Are there times when we shouldn’t forgive? When hurts or wrongdoing are chronic and deep, you may find yourself in the position of wondering whether you should forgive at all.
Doing Fresh Start divorce recovery seminars around the country, I run into this question all the time. People are dealing with hurts that go well beyond their human ability to forgive. “Why should I forgive him?” I’ll hear. “He’ll just think that what he did was okay. Maybe if I don’t forgive him, it’ll teach him a lesson.”
Certainly God wants us to forgive and be reconciled, even when the wounds are deep. But there are some legitimate parameters regarding how we do this.
A woman stalked up to me angrily after I had spoken about forgiveness at a seminar for separated and divorced people. “You Christians are all alike,” she ranted. “You judge me and tell me what I should do, but you don’t have to live in my shoes!”
“Back up,” I begged. “What do you think you heard me say?”
“You told me that I needed to forgive my husband and be reconciled. But he was abusive to me for years. I took the abuse far too long because my pastor told me I should submit. Then when I saw him begin to abuse my children as well, I gathered the courage to leave him for good. Now you tell me I have to forgive him as if it never happened.”
I thanked this woman for coming to me immediately and not walking away with a misconception; I needed to clarify some things. When wrongdoing is chronic, reconciliation is difficult and perhaps inadvisable.
We can forgive within our spirits, but the full restoration of a relationship requires the commitment of both parties. Forgiveness means that we don’t harbor ill will toward the person who wronged us, but it does not mean that the wrong was right.
Here’s a trivial but helpful example. I have a friend who is always late. Before I knew this about him, I offered to carpool with him to church on Sunday mornings. The first time he was to pick me up, he arrived about a half hour late, making us a half hour late to church. Well, I’m one of those people who really wants to be on time, or even early, so I let my friend know how I felt. He apologized and offered to make it up to me by driving next week, promising to be early.
As you might guess, he was a half hour late again but apologized profusely, promising that he’d never let it happen again. He even offered to come an hour early the next week and treat me to breakfast at a diner on the way to church. Not only did we miss breakfast the next week, but we were late to church again.
Do I need to forgive my friend for being late? Yes. I need to accept his sincere apology. I should not let his chronic tardiness destroy our friendship. He feels terrible about this, and I should release him from his debt to me. Yes, he made me late to church a few times, but that cannot be undone. I choose not to hold a grudge against him, which would only wreck a relationship and poison my spirit.
But will I let him pick me up for church next week? No, thank you. I’ll drive myself to church. So it is in marriage, when there is chronic abuse, lying, or affairs. Wronged partners need to get to a point of forgiving their spouses, but they should also take steps to get out of the position where they can be hurt deeply again.
As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in the sacredness of the marriage commitment. But I also believe that there are times when an abused partner must separate himself or herself for protection and perspective. It’s a simple issue of safety.
If a wife is being physically abused by her husband, she should move out —and then work toward reconciliation through counseling. I recommend that an abused spouse not return until there is strong evidence of behavioral changes in the abusive spouse.
If your spouse repeatedly has affairs, it is not your Christian duty to ignore the problem, to “forgive and forget.” Your errant spouse is violating the marriage commitment, and you need to stand up for those promises you both made. If your partner is truly repentant, you need to work through the forgiveness process together, demanding an end to the infidelity.
How can you tell if your spouse is truly repentant? You need more than an apology (although it starts there). Your spouse should take strong steps away from the misbehavior and toward the marriage —cutting off ties with the other person, staying out of tempting situations, agreeing to counseling, committing time and energy to you. If your spouse is not wiling to offer these fruits of repentance, you should question his or her sincerity and take steps to protect yourself from future infidelities.
If your partner continues to break your marriage vows, you may need to attend to your own safety by putting some distance in the relationship —if not moving out, maybe moving to a different bedroom (especially with the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases). You’re still committed to the marriage, but your spouse is flouting that commitment. You’re saying, in essence, “Meet me here at the altar of our sacred marriage vows. But if you have no interest in that, I need to look out for my own well-being.”
