HomeCommitmentA Marriage That Can't Forgive, Won't Survive

A Marriage That Can’t Forgive, Won’t Survive

Miranda had been spending money on a secret credit card for months. She hid receipts, she removed price tags, she sometimes even lied about where something came from. “My mom gave that to me!” Eventually she couldn’t hide the bills any longer, and her husband realized they were going to have to sell their house to get out from under their unsecured debt.

Franklin shared a very personal secret about his wife with his best friend, “just between the two of them.” His best friend told his own wife so you could imagine the shock Franklin’s wife felt when the other wife told her she was praying for her. For that.

Since the Bible tells us we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2—just pause for a second and think about the implications of the words “all” and “many”), every married person can write their own stories about the despicable things they have had to forgive. In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey recounts his wife telling him, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgave you for some of the dastardly things you’ve done!”

If you want to build and maintain a lifelong, intimate marriage, one of the most difficult and yet most essential spiritual skills is forgiveness. It may feel like the hardest thing God ever asks you to do. It seems unfair and sometimes even unbearable. But if we call ourselves followers of Christ, we must come to grips with the fact that Jesus never allows forgiveness to be “negotiable” among his disciples:

  • “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
  • “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).

Forgiveness is the spiritual air we breathe in from God, and the spiritual air we breathe out toward others. If breath is stopped in either direction, we suffocate spiritually. Our marriages will wither and so will our souls.

Forgiving your spouse isn’t an option. It’s not something we can consider: “Do I want to forgive him? Should I forgive her?” When we decided to become Christians, we decided to be and to keep being, forgivers.

Such forgiveness begins with understanding how God has forgiven us. Andrew Murray writes, “The redeemed saint can never forget that he is a forgiven sinner. Nothing works more mightily to inflame his love, to awaken his joy, or to strengthen his courage, than the experience, continually renewed by the Holy Spirit as a living reality, of God’s forgiving love. Every day, yes, every thought of God reminds him: I owe all to pardoning grace.”

Think often of what God has forgiven you and how he continues to offer you forgiveness for today. The stream of God’s forgiveness should flow through us; we mustn’t be dams that stop its run. Murray again: “As forgiveness of your sins was one of the first things Jesus did for you, forgiveness of others is one of the first that you can do for Him.”

It’s frustrating to work with a couple where one person is obsessed with their spouse’s sin while being so very blind to their own. Because they think their sin is less odious, they resent the implication that it’s even worth mentioning in comparison. Our stink is always less to us than the stink of others. It’s a monumental challenge whenever any spouse comes in for pastoral counseling and there is no conviction in their life and no perception of their own need for God’s grace. Blind self-righteousness imperils a marriage. If any spouse forgets they also stand in need of daily grace, they become vicious accusers and manufacturers of contempt. It usually sends a marriage into free fall.

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I’ve seen couples survive affairs, porn, food addictions, substance abuse, financial misdeeds, and other challenges. But since all of us are sinners, no marriage can maintain its intimacy without regular and frequent forgiveness. Thinking you can be married—or be a Christian—without forgiving, is like pretending you can run the hurdles without jumping. You can’t do it. It’s part of the journey. At some point you have to realize that the problem isn’t just that your spouse sinned; it’s that you can’t forgive. The unwillingness to forgive may be what’s holding your marriage back.

On the positive side, there are few things more moving to me than those testimonies of spouses who have shown supernatural forgiveness in such magnitude that God becomes the hero of their story. I’ve been moved to tears hearing accounts of wives who forgave their husbands so generously, and husbands who forgave their wives and dropped it, without all those wicked passive-aggressive reminders of previous misdeeds. Such accounts lead me to worship because such forgiveness may be the most un-human and most divine-like thing we are ever asked to do. Andrew Murray writes, “If the world sees men and women living and forgiving as Jesus did, it will be compelled to confess that God is with them.”

Are you committed to forgive your spouse, and to keep forgiving your spouse? Forgiveness does not preclude consequences, including separation or even, in certain cases, divorce. Forgiveness doesn’t mean a woman allows herself to be physically abused. Allowing someone to face the consequences of their sin isn’t, on its own, a failure of forgiveness. You can forgive and separate in a situation that’s not safe.

But let’s not allow the exceptional cases to blind us from the need to forgive in the difficultcases—marriage can and must teach us how to forgive. Christians must be “extreme forgivers.”

We have been forgiven. We must forgive. Grace received must become grace givenIt’s a package deal.

Some of you may be letting your marriage slowly die by a refusal to do for your spouse in a much more limited way what God has abundantly done for you. Just know that, in the end, this isn’t as much about being a husband or a wife as it is about being a Christian. Freely you have received; freely you must give and that means freely you must forgive.

[If you struggle with forgiveness and want to know how to get there (as well as the necessary limitations such as holding people accountable as we forgive, etc.) I’ve written on this topic pretty extensively in two books: chapter 7 of Authentic Faith (“Giving up the Grudge”) and  chapter 10 of the revised edition of Sacred Marriage (“Falling Forward: Marriage Teaches Us to Forgive”).]