Commitment and Transaction
Here is what you have to understand: forgiveness is a vertical commitment that is followed by a horizontal transaction. Both aspects of forgiveness are essential in the order that I have presented them.
When you have been wronged in word or action by your husband or wife, your response must be shaped by an immediate commitment that you make before God. Forgiveness begins by your giving the offense to the Lord. This does not mean that you act as if something wrong is right. It means that you do not carry the wrong with you (bitterness), and that you do not treat the other in light of the wrong (judgment). You entrust yourself to God’s mercy and justice, and you give yourself to overcoming evil with good (see the principles laid out by Paul in Rom. 12:9–21). You commit to respond to your spouse with the same grace that you have been given. You do not insert yourself into God’s position and mete out punishment for his or her offenses.
Now, this does not mean that you eat the offense and act as though nothing happened. It does not mean that you pretend you were not affected, offended, or hurt by what your spouse said or did. In fact, the Bible actually calls the one who has been sinned against to go to the person who committed the offense and present him with it. Are you confused? Does it seem that this is a contradiction of what I said above? This is where the order of the two parts of forgiveness is essential. The reason you must start with giving the offense to God is so that when you come to your spouse, you come with the right attitude (grace) and the right goal (reconciliation). Vertical forgiveness clears your heart of the baggage of bitterness and condemnation so that you can face her with her wrong in a way that is kind, patient, loving, humble, and encouraging.
Something important needs to be said here. Husbands, it is not spiritually helpful for you, or loving toward your wife, to act as though what is not okay is okay. Wives, it is not good for you or kind to your husband to act as if a sin committed against you is all right. The Bible nowhere calls us to grin and bear it for the sake of the relationship. In fact, I am persuaded that our silence in the face of wrong is not motivated by a desire to love the other well but by not wanting to hassle through the difficult process of kind and loving confrontation. We are silent not because we love our spouse but because we love ourselves, and we do not want to put ourselves through something uncomfortable. When we fail to bring such things into the light, they fester in the dark of our own sinful heart, and the other does not benefit from the conviction and confession that would help him grow and change.
You see, while the first part of forgiveness is judicial, that is, entrusting the offense to God who alone is able to judge, the second part of forgiveness is relational. It is a transaction of grace between the person who has committed the offense and the person who has been offended. Now, pay careful attention to what I am about to say: you cannot relationally forgive someone who has not asked for it. The biblical pattern is this: someone confesses, you forgive. That is why you go to her. You go as God’s instrument, with the hope that her eyes will be opened, that her heart will be grieved, and that she will respond by confessing her sin and asking for your forgiveness (which you are ready to give because you are not harboring bitterness in your heart).
Often, forgiveness is a process, not an event. You may find yourself returning to old, bitter thoughts and getting angry once again, and you need to confess that to the Lord and seek his help. You may have succumbed to treating your spouse judgmentally, even though you had committed not to, and you need to confess that wrong to him or her. It may be that the one who committed the offense is having a hard time seeing and owning what he or she has done. This may mean that you have to go to your spouse more than once, reminding him or her that there is a sin between you that has not been dealt with, and because of that there is a breach in your relationship and the need for reconciliation. Your purpose is not to badger him into confession but to let him know that you love him so much that it pains you to have wrongs in the way of the unity and understanding that you should be experiencing. But it must be said again: you cannot forgive someone in the relational sense of what forgiveness means until he or she has sought your forgiveness.
When Is Forgiveness Needed?
There is another distinction that needs to be made here. The biblical call to confession and forgiveness is to be followed only in instances when one spouse has done something to the other that the Bible calls sin. You do not need to ask forgiveness when you have done something out of human weakness, like forgetting in the busyness of the day to pick up something at the store. It is right to communicate to the other that you are sorry for forgetting and for any hassle it might have caused.
The more you are willing to forgive, the more you experience its blessings.
You do not have to ask forgiveness for accidents, like tripping on the rug and dropping a piece of fine china. Again, it is right to express remorse for your spouse’s loss, but in such cases you do not need his or her forgiveness. You do not need to ask forgiveness for differences in personality or perspective. It is not wrong that you see things differently from your husband or wife. God has authored your story. He determined the influences that have shaped you. He brought you together in the intimate community of marriage. Differences are not wrong, but what we do with them might be.
You do not have to ask forgiveness for attempting to do something and failing. Perhaps you told your wife that you would fix something, but you were not able to. This is not a sin against your wife and does not require confession and forgiveness. It is loving, however, to let her know that you are sorry for the hassle caused her by your inability to get the job done.
Forgiveness is a vertical commitment and relational transaction that is to occur in moments when sin has gotten in the way of the unity, love, and understanding that God welcomes us to enjoy as his children in marriage. It lifts the burden off our shoulders of bearing wrongs and restores what has been broken. The more you are willing to forgive, the more you experience its blessings. The more you experience its blessings, the more you are quick to give yourself to the cycle of commit-confront-confess-forgive. You start living in the benefits of short accounts between you and your mate. You love the fact that there are no big and open issues between you. You have no closets to empty, and you are thankful, and in your thankfulness you appreciate one another all the more and also the one—God—who calls you to forgive.
This article is adapted from Marriage: 6 Gospel Commitments Every Couple Needs to Make by Paul David Tripp.
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