What does “forgiveness” mean to you? How do you know you are forgiven? What makes you feel like you haven’t been forgiven? What makes you reluctant to forgive someone else?
Forgiveness is essential to any healthy relationship. One of the defining characteristics of love according to Paul is “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV). The Message puts it this way, “love doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,” and the New American Standard reads, “love does not take into account a wrong suffered.” The literal translation from the Greek is “[love] does not reckon the evil [suffered].” Regardless of your preferred translation, the point is love doesn’t hold a grudge, file away past offenses until such a time as they are needed to get the upper hand in an argument, use previous mistakes to assassinate someone’s character, or provide justification for your own bad behavior or retaliation. In other words, love forgives.
Forgiveness is an easy concept, but a difficult practice. You probably don’t have to dig too deep to think of things—whether it was last night, last week, or years ago—that honestly still makes your blood boil. Because we are human, we are prone to say and do things that hurt other people. Sometimes the wounds are intentional and sometimes they are unintentional. The marriage relationship is no exception. We do and say things that hurt our spouses. Failure to forgive is poison to a marriage. For a marriage to work, forgiveness must be freely given and received.
In order to understand what forgiveness is, let’s start with what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is not a “power play” in which you gain control over someone else because of a past offense. It is not a tool for manipulation in a relationship. If you say you’ve forgiven someone but then continually hold the offense over their head, have you truly forgiven them?
- Forgiveness is not something you withhold until you receive an “adequate” apology. Yes, we need to apologize when we hurt our spouses, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking “He apologized, but I don’t think he really meant it.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but extend the same benefit-of-the-doubt you would want extended to you.
- Forgiveness is not ignoring the effects or consequences of bad behavior. Using forgiveness for manipulation and control is radically different from helping someone be accountable so as not to repeat hurtful or destructive behaviors. Our actions have consequences and genuine honest forgiveness doesn’t automatically erase the ramifications of our actions.
- Forgiveness is not an immediate restoration of trust in a relationship. As much as we’d all like to think otherwise, “forgive and forget” is a fallacy. Every offense is a breaking of trust on some level, and even when forgiveness is given and received, trust still has to be rebuilt. There is always a balance between being able to be honest about your spouse hurting you and acknowledging that it will take time to heal, versus refusing to forgive.
Then what is forgiveness? Although it is not a perfect definition, this is my best stab at it. Forgiveness is graciously giving and receiving pardon. It is moving forward rather than always looking backward. Giving pardon is not the same as pretending the offense didn’t occur. It is removing the fear of punishment and retaliation, and extending mercy and love. As I said at the outset, the concept is easy to understand, but putting it into practice is much more difficult.
Why should I forgive my spouse when he/she hurts me? Mainly, because you want to be forgiven when you mess up; and you will mess up at some point. If forgiveness is difficult for you, consider this—when you forgive, you surrender control to God; when you refuse to forgive, you surrender control to the one who hurt you. Without forgiveness, you will forever be a slave to your anger, frustration, and disappointment. It will become easy to slide into character assassination, to begin looking for additional faults in your mate, and to amplify both the nature and repercussions of the original offense. When you forgive, that won’t always erase the hurt or restore the trust, but at least it puts you on a path toward healing and reconciliation.
On a final note, remember that confession and accountability go a long way in opening the door for forgiveness. Pride and a stubborn refusal to admit fault will have tragic consequences for a marriage relationship. And most of all, don’t neglect the power of prayer when you are seeking or imparting forgiveness. How much has God forgiven you of? He calls on us to extend the same grace to others, especially your closest, most intimate neighbor.
Ask your spouse if you have done or are doing anything that hurts him/her. Ask for his/her forgiveness and commit yourself to accepting responsibility for your part in the situation and doing what you can to resolve it. Pray together, asking God to forgive you and to reconcile your relationship with each other and with Him.