You hear a lot of advice before you get married.
"Keep a date night."
"Never go to bed angry."
"Make your relationship the first priority."
"Don't walk out during an argument."
Veteran couples further down the road look back on young newlyweds and offer insight for the challenges ahead. Of all the counsel my husband and I received leading up to our wedding day, one thought has proven to be the most challenging and transformative, and it came from my father-in-law.
A gifted pastor and teacher, he was the only person we could imagine officiating our wedding. During the final preparations for the ceremony, we sat across a table from him in a small restaurant to discuss the details: who was responsible for what, when would everyone arrive, which verses had we chosen to use and who would be reading them… Somewhere between the end of our meal and the waitress returning a receipt to be signed, we asked him what advice he had for us. He paused, smiled, and looked down for a moment to thoughtfully consider his response. His eyes shot back up and looked directly at us as he simply said, "Forgive quickly."
I had enough self-awareness on that day to know this would not come easily to me. If there were ever a place where I would feel justified to harbor bitterness and keep a tab on the ways I had been wronged, it would be within marriage. Where else would I share such a wide array of intimate moments with one person? Space, money, parenting responsibilities, highs, lows, personal time, a bed . . . Becoming "one" is about more than sex. It requires a level of vulnerability that opens the door for deep hurt; and letting go of those wounds was going to require more change than I would like to submit to.
What forgiveness means
It is rare for me to be without words, especially when I am upset. In the first year of our marriage, we struggled to resolve arguments because of my need to say "just one more thing." With each additional statement, I churned up the dirt and pulled out new arguments that were both painful and unproductive. I thought I'd feel better by presenting every offense of which I thought my husband was guilty; and if I felt better, I could forgive. If I felt better, I could let it go. In time, I learned that feelings of forgiveness follow the choice to forgive.
My son plays a game that teaches him new words and their definitions. I was recently struck by the explanation it provided for the word forgive: "When you forgive someone, you stop feeling angry." To my surprise, the Webster definition also speaks to a change in feelings preceding the act of forgiveness—a far cry from the biblical depiction. Rather, in Scripture we find that forgiveness is an action made in the midst of negative feelings, making it a beautiful expression of love.
When we only forgive in the absence of painful emotions, its meaning is lost. If we wait to stop feeling angry, we rob forgiveness of its value. In contrast, when we say with vulnerable honesty, "I am hurt, I love you, and I forgive you," our relationships grow in depth and strength.
Choosing to quickly forgive shouldn't be mistaken with pretending we aren't disappointed or upset. It is not an excuse to ignore problems or to refuse to take responsibility for unhealthy patterns within our marriages. Instead, it puts conflict within boundaries. It provides a space to work things out and it refuses to let the issue infect the rest of the relationship. Choosing to quickly forgive recognizes the point at which it is time to move forward. It means that we do not withhold affection or kindness from our spouses as a form of passive-aggressive resentment. We do not sulk or complain to our friends. It means that even if sorting through a problem takes months of hard work, we will continue to love each other well in the midst of that work. We will not wait until we "feel like it" before we choose to extend grace. It means that in the heat of the moment, we breathe deeply and remember how we have been forgiven through the Cross.
Why forgiveness matters
Scripture offers of a picture of forgiveness that is intentional. Multiple times it instructs us to make mending broken relationships a priority, urging us to stop other activities in order to address conflict. It is in the lingering that damage occurs. Withholding forgiveness until we feel better becomes poison in our marriages; and it looks nothing like the love we have been shown.
This is one of those moments when loving someone is hard. Perhaps we believe we are right. Maybe he has not apologized, or he apologized quickly and we had little time to fester. Maybe we doubt that he truly understood our reasons for being upset, or we don't want to admit that we might be wrong. And at the end of the day, being mad feels good.
Why does it feel good? Why do I want to stay mad at my husband? There are likely a dozen reasons that could be suggested, but here is my honest assessment based on my own heart. When I'm mad at my husband, I feel superior. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I try to convince myself that I am right because I am better. I deserve to stay mad and he deserves the discomfort of sitting with that. It is an ugly lie of self-righteousness that my heart buys into; and it keeps me from loving my husband well.
God offers us forgiveness as a measure of pure grace. While we were still separated from him, full of sin, he poured out his love and made a way for forgiveness through Christ on the Cross. From this place, we forgive. Without condition or manipulation, setting aside our pride, we extend to each other the sweet grace that we have received.
Three tips for getting started
The next time you and your husband find yourself in the midst of conflict, remember the following:
1. Know when to call it. Have you reached the point where discussion is no longer beneficial? Are you too tired or emotional to clearly communicate with and understand each other? Perhaps it is time to call it. If it is important to continue the conversation, set a time to come back together and talk. If it is better to walk away, do so completely, leaving all bitterness and resentment on the table.
2. Say "no" to a passive-aggressive battle. Nobody wins in an argument your partner is not even aware you are having. Withholding affection, turning a cold shoulder, casting the silent treatment, and engaging in unloving conversations about your husband when he isn't around all drive you away from your spouse. In the end, you will only become more frustrated and nothing will be resolved.
3. Carefully consider if this is a time for silence. If we choose to delve into a serious conversation every time our husbands say or do something off-putting, we will run our relationships into the ground. Perhaps this is a time for silence. Maybe it is better to reserve your thoughts for a day or two. If you still feel the same way, you will have had time to clarify what you want to communicate, or you may find in the wait that it doesn't warrant a conversation at all.
The Bible tells us that Christ is the forgiveness of sins. What a statement full of action and intentional love! Jesus taught us to pray by asking that the Father would forgive us according to the same measure we forgive each other. If God can turn his heart toward us, with deep love and compassion, how can we choose to relay anything less? Instead, we must love and forgive in a way that reflects God's heart toward his children, and in a way that demonstrates how we would like to be forgiven. If we ask God to change us, and if we choose to be purposeful about this act of forgiveness, I am confident that not only will our hearts be changed but that we will also meet Jesus in new and beautiful ways.
Cara Joyner is a writer, mother, and graduate student working toward her master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is actively involved in her local church with the college and worship ministries, and she writes at www.CaraJoyner.com.