Forgive and Forget: Is this the Christian Way of Marriage?
If you have counseled for any length of time I am sure you have had to wrestle with the topic of forgiveness. A spouse who has committed adultery, a parent who has abandoned a child, a friend who has failed to keep commitments, a boss who has taken advantage, or a rebellious teenager who refuses to obey are all typical in a counseling situation, and demand careful consideration of forgiveness.
Are Christians called to simply forgive and act as though sins have never been committed against them? Is “turning the other cheek” the standard by which Christians should deal with one another when sin is involved? Is unilateral forgiveness (forgiving immediately regardless of repentance) the only model of forgiveness taught by Jesus? While these are questions that could never be adequately addressed in a single blog, consider today’s post as a small beginning in a very deep conversation on the topic of forgiveness.
Please realize as we proceed, that nothing written here provides any rationale for hatred, bitterness, revenge, or sinful anger. These are sins forbidden in Scripture. So as we skim the surface of this topic, realize it is written under the guise of the biblical imperative to love God and neighbor. It is also written with the assumption that all parties involved are professing believers. Many of the thoughts stated below have been shaped by the work of Dr. Jay Adams (1994). Listen here for a brief Q/A in which I participated on the topic.
To begin, we will consider unilateral forgiveness. This is the idea that when a sin is committed against a Christian (by another Christian) that it is the duty of the offended to immediately grant forgiveness. So, for example, if a husband continually demeans his wife verbally, the logic of this approach would lead her to believe that she is bound to forgive him immediately, even if he doesn’t repent. She may cite I Peter 3:1-2 as the premise for her approach since she is supposed to win her husband over without a word. Or, she may cite I Peter 4:8 where the apostle writes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” If she believes in unilateral forgiveness in response to abusive behavior, she has at least two options: (1) she can suffer in silence, and make this an issue between her and God. She may pray something like, “Lord, I forgive my husband for his hateful behavior towards me. Please help him realize how hurtful this is to me and how sinful it is to You” or (2) she may softly confront him only to be blown off by his anger and pride at which point she prays the same prayer as cited in option one. The only difference between the two being that she did attempt a soft confrontation with her husband. If unilateral forgiveness is the only path the Bible paves for her, then she is doomed to wrestle in isolation until he changes. While her prayer is a precious one, and deeply understandable, the most vital question for her to consider is this, “Is allowing my husband to be consumed by the devious and impulsive power of his sin, and remaining silent in the process, the highest form of love I can biblically offer him?”
The Counsel of Jesus
To shed a little light on this, let’s consider the words of Jesus, the one who sets the very standard for forgiving others: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17, ESV).
To forgive means a person chooses to remember the sin against the offender no longer. It is literally offering the offender a clean slate. It demands the offended to relate to that person as though the sin had never transpired. If this is what believers are required to do on a unilateral basis (without the offender being repentant) when sinned against by other Christians then Jesus’ commands in Matthew 18 create a very concerning theological tension. To unilaterally forgive means I choose to live as though the sin has not occurred. If that is the covenant I am making, then the question arises, “What right do I have to go to someone else, then to the Church until the person admits, then repents of the wrong?” If Jesus commands confrontation when sin arises, then does the idea of automatic, unilateral forgiveness (or the notion of forgive and forget) oppose the teachings of Christ?
The only viable and biblical answer is that maybe the Bible doesn’t mandate a “forgive and forget” or a unilateral forgiveness principle in all situations. When gross sins are committed among believers the most loving action that can be taken is to follow the instruction of the most loving man ever to grace this planet. Jesus said, if a sin is committed, go tell your brother (anyone who is a fellow believer in Jesus, including a spouse) his fault. Then, if he won’t hear you, Jesus doesn’t command to “let go and let God”. He actually elevates the pressure by instructing the offended to find two others to accompany him/her and, again, confront. If he still refuses to listen, Jesus takes things up one more level instructing the offended party to take the issue to the Church who should serve as the spiritual authority to both. If Christians are called to “forgive and forget” in all circumstances, then this process outlined by Jesus would be impossible.
A Few Considerations
- The motive of all confrontation MUST be love for neighbor. Jesus pointed to this in Matthew 18 when he later said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Confrontation is not about justice or getting even, but about the mercy of invasive love as the means to soften a rebellious heart.
- Wisdom and discernment are essential in confrontation. A spouse’s occasional selfishness and sin is not an automatic cause for seeking church discipline. Believers should not embrace the role of the sin Gestapo wherein they are looking in every nook and cranny for a spouse’s sin. If this becomes the case, then sin should indeed be confronted: the sin of a prideful and self-righteous heart on the part of the “offended”.
- Unilateral forgiveness is appropriate in certain circumstances. However, it isn’t the automatic default position outlined in the Bible. Taking the example above, if the wife allows her husband to stay in an abusive state, never to point this out in him, and calling for repentance, then she is not exhibiting the powerful, life-transforming love of Christ. Christ’s love compels us to change, and shapes us to reflect His image. Failure to offer such love is not a more noble Christian position, but one that robs the husband of the means provided by the Lord to bring people to a place of repentance; namely other believers and the Church.
Adams, J.E. (1994). From forgiven to forgiving: Learning to forgive one another God’s way. Amityville, NY: Calvary Press.
Posted on June 24, 2011