Many people who have suffered because of another’s sin—especially habitual or repeated sin—assume their inability to move beyond their pain and their reluctance to embrace their offender’s repentance are due to an inability to forgive. They wonder why they can’t accept a sincere apology, forget the past, and move on, so they remain stuck in a confusing emotional cycle that heaps shame on top of suffering.
We received a letter from “Carrie,” whose experience illustrates the depth and complexity of this problem. I have her permission to share her story, although I have altered her name.
On her wedding day, Carrie gave herself completely to the man of her dreams. She had no reason to doubt her marriage would be a lifelong fairytale—yes, challenged as all relationships are, yet “happily ever after” just the same. It was a reasonable expectation. But after the birth of their first child, her fairytale turned into a nightmare. Her husband turned away from his family, losing himself in work . . . and methamphetamines. As he spiraled out of control, his wife and child were pulled in after him, losing almost everything to his addiction.
By the grace of God and the help of supportive friends and family, he broke his habit and appeared to be on the path to lifelong sobriety, “one day at a time,” as they say. Carrie appeared to have recovered her dream until her husband relapsed, which led to another destructive binge and an adulterous affair. In describing the episode, she wrote, “It almost killed me.”
The story has a happy ending. At least nearly so. After sharing the horror she endured for nearly five years, she faced yet another challenge, and she had no idea how to meet it. Here is how she explained her newest trial:
A few years have gone by and my husband has again broken his habit, this time for good, and he’s given his life to Christ. He wants to recommit to our marriage and promises to become a better father. And I believe it’s real. I really want to forgive him, but the pain is almost more than I can bear. Every wedding promise, every little girl’s dream, every expectation has been shattered along with my trust. After the lies, the infidelity, emotional abuse, and false accusations, I feel completely used up and totally worthless.
I thank God that my husband has finally repented and wants to do what is right, but I stopped caring a long time ago. As terrible as it sounds, I don’t want him near me anymore. I don’t want to feel this way and I have begged God to help me, but I don’t feel like He hears my cries. I searched myself and asked the Lord to take away any barriers to His healing. But I just don’t understand why He has allowed me to be hurt so much.
Sometimes I feel like God loves my husband more than He loves me. I was wounded so deeply, yet I must forgive while my husband gets away with causing so much harm. I know this isn’t the right way to see it, so I keep looking to Christ to help me forgive and overcome all of this.
Please continue to pray for me and my family.
What keeps Carrie in her anguished cycle is a relatively common misunderstanding of forgiveness. She has unwittingly combined four separate issues: forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. They are interrelated, yet distinct stages of a process by which two people rebuild their relationship after an offense. The only way to escape the cycle is to address each issue in turn.
The Issue of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not a feeling. We tend to think of forgiveness as the ability to have a relationship with our offender without feeling angry, sorrowful, fearful, resentful, or any other negative emotion. In other words, we tend to confuse forgiveness with healing or the ability to trust. Forgiveness is a lot of things, but it is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice, something we decide to do.
Put simply, “forgiveness is agreeing to live the consequences of another person’s sin” without seeking justice, or restitution, or empathy, or anything else. To forgive is to release one’s offender from any and all expectations.
Unfortunately, forgiveness is an incredibly difficult choice. It goes against our very nature, which we receive from God, a nature that craves justice. Our innate sense of fair-play rebels against the idea that the innocent should suffer the consequences of another’s guilt. Nevertheless, that is the injustice God has called us to accept. It’s a voluntary injustice He calls “mercy,” the first indispensible step in the right direction. As Neil Anderson warns:
If you don’t let offenders off your hook, you are hooked to them and the past, and that just means continued pain for you. Stop the pain; let it go. You don’t forgive someone merely for their sake; you do it for your sake so you can be free. Your need to forgive isn’t an issue between you and the offender; it’s between you and God.
Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the evil we forgive. Yet you’re going to live with those consequences whether you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness. That’s how Jesus forgave you—He took the consequences of your sin upon Himself. All true forgiveness is substitutional, because no one really forgives without bearing the penalty of the other person’s sin.
The Issue of Healing
Carrie has genuinely chosen to forgive her repentant husband. She has made the difficult choice to live with the consequences of his sin without seeking revenge or requiring him to suffer as she had. Yet she still suffers the pangs of rejection and struggles to put away resentment—even toward God. Carrie doesn’t lack forgiveness; she needs healing.
Time will eventually heal Carrie’s wounds. How much time will depend upon what kind of guidance she receives and how safe she is from further injury. Like physical wounds, emotional wounds require careful attention and a protected environment if they are to heal properly. And when the wounds run deep, nothing short of physical separation will provide adequate protection. Therefore, it would be wise for Carrie to say to her husband, “I completely forgive you and I do want our relationship to be restored. In order for that to happen, I need some time and space to heal.” Then, she should arrange for that time and space.
At this point, a good counselor will guide her through the process of grief, which could include the help of a support group. This would also involve regular contact with her husband, who can contribute greatly to her healing, mostly by participating in the process of reconciliation.
The Issue of Reconciliation
Reconciliation occurs with the offender completely repents. Repentance is one’s decision to admit wrongdoing without making excuses, accept complete responsibility for his or her actions, and then seek the forgiveness of the person he or she harmed. The article by my friend and colleague, Dr. Bryce Klabunde, explains the six signs of genuine repentance. And nothing possesses the power to heal like genuine repentance.
To adequately deal with the past, Dave Carder, an experienced family counselor and best-selling author, would encourage Carrie to communicate what she needs to hear from her husband. He would also have her husband make a list of his offenses and rank them in the order of least to worst. Then, he would have Carrie’s husband begin confessing and apologizing for each offense. Furthermore, Carrie’s husband must understand the internal forces that contributed to his making the choices he did and learn how to manage them differently. Carrie, for her part, must learn how to express the depth of her sorrow in terms her husband can understand and to communicate what behavior will allow her to extend trust to her husband again. She must also discover and “own” her contribution to the breakdown of the marriage. This is sometimes a controversial notion, but it is crucial to rebuilding. Carder’s book, Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs, is the best resource I know for couples healing from this kind of devastation. In fact, his principles are very helpful for couples challenged to overcome any breach in trust.
Reconciliation naturally leads to the possibility of restoration.
The Issue of Restoration
When people speak of “forgiveness,” they often mean “restoration,” the ability to enjoy intimacy with someone who has caused injury in the past. Forgiveness can lead to restoration, but that restored relationship must rest upon a solid foundation of forgiveness, healing, repentance, and reconciliation. And if any one element is missing or incomplete, the rebuilt relationship may be compromised.
Put simply, restoration is the rebuilding of trust, a key ingredient in any relationship. Carrie must learn to trust in her husband’s continued sobriety and faithfulness. His taking responsibility for his actions and his empathy with her suffering will feed her ability to trust him again. Conversely, her husband must have reasonable assurance that he has been truly forgiven, that she will not use his offense against him in the future. He must also have a reasonable hope that her sorrow—which causes him great shame—will subside as time passes.
Rebuilding a relationship that has been reduced to rubble by sin is a process. Forgiveness is an indispensible decision, but it is only the first of many steps toward restoration. Many find relief in this truth because it explains why healing, trust, intimacy, and reconciliation don’t immediately fall into place. Nevertheless, the process of restoration is not easy for anyone. The upright partner must open himself or herself to the possibility of reinjury. The repentant partner must endure the excruciating process of self-examination and reformation. The rebuilding of trust and intimacy will be fraught with danger and marked by setbacks. And, truth be told, few couples make it. Either one partner or the other is not up for the challenge.
Still, redemption is possible, not only for individuals but for couples. Given the right environment and expert guidance, God can raise a temple of extraordinary grace from the ashes of sin.