In cases of chronic lying, you may not have grounds to leave the person, but you want to make sure you protect yourself from hurt. You simply cannot trust your spouse’s word, so you’ll need to rely on others for reality checks. Don’t feel guilty for double-checking and verifying the stories of your lying partner.
If he or she says, “Would I lie to you?” your appropriate response is, “Yes, you have done so on many occasions, and I can’t afford to trust your word anymore.” It is hard to maintain a relationship without trust, so you will almost certainly need counseling to restore a healthy relationship.
There are many chronic behaviors that are less damaging, but still annoying. Your spouse may be late or disorganized or forgetful or rude. Good communication is crucial in dealing with such issues. You must let your spouse know how much the offensive behavior hurts you. While you do not expect perfection, you do expect effort, and you hope for improvement.
One problem with a lot of chronic behavior in marriage is that both partners get used to it. The offending spouse gets tired of asking for forgiveness and the offended spouse gets tired of raising the issue. So the behavior continues, and grudges grow. Steady communication keeps the issue on the surface, where it can be dealt with.
Another problem is that the apology-and-forgiveness process can be watered down. When the problem is chronic, the words “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are repeated so often that they can be misunderstood.
“I’m sorry” can begin to mean “I’m sorry that you’re upset about this (but hey, that’s just the way I am).”
It should mean “I was wrong; I’ll do everything possible not to do it again.”
“I forgive you” can be understood as “It’s all right; no problem; no damage done.”
It should mean “Yes, you hurt me, but I will not let that action poison our relationship.”
Whether the offense is as major as an extramarital affair or as minor as leaving the cap off the toothpaste, the full process of forgiveness requires repentance rather than excuse.
THE UNREPENTANT PARTNER What if your spouse never asks for forgiveness?
There are reasons that he or she may not ask for forgiveness. The most obvious is that your spouse doesn’t think he or she did anything wrong. You can debate the facts of the case forever, but at some point you may need to make a unilateral decision to forgive. Just let it go. You let go of it even though your partner doesn’t admit there was an offense.
Let’s examine the incident between Wilma and Fred. Let’s say that Wilma knows that she did not throw away Fred’s memorabilia. She suspects that Fred threw it away carelessly years ago, but that he just wants someone else to blame.
Fred believes wholeheartedly that Wilma threw away his stuff and that now she’s lying about it. Neither one can apologize—both genuinely believe they’re innocent. In a case like this, if there is an apology, it’s probably an appeasement: “If I did something wrong, I’m sorry.” You’re just saying the debate is not worth wrecking the relationship.
That’s a noble decision sometimes, but if you find these impasses are happening regularly, it can become frustrating, even maddening. (And watch out for the passive-aggressive response, offering a quick apology but determining to get even later.)
The solution approach is helpful in a case like this. Rather than focusing on the past problem, look toward the future. Where do you want to go from here? From this perspective, it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What will it take to live together peacefully? You can agree to disagree about the facts of the case —just agree to move on.
The two partners can employ the act-as-if method. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Fred may still believe that Wilma threw away his stuff, but to keep peace he decides to act as if she didn’t. He releases his grudge, even though Wilma never agrees to having done wrong. There’s another reason a person might refuse to ask for forgiveness: He or she may be lying.
Let’s look at the case of Art and Sylvia. Let’s say that Sylvia knows that Art is having an affair, but when she confronts him about it, he angrily denies all wrongdoing. He might even accuse her of being paranoid or crazy. But the facts are clear —Sylvia has undeniable evidence that Art is having an affair, even though he’s not willing to take responsibility for it. In such a situation, how should Sylvia proceed with her forgiveness?
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus spoke about trying to make things right with someone who has wronged you. If the initial confrontation with the person doesn’t result in repentance and reconciliation, Jesus said, “Take one or two others along.“ This makes a lot of sense, even in a marital situation. You need perspective. With just the two of you, you could argue forever, your word against your spouse’s. But if you bring a counselor into the picture, or a church leader, or some mutually trusted friends, you can better establish the facts of the situation.
In counseling, we sometimes set up an intervention, where we call together significant friends and relatives to confront a person about a problem he or she has been denying. This is especially helpful if the person is dealing with some kind of addiction. In such cases, a certified addiction counselor would be the best one to lead the intervention. In cases of chronic affairs or lying, mature Christian friends or church leaders might be best.
Why do you need to get someone else in on your personal problems? Well, maybe you are being paranoid. If so, the third party can tell you so. If you have undeniable evidence, then the third party can confirm it, and your spouse will be forced to own up to his or her wrongdoing.
The purpose is not one-upmanship or humiliation, but agreement. If your relationship is going to be healthy again, you and your spouse need to agree on where you both stand. Often just the threat of airing your dirty laundry before others will force the errant spouse to admit the transgression.
What if your spouse refuses to see a counselor or some other third party? There may be legitimate concerns about who the third party is; if so, negotiate this as best you can. But if your spouse stubbornly refuses to see anyone, you should see a counselor or church leader on your own. This will give you much needed support and valuable advice on how to proceed.
What if your spouse sees the third party with you, but continues to claim innocence? Jesus said that if the errant person will not listen to the two or three witnesses, “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). In their efforts to follow this teaching, some churches have public denouncements or messages in the church bulletin, but we should remember the goal of this whole process: love and restoration.
I believe the church can and should have a part in healing the marriages of its members. This can be done in a number of gentle ways, through there may be a point where an unrepentant philanderer may need to be reprimanded by the church or even removed from its membership. (The church should also provide special support for the wronged spouse.)
If the offending person refuses to listen to the church’s reprimand, Jesus said he should be treated as a nonbeliever. This does not mean that the person in no longer a Christian, but it does mean that we can no longer expect godly behavior from this person. We should still treat the person with the love and respect we would show to any unbeliever, but our relationship with this person changes. What’s more, this person’s marriage changes.
Let’s say Art continues to deny the affair he had. Sylvia and Art meet with their pastor and a few trusted church leaders, who look at the evidence and support Sylvia’s charges. They urge Art to repent, but he refuses. After all of this, according to Jesus’ teaching, Sylvia needs to treat Art as an unbeliever. This does not mean she has to divorce him, but there will be a new distance in the relationship. She needs to establish firm boundaries, protecting herself from further hurt from Art.
Can she still forgive Art? Yes, though it’s not easy. Her response is like the cry from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing“ (Luke 23:34). Sylvia can decide on her own to drop the issue-not to excuse it or shift the blame, but simply to say, “I will not let this pain and hate rule my life anymore.”
We have seen interventions work with many couples. We have seen them work for alcoholic marriages, for abusive and adulterous relationships, for spending and gambling problems, for husbands who refuse to work, and for wives who refuse to care for their children. Sometimes people do admit their wrongdoing and seek restoration. In those cases, forgiveness is easier. It’s never a cinch, but it’s easier when the person is seeking forgiveness.
The worst case of all is when a wrong is done and never acknowledged by either party. One suffers in pain, the other in guilt, but both suffer in silence. The bonds of matrimony soon fray as forgiveness is neither sought nor offered. That’s why we encourage solution-based approaches to mend the marriage relationship.
Forgiveness can set a person free. It can breathe new life into a tired marriage. But it’s hard work. Forgiveness is not a shrug of the shoulders—”Hey, no problem.” Yes, there is a problem! The forgiving person often has to be willing to wake the partner up, to figuratively “shake the offender by the shoulders” and say, “Hey, look! You hurt me. I am willing to let that go, but we’ve got to do something to fix this relationship. I want you to work with me. I need your help.”
This article is edited from the book, The Marriage Mender, by Dr Thomas A. Whiteman and Dr Thomas G. Bartlett, published by Navpress. This book gives solution-based tools for rebuilding marriage. With illustrations and exercises, it teaches how to look to the future of your relationship instead of focusing on the past with its problems.
Dr Thomas A. Whiteman is a licensed psychologist who practices with Life Counseling Services in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Dr Thomas G. Bartlett is also a licensed psychologist who practices with Behavioral Healthcare Consultants in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They both work with troubled couples and have conducted seminars on marriage and divorce recovery through Fresh Start Seminars.