Forgiveness is such a beautiful concept. We certainly welcome it when we have made a mistake, acted inappropriately, or hurt someone else. But forgiveness becomes difficult when we are the ones who have been severely wounded. C.S. Lewis said it like this: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
One of the most difficult facets of betrayal by a sexually addicted spouse is forgiveness. The deep wounds inflicted are not merely the consequence of a single offensive act. They are the result of the repeated deception and duplicity of the addict. How can someone forgive such cruelty? Forgiveness can seem even more difficult when we believe it to be something it is not.
In an effort to bring some clarity to the subject, we will consider ten things that forgiveness is not.
1. Forgiveness is not always quick.
Unquestionably, God’s command is to forgive. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13).
But certainly, God understands that there are times when this will be extremely difficult. This command is given for our good because he knows what an unwillingness to forgive does to our bodies, minds, and spirits. Unfortunately, many religious communities do a disservice to some deeply wounded individuals by guilting them into attempting to forgive before they have adequately processed their pain.
2. Forgiveness is not condoning the offense.
In forgiving a spouse for sexual betrayal, you are not condoning or downplaying the severity of what has been done to you. Those actions are sinful, and they are grievous to you and to God. They must not be minimized.
3. Forgiveness is not a feeling.
Forgiveness is a choice. We don’t wait until we no longer feel angry or hurt to forgive. We don’t wait until we feel like forgiving. We can choose to forgive regardless of how we feel. Corrie ten Boom said, “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
4. Forgiveness is not the same as trust.
A mother can forgive someone who hurt her child but never trust that person to babysit again. We can forgive our spouses for betraying us sexually, but the trust may not be restored for a while. Pastor and writer Dave Willis says, “You don’t have to trust someone in order to forgive them, but you do have to forgive in order to make trust possible again.”
Forgiveness means letting go. God promises that he is just and will deal appropriately with each person based on the choices they make. “Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. ‘I’ll do the judging.’ says God. ‘I’ll take care of it’” (Rom. 12:19). When we forgive, we are releasing that person into God’s hands and trusting him to deal with the offending person as he deems best.
5. Forgiveness is not a pain eraser.
The absence of pain is not necessarily an indication of forgiveness. Because forgiveness is not predicated upon feelings, it is possible to forgive while still wrestling with lingering pain. When a doctor removes a cancerous tumor, the healing begins immediately, though the pain remains. Similarly, forgiveness removes the “tumor,” but the wound must be allowed the necessary time to heal.
6. Forgiveness is not reconciliation.
It is possible to forgive someone without restoring the relationship. Reconciliation is not always possible or even wise. For example, in the case of sexual addiction, the addict may choose the addiction over the relationship by either walking away or by failing to pursue the recovery that is the necessary foundation for restoring the marriage.
7. Forgiveness is not conditioned upon remorse or an apology.
Ultimately, God commands us to forgive–period. Even as Jesus looked upon those who were crucifying him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus forgave them despite their lack of remorse. Matthew 6:15 tells us that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us. His command is not dismissive of our pain. To the contrary, God knows that our refusal to forgive sentences us to a life of pain. Withholding forgiveness until we receive an apology or see remorse is to relinquish control of our peace and future to another.
8. Forgiveness is not cheap.
The cost of your husband’s betrayal is too great to be cancelled by his sincerest intentions and effort. It cost Jesus his life to cover our betrayal. None of us can pay him back for that. Forgiveness is cancelling that debt–sending it away.
9. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
God promises, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12). It’s not that God has chosen amnesia, but forgiveness at the deepest level. He has cancelled our debt by meeting our sin with mercy. God commands us to forgive in the same way. While forgiveness is spiritual, forgetting is biological. The point of forgiveness is not to forget the offense, but to remember it with God’s grace.
10. Forgiveness is not impossible.
In the depths of betrayal trauma, it might be impossible to imagine ever being able to forgive your spouse. But God would not command us to do something that is not possible. It will likely be impossible to do it in our own strength. God promises to give us the strength we need. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
A little boy was sitting on a park bench in obvious pain. A man walking by asked him what was wrong. The young boy said, “I’m sitting on a bumble bee.” The man urgently asked, “Then why don’t you get up?” The boy replied, “Because I figure I’m hurting him more than he is hurting me.”
There may be a number of reasons we may choose to not forgive our spouses for the pain they have caused. Perhaps we think forgiving them makes us vulnerable to future betrayal or that it causes us to lose leverage in the relationship. But if we could sum it up in one sentence, I think our reasoning would sound similar to that of the little boy: We think we are hurting our spouses more by remaining in our unforgiveness than if we were to move from that position. And we believe they deserve to hurt. In reality, we keep hurting ourselves.
You may truly desire to forgive but just can’t seem to get there. Begin by daily asking God to help you in the process. Remember that your spouse is a child of God. His bad choices don’t define him. Don’t nurse your wounds. Continuing to ruminate on what your spouse has done to you will keep you stuck in unforgiveness.
Focus on the personal benefits of forgiveness. It is a gift you give yourself. T.D. Jakes says, “Forgiveness is about empowering yourself, rather than empowering your past.” Begin empowering yourself today through the power of forgiveness.