I was their last resort. Kurt and Mary (not their real names) called me in the middle of an argument.
"Dr. Anderson, you have to come and help us," Mary said angrily. After talking with her briefly, I was afraid if I didn't show up, their argument would result in domestic violence!
I'm making a house call police officers don't even like to make! I thought as I got into my car.
I played referee for a couple hours until they'd worn themselves out. This Christian couple had made enemies of each other. And forgiveness was the furthest thing from what they wanted to discuss.
"I've listened to your arguments and frustrations," I started. "Here's the overriding reality. Before God we're responsible for our own character and the needs of the other person. You two have been ripping each other's character while looking out for your own needs. You're struggling in your marriage because you're struggling in your spiritual life."
They were stunned. They hadn't connected their marital troubles with how they were doing in their individual relationships with God. But the Bible is clear: "If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen?" (1 John 4:20, NLT).
What makes a Christian marriage work is to forgive from our hearts, just as Jesus forgave us. He did so by taking our sins upon himself. For us, forgiving others means we're willing to live with the consequences of our spouse's sins.
But why forgive?
1. To help us mature in our faith. God's intention in marriage is that we hang in there and grow up. In Colossians Paul writes: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (3:13).
It's in the context of committed relationships where we either learn to be kind, patient, and loving, or we blow apart. Loving each other inevitably means that we forgive each other—and keep on forgiving as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:21-22. When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone, "Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."
Yes, you may be tempted to keep a written log of how many times you've forgiven your spouse! But Jesus was really saying we need to forgive as many times as we are offended. It may seem unfair, especially when we feel as though we're the ones always doing the forgiving. Yet, forgiveness calls us to grow in character, which is ultimately most pleasing to God.
2. To keep bitterness away. In the close confinement of our homes, we'll say or do things that are offensive to our mate. Even the best of us will feel hurt, put down, or rejected. But if we let a root of bitterness spring up, the writer of Hebrews says that it will "defile many" (12:15). Our unforgiveness grows to bitterness and affects everyone. It erupts in anger and brings disease, stress, pain. Bitterness is like swallowing a bottle of poison hoping the other person will die.
So many times we know we should forgive, we understand what God says about the importance of forgiveness, but still we fight it. Here are some excuses I hear from couples.
It's not fair. Of course it isn't, but we all live with the consequences of another person's sin. For instance, we're stuck with the consequence of Adam's and Eve's sin. And on the marriage front, since it's God's will that we remain married, the only real choice we have is whether we want to live out those consequences of our spouse's sin in the bondage of bitterness or the freedom of forgiveness.
But you don't know how bad he (or she) hurt me! That's not the issue. Your spouse may still hurt you. But forgiveness is how you stop the pain.
I have to heal first—then I'll be able to forgive. Research shows over and over that forgiveness brings healing, not the other way around.
But I want revenge! The writer of Hebrews reminds us, "For we know him who said, 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay'" (">10:30). We have to trust that God will even the score and make things right.
Why should I let him (or her) off the hook? If you don't forgive, you're still hooked to that offense. You'll gain freedom from the past if you let your spouse off your hook. But remember, your spouse isn't off God's hook.
Where's the justice? It's in the cross. Jesus died for your sins, and my sins, and his sins, and her sins.
Forgiveness doesn't mean we offer cheap grace, though. Here are two statements I often hear that offer faux forgiveness.
I'll just try to forget about it, because God forgot my sins. True, God remembers our sin no more. But we can't just will ourselves to forget. I like to think we remember because we can learn from it. The most important part of "forgetting" our spouse's sin is that we don't take the past and use it against our spouse—just as God doesn't use our sins against us. The one who keeps bringing up past offenses hasn't forgiven.
I'll keep forgiving even though he never changes, since that's what Jesus calls me to do. Yes, Jesus asks us to forgive over and over, but he never asks us to put up with wrong behavior. When Jesus forgave, he told the person, "Go and sin no more." Part of offering grace is to set clear-cut boundaries that protect us from further abuse. Forgiving from our heart isn't being a punching bag. Although the Lord forgives, he doesn't tolerate sin, and neither should we.
The closer we connect to God and understand the forgiveness he's given us, the more able we are to forgive our spouse. If we struggle with forgiveness, we can pray something such as: "Lord, I forgive my husband for (list every offense that God brings to mind), because it made me feel (rejected, unwanted, judged, small). Heal my damaged emotions and bless my husband."
Remember, you're the only one who can keep yourself from being the person and spouse God created you to be. We don't just forgive the other person for his sake; we forgive for our own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. If you'll assume responsibility to grow in Christ, and forgive those around you, the family can be the kind of environment where everybody wins.
Neil T. Anderson, Ph.D., founder and president emeritus of Freedom in Christ Ministries, is co-author of The Christ Centered Marriage (Regal Books).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.