stated differently, the likelihood of a lasting change will depend on how they treat each other after they have “cleared the air.” If you have a “forgiveness summit” with your partner (kiss and make-up) and then go back to treating each other poorly, research clearly shows that you will likely return to square one. In other words, the degree of positive reinforcement (doing “good things”) in your marriage following forgiveness will determine the long-term outcome. We all have something like an emotional bank account that dramatically influences the likelihood that repair attempts will be successful. An emotional bank account that is starting to fill with positive deposits will be able to “walk” in forgiveness much better than an “overdrawn” bank account that is receiving no positive emotional deposits. An empty tank will not allow you go move forward. This explains why apologies don’t do much good when someone is stressed by a lack of positivity in their relationship—and nothing actually changes after a truth session with their partner.
VI. What will happen when we as Christians decide to follow the road to reconciliation and restoration laid down in Matt. 18:15-17? We will be able to leave the past in our rearview mirror and move forward without the encumbrance of bitterness.
Gossip and slander will be silenced as we go to the offender first and refuse to give or receive a bad report. (Matt. 18:15)
Christians will edify one another. (Eph. 4:29-32)
Loyalty will build security in the Body. (Prov. 16:28)
Physical health will improve. (Prov. 15:30 NAS)
The world will believeGod is in our midst as they see our love for one another.
VII. Three Suggestions to Couples–In summary, here are three suggestions to guide your process of forgiveness:
1. Cultivate the Practice of Forgiving Small Things
Luke 16:10 “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
2. Capture Negative Thoughts and Take Positive Action
2 Corinthians 10:5: “…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Ephesians 4:30-32: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
3. Embrace the Fact that Forgiveness is Both an Act and an Ongoing Process—In addition to our responsibility to forgive others (as an act of our will), we must also stay in touch with the fact that our “old man” nature (which naturally wants to keep a record of wrong and seek revenge) must be regularly brought back to the Cross.
- It’s okay if you are not yet ready to forgive—just let your partner know that this is your desire, but that you need more time to process it correctly so that it is done with depth and sincerity.
- Never discount the importance of your obedience in forgiving another person—this may a golden opportunity for the other person to experience God’s heart of love and forgiveness for the very first time—or at a depth they have not known before.
- When forgiveness is needed, healing is also needed. The amount of time required to bring about healing in another person is usually proportional to the depth of the transgression committed against them (small offense = quick recovery; serious offense = much slower recovery).
- A serious offense often involves a loss of trust by the offended party. The act of forgiveness does not necessarily mean that the offended party can or should automatically trust the offender (in cases of ongoing sexual abuse or chemical addictions, for example). Trust restoration is a process. Here is a suggested pathway for rebuilding trust in a relationship:
Trust Is Rebuilt By Relentless :
R–eliability / Faithfulness / Predictability
U–nselfishness / Unconditional Love
S–ubmission to God / Each Other / Others
T–ime Investment / Priorities
For some other helpful information on forgiveness, check out :
“A happy marriage is the union of two forgivers.”—Ruth Bell Graham.