Thursday, September 11, 2014

Healing Infidelity Through Forgiveness

This is a chapter excerpt from our book, Healing Infidelity: How to Build a Vibrant Marriage After an Affair. You'll find not only other helpful articles in that book, but our story of how my wife entered the affairs, how I found out, and how we successfully rebuilt.


Forgiveness is one of the often difficult steps that a person hurt by the infidelity of a spouse can take. In part because the betrayal of the unfaithful partner is a deep hurt. The trust is placed in one's spouse, the commitment made to each other and to God, leaves us open to that deep hurt. The more on guard we are, the less likely someone's betrayal of our trust will hurt us. The less intimate the relationship between two people, the more walls and defenses we put up to guard against such attacks.

But we don't expect such attacks from those who love us. The risk one takes when one loves another and is intimate with him is that any hurts go deep. They strike us at our very core and affect our self-esteem and identity. So it is no wonder that when such a deep hurt has been inflicted upon someone, that they find it difficult to forgive. Yet, for full healing to take place, that is exactly what needs to happen. So let's look at the process of forgiveness in relation to the hurt inflicted by the infidelity of one's spouse.

First, let's define what forgiveness is. Webster defines it: "To pardon; to remit, as an offense or debt; to overlook an offense, and treat the offender as not guilty." The two ingredients, in this context, are an offense committed against you and the release from punishment for it.

There are some who speak of "earning forgiveness." This is a contradictory statement. One cannot earn forgiveness, for by its very definition it is an act of mercy. For example, if I owe a debt to a creditor, and they decide to forgive me that debt, that means I don't need to pay it back. If I earn that money back and pay the debt off, then there is no need to forgive me the debt. One can't earn forgiveness. As soon as you do, it is no longer forgiveness by definition.

What I believe people really mean by that statement isn't conditions upon which a spouse will forgive the unfaithful spouse, but the conditions upon which the unfaithful spouse can receive that forgiveness and benefit from it for saving the marriage. We'll examine that in a minute, but in this case the unfaithful spouse doesn't "earn" it, it is what he needs to do to apply the forgiveness to themselves.

For example, let's say you need to hammer in a nail, but you don't have a hammer or anything that will work for one. But your good friend holds out a hammer for you to use. In reaching out your hand and taking that hammer, have you "earned" that use of the hammer? Of course not. Neither is doing the actions to receive forgiveness earning it. It is simply holding out your hand.

Likewise, that the spouse has to do those things to receive forgiveness doesn't have any bearing on whether the hurt spouse forgives or not. We examine why below, but just as God stands always ready to forgive, so are we called to do, no matter what the offender does or doesn't do.

There are some natural conclusions that can be drawn from this understanding that we'll address as we go through this information. But first, it may be helpful to address what forgiveness is not.

One, forgiveness is not a denial of the wrongness or hurt that an action brought about. Notice the above definition. It says, "treat the offender as not guilty." It doesn't say the offender isn't guilty, but you are going to treat him as not guilty by way of not punishing him. In truth, it acknowledges that you do have a right to punish him because of his offense. If you didn't, there would be no point to forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of mercy on your part, not a denial of the offense itself.

Two, forgiveness does not mean the offender will not be punished. What it means is you are not going to do the punishing! A sin like adultery hurts the adulterer as much, if not more, than the hurt spouse. That may seem contradictory as we tend to think, "He had the fun at my expense!" But adultery isn't a sin because it is fun to do. It is a sin because it causes some very serious damage to one's soul and life. That is why Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:18, "Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits fornication sins against his own body."

Three, forgiveness does not erase the consequences of the offense. As mentioned above, by showing mercy and forgiving the offender, it only means you will not add your punishment to the natural consequences he will endure. Take the example of King David. He committed adultery and murder to cover up his sin. Psalm 51 is an example of what true repentance is about. According to the Scriptures, God forgave David. But he still had consequences due to that sin. The baby that resulted from that sin died. His sons ended up fighting and dividing the kingdom, even rebelling against David. David suffered the consequences of his sin. So will the unfaithful partner suffer for their sins, even though God and you forgive them.

But by this point, one might ask, why is it necessary to forgive to heal? Isn't part of healing that justice is served? Shouldn't he know I'm not going to put up with this behavior? Won't forgiving the offender be sending the message, "I'm not offended or hurt"?

There is a difference between not putting up with a behavior, and the message of forgiveness. As noted above, forgiveness does not negate the consequences of his actions. One of those consequences, if he persists in his sin, is the loss of his spouse. Forgiveness is not a "Get out of jail free" card, rather it is both an opportunity for the offender to change his behavior before worse consequences set in, and the release of the offended from their own sins.

If the offended spouse were to mitigate the consequences of the sin, and not merely forgive, then that would be sending the wrong signal. It is one thing to say, "I'm not going to beat you over the head with this offense you've committed against me for the rest of our lives," but quite another to say, "I will stay by your side and support you, no matter how often you have an affair." One can forgive the spouse for his infidelity even while separating from him because the spouse refuses to give up his infidelity. This allows you to forgive, but not enable his sin by erasing the negative consequences of it.

But forgiveness is more about you than about the offender. It is his opportunity to repent and make right the wrongs he's committed against you. But you can no more control his responses to your forgiveness than you could prevent him from cheating on you. All you really have under your control is yourself. Forgiveness is absolutely necessary for the healing of the offended much more than it is about healing for the offender.

For one who will not forgive is also one who is not forgiven for his own sins. Jesus states this clearly in the parable of the servant who owed his master so much money, there was no way he could ever pay it off even if he worked for the rest of his life. The master forgave the servant the debt. But the servant, either not accepting that he'd been forgiven or too selfish himself, refused to forgive someone who owed him a small amount of money, and had him thrown into prison. The master, upon hearing this, reinstated the money the ungrateful servant had been forgiven because he refused to forgive. Jesus' conclusion to the parable was, "Thus also My heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not forgive each one his brother their trespasses, from your hearts." (Mat 18:35 EMTV).

Jesus also states this clearly in the Lord's Prayer, when we ask God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." By refusing to forgive, we cut off the grace for our own forgiveness from God. This is because forgiveness is like a river of running water. For the river to flow for you, it must flow for those down the line. That is in part why in the early Church, the prescription for baptizing someone was, if at all possible, to do so in running water. Sins are washed away by the flow of grace. Stop the flow, and you have stagnant water that grows stale and dirty.

It should be noted that this is not so much God saying, "What? You won't forgive? Well, then, I'll show you!" No, God is always ready to forgive. But what happens is if you cannot forgive others, it demonstrates you are unable to receive the forgiveness that God offers. It is like you have the faucet open and water is coming out, and you are drinking it, but the moment someone else wants that water from you, you shut it off so they cannot get any. But then, neither can you get any. So in your refusal to give someone your forgiveness, you cut it off for yourself as well.

It is for this reason that when the woman caught in adultery was put before Jesus by the Pharisees, attempting to trap Jesus, He replied that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Because they had sins that needed forgiveness, they either forgave her or stood condemned themselves. They all forgave her, and so did Jesus. (John 8:3-11)

Therefore, forgiving is necessary for your own healing, but it is also necessary for the healing of the marriage, if there is to be a chance for that to happen. Forgiveness takes the bitterness and hate off your shoulders for what the other person did to you. If you are going to rebuild the marriage, one key component of that rebuilding is to release yourself from the anger and hate for what they did to you. As long as that is festering, it will not be possible to restore the relationship.

This is why God Himself forgives us in order to restore our relationship with Him. If God was not willing to forgive, there would be no hope for us but death. But because He is willing, there is hope for eternal life with Him. So it is for the spouse. If a spouse remains bitter and hateful to the other, rebuilding will be impossible and the marriage will suffer. Healing will not take place.

For these reasons, it is necessary for the hurt spouse to