Forgiveness is rarely instantaneous. The words “I forgive you” are freely offered with a faith towards God, but we all know they can betray the chaos churning within. Heartache and mental anguish can break into your mind unannounced. It creeps up when you’re down and often waits to greet you the moment you wake. But biblical forgiveness absorbs at least two costs.
Each of us have been forgiven an inestimable debt that we could never repay.
First, a spouse must say, “I’m not going to punish you.” There’s not a person among us who hasn’t mentally prosecuted a spouse and delivered the verdict spoken by the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:28: “Pay what you owe!” But for forgiveness to happen, we must deny the instinct to throttle a debtor and release him or her from punishment. We must be willing to see ourselves as ones who owed an unpayable debt to God. Yet we received his unmerited forgiveness because Jesus paid the debt we owed. Now we live as those who abandon the right to vindication because a higher principle guides our response. We live “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave (us).” (Eph. 4: 23)
Second, we must say, “I will instead absorb the debt for this sin.” Debt doesn’t just mysteriously evaporate. If I loan you $10 and you refuse to pay, the money doesn’t magically appear back in my wallet. By choosing to forgive you this debt, I have to eat it. To be brutally honest, this single issue often becomes the tripping point on the path towards reconciliation. We want to forgive, but we assume it shouldn’t cost us. We feel that the sheer willingness to not retaliate is sufficient. We instinctively react to the injustice of absorbing a debt: “Wait, you did it! Now I also have to pick up the tab?” To treat our spouse as their sin deserves (with anger, withdrawal, or emotional punishment) actually seems fairer and more equitable.
But when we do this, we’ve forgotten just how much we have already been forgiven. We’ve lost sight of the debt Christ paid for us. Each of us have been forgiven an inestimable debt that we could never repay. In response, we pass along the forgiveness we have received because of Christ’s death and resurrection. And that transfer begins right where we live and should be aimed first at the person we married.
How do we learn to live in forgiveness? What lessons are essential to help forgiveness stick? Here are three questions we should ask ourselves and others about forgiveness:
- Where is your head? Do you ever slow down long enough to scrutinize your thinking? Where is your mind? Upon what do you tend to dwell? Face it: A fallen mind is always vulnerable to godless thoughts. Bitterness and resentment are fed through meditation. How does God reach us when our heart staggers mindlessly into dark, angry thoughts? What if all you can think is “I-can’t-believe-they-did-that!”?
God knows us too well. He understands how being hurt influences our perception. Like spiritual amnesiacs, we hear the appeal for forgiveness and see small changes, but we don’t remember our Savior hanging suspended from a tree. But God has not left us without help. He tells us to plant our mind in the fertile soil of praise-worthy things: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8)
In this passage, God tells to move beyond perceiving to pondering. He says, “Husband or wife, you’re prone to wander and stray towards how you have been hurt or betrayed. Let me help you. Think about these things instead!” God guides us in how to fix our mind to rescue us from cynical cycles and godless preoccupations. God says, “Take the good, just, and lovely things you see, and park your mind on them!”
- Where is your heart? As God redirects our thoughts, he helps us to see life from his perspective. Yes, it takes some grace-infused activity on our part. But perceiving and pondering become grace-filled efforts where God loves to lend a hand.
We all know the difficulties. Life carries pain. We will suffer, have conflict, and sin. We will stand motionless in moments where God seems distant and aloof; times where resentment seems like the only logical way to think. Christians who fight against bitterness, though, are never trapped there. Even in desolate places, God is present; working to lift our eyes above the soul’s dismissive cynicism to a world of beauty and a beautiful Savior.
A friend of mine has a simple soul-exercise he uses when his mind skates upon the thin ice of how he feels wronged. When his mind grows dark with temptations towards bitterness or resentment, he simply sets aside ten minutes to write down the areas where he sees God’s goodness at work. He says it’s an act of subversion. By returning to where God is actively blessing him, he stokes a fire in his heart that consumes the bad and animates the good. “It helps me,” he once said, “to see things from God’s perspective.”
Do you see the path? Your meditation helps determine your direction. Fight to find that path. Then fight to stay on it! When we ponder the right things, and praise God for his good works, we proceed in the right direction. And along the way we discover something truly remarkable: Where forgiveness flows freely, the gospel becomes bigger.
- Where are your hands? Forgiving isn’t just a matter of thinking and feeling. It requires action. Jesus made this clear when he spoke of the repeat offender, “If he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:4 ESV).
Think about it. Seven offenses in one day. That’s one seriously deluded spouse exporting a lot of chaos into your world! How do you keep forgiving after the fourth or fifth incident from the same person? How do you still your soul while you pray for a more, shall we say, fruit-bearing repentance?
First, and this one is obvious, your hands should not be around his or her neck in a chokehold screaming, “Pay what you owe!” The problem for the unforgiving servant was that he was unwilling to do for another what the Master had done for him—abandon his status as sinned against, release his grip, and begin living life as a fellow sinner for whom much had been forgiven.
On the other hand, we need to learn that this sometimes means keeping your arms folded. Forgiving a sinner who repeatedly “repents” and trusting that same person are two different issues. I’m not talking about withdrawing your love or punishing them with subtle digs or emotional manipulation. But if your spouse has demonstrated a pattern towards a specific sin, you cannot return trust until you see fruit. After all, Scripture does not call us to trust each other. We are called to trust God and love each other. This means our forgiveness towards them should be immediate each time they ask. But our trust may need to be based on evidence of change. You want to see proof that the mercy and forgiveness they are requesting publicly has resulted in private transformation.
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea,” C. S. Lewis observed, “until they have something to forgive.” Perhaps the most painful and courageous part of forgiveness is when we must absorb the cost of a spouse’s sin.
Christians who fight against bitterness…are never trapped there.
The pain of being sinned against doesn’t go away quickly. Words spoken, money lost, vows broken—these pains get stuck on repeat. But even when forgiveness is painful, it’s necessary for our souls. Because as ones who walk this earth having been forgiven much, we must turn to other debtors and pass along what we have received. Not first because it makes for peaceful relationships or longer marriages, but because it first mirrors the gospel that exalts the One who transforms our marriage.