By Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, PhD
Q: How does one forgive a spouse, especially when you have been hurt and don’t feel at all like forgiving?
Dr. E says: Through the years I have heard many people ask that question and I have read and listened to many excellent thinkers attempt to answer it. For me, the best insights continue to reinforce what I have learned from the Person and teachings of Jesus.
What Would Jesus Do?
Jesus was wronged more than anyone. All the sins of the world were placed unjustly on Him!
So let’s begin by asking this question: What did He, the Perfect One, demonstrate about how to forgive?
Three Steps Reveal the Secret
Jesus’ words and ways reveal the secret to forgiveness, which includes three steps:
- Jesus sympathized with the offender.
- He relinquished the offense to His heavenly Father.
- He anticipated the Father’s help.
These three steps may sound unfamiliar, even impossible. But stay with me. They offer a pathway out of bitterness and a way to avoid becoming bitter in the first place.
You’re thinking, “Sounds great if you’re Jesus. You just said He was the Perfect One. That puts Him out of my league. I can’t do what Jesus did. Besides, you don’t know what my spouse did to me!”
Oh, I know there are plenty of reasons not to forgive. I’ve heard every excuse and have even invented some of them myself!
The Example for Husbands and Wives
Peter clearly indicates that Jesus is the example for husbands and wives. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle continues to explain the meaning of grace in a believer’s life, a discussion he began in chapter one. He spells out how Christians are to be holy, God-fearing, loving, honoring, mature, and submissive to authorities even when subjected to unfair treatment.
And why should Christians do all this? “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
After taking several more verses to describe how Jesus responded when He was mistreated, Peter goes on to say, “In the same way, you wives…You husbands likewise…” (1 Peter 3:1, 7). In the same way as what? Like what? You are to respond to your spouse and to any mistreatment or misunderstandings in your marriage in the same way that Jesus responded to the mistreatment He received.
Peter is saying Jesus is not out of our league at all. By becoming a man and dwelling among us, He put on our uniform, so to speak. He is not a model “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” Instead He “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Step One: Sympathize
When counseling people, I have noticed something about those who can forgive. They understand the well-known saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Look Beyond the Offense
When you sympathize, you try to look beyond the offense to other factors that help explain why your spouse offended you. The better you understand your spouse, the more easily you can forgive.
I am often asked, “What if my spouse has hurt me far more than I have hurt my spouse? How can I forgive when I have been treated so unfairly?”
Suppose, for example, your husband hurts you with anger and harshness. But suppose you learn that, while he was growing up, your husband was wounded and to a certain extent, shaped by his father’s rage. Consequently, your husband struggles with a volatile temper and doesn’t even realize how harsh he sounds most of the time. As you look beyond how he is treating you to his upbringing, it helps explain why he is so harsh and angry.
This does not minimize your husband’s sin, nor does this “looking beyond” suggest you never confront his anger and harshness. But because you know his background, you see a bigger picture. You are more able to understand his heart and struggle. Again, this does not mean you excuse his sin! Please read what I have written on respectful confrontation to fully understand what I teach about this.
Forgive as the Lord Has Forgiven You
How does Jesus model this step? While He is suffering in horrible agony on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus prays for forgiveness of the Jews and the Roman soldiers who are taking part in crucifying Him. He forgives by looking beyond their heinous crime to see the ignorance, mindless fear, and blind hatred that have driven them to do this. On the cross, in terrible pain, Jesus sees the true condition of His enemies and feels compassion for them.
The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. For example, before he addresses the topic of marriage in Ephesians 5, Paul speaks about forgiveness in chapter 4, so husband and wife can extend it to one another: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Repeating his advice in Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes in Colossians 3:13 to “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (NIV). In the final analysis, your spouse is like you and you are like your spouse when it comes to forgiveness. You both have done and said things that need forgiving.
So, why not start by sympathizing with each other? There but for the grace of God go I.
Step Two: Relinquish – Let Go
But even though you have sympathized with your spouse, resentment can fester inside of you. So you must let go of your unforgiving spirit by giving it to God.
Let Go of Bitterness
For many people this sounds good in theory, but not at all within the realm of reality. Their bitterness feels like a tumor that cannot be removed. And for some people, the bitterness has even become a good friend, and they simply don’t wish to say good-bye.
Still other people have become the resentment: it is who they are. In these cases and others, the act of relinquishing the hurt and hate to God seems an insurmountable hurdle on the path of forgiveness.
Furthermore, when we refuse to forgive, and live with bitterness in our hearts, we lose fellowship with God!
But what did Jesus do when He faced the insurmountable?
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus looked ahead to His crucifixion – to the shameful treatment, the agonizing pain, and, worst of all, humanity’s sins being placed squarely on Him. Facing the unimaginable, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV).
Clearly, Jesus let go of His own will, which shrank from what lay ahead, and surrendered to His Father’s will.
Not My Will Be Done
Just as He relinquished the right to retaliate and trusted His Father for the outcome, so should we. When you relinquish an offense, you need to send that offense somewhere. So follow Jesus’ example and release it to your heavenly Father. You must pray, “Not my will be done.”
Over the years I have seen that people have far more control over their emotions than I was willing to admit. God does help you forgive when you feel helpless to forgive, but other times He reveals to you the need to put away bitterness.
You may not want to admit it, but the reason you have to work toward forgiving your spouse is because you have bitterness in your heart. Remember Paul’s words from Ephesians 4:31? He tells all believers to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
We Have a Choice
We can get rid of bitterness – if we want to. I have seen that the ultimate reason a lot of people are bitter is that they want to be bitter. However, when they finally realize bitterness is contrary to God’s will, that it is self-destructive and ineffective in changing the other person, they can choose to stop.
We all have a choice: keep manufacturing your bitterness, or choose to relinquish it to your Heavenly Father.
Are you ready to give up the bitterness in your heart?
Step Three: Anticipate
When Jesus prayed, “Thy will be done,” He believed the will of His Father would be accomplished. This is why “He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV). In other words, after you relinquish, anticipate! You need to foresee God entering your world. As you entrust yourself to God, anticipate His working on your behalf.
Yes, perhaps your spouse should make the first move and ask for your forgiveness. But what if your spouse is not as mature as you are or is more rebellious than you are? Will you remain an unforgiving soul?
Is it worth forfeiting the peace and power of God in your heart?
If you have been angry and unforgiving but have slowly moved through
the steps of sympathizing and relinquishing, I pray that you will move forward, anticipatingGod’s touch on your marriage.
Let me emphasize that these three steps offer guidance on a path toward forgiveness. Anytime something is described in terms of three steps, it can sound like a formula to be followed to the letter. But the point is, all three of these steps put you in a more open frame of mind to allow the Holy Spirit to work within you.
Will you allow God’s healing power to free you from the bondage of unforgiveness? Step out in faith and ANTICIPATE what God can do!