This is the first post in a new series based on anonymous questions we have received at Build Your Marriage conferences across the United States. Some details may be modified to protect the identities of individuals.
Question: “How do you keep your feelings out of forgiving someone? Do you believe that some sin is too great to forgive?”
The topic of forgiveness is one of the most searched for subjects on the Build Your Marriage website. Why? We believe one of the reasons is because spouses genuinely want to know how to forgive the unthinkable or repeatable offenses that have been committed. In addition, some spouses struggle with how to ask for forgiveness when they are the perpetrator of the pain.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter came up to Jesus and asked, ““Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” In their culture, the rabbis of the day taught that you only had to forgive someone three times. If you did that, God would be satisfied and you no longer had to extend forgiveness, according to the rabbinical teaching. Peter, however, thought he was being magnanimous to suggest as many as seven times.
But Jesus replied saying, ““I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). In other words, there is no limit to the number of times you extend forgiveness—and that includes toward your spouse.
So how does this play out in marriage? Do our feelings matter? Are some sins so great we can choose to withhold forgiveness from our spouse?
1. Your feelings DO matter
We don’t believe that you can or should keep your feelings out of forgiving someone. Forgiveness is a choice to engage with God’s love and grace in the midst of the pain you are experiencing. If you were hurt, you can’t deny the pain that has been created. When you forgive someone out of the depth of your hurt you’re freeing your own heart from roots of bitterness, resentment, and anger.
2. Your WILL matters more than your feelings
Don’t wait until you “feel” like forgiving your spouse. Those feelings may or may not ever come. Forgiveness is a choice, it is an act of the will. You are making a choice not to hold that sin or wrongdoing against your spouse. The choice to forgive always supersedes how you feel about forgiving.
3. Your forgiveness mirrors Jesus
As a man or woman who is a follower of Christ, you carry the responsibility to reflect Christ to your spouse. This includes the way you show forgiveness. The Apostle Paul wrote that we are to be “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We would encourage you to think about how much forgiveness you have received from Jesus. Use that as your standard toward your spouse.
There is only one unforgivable sin and that is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). Therefore, there is no sin in marriage that is too great to forgive. Once you start categorizing sins as forgivable or unforgivable, you create opportunities for Satan to plant division and contempt into your heart toward your spouse.
4. Boundaries and consequences have their place
Forgiveness does not always mean things continue as normal. Sometimes boundaries are necessary to ensure the offense is less likely to occur in the future.
Sin also has consequences. Trust has to be rebuilt when there is infidelity. In cases of serial or unrepentant infidelity the consequences may be more severe. Separation under the guidance of a Christian counselor may be needed in situations of abuse. Addictive behaviors require a commitment to counseling and accountability.
Practicing forgiveness in marriage—or any relationship—can be painful and hard. It is also rewarding and cleansing. Make every effort to forgive your spouse quickly and completely and you will honor Jesus as you build your marriage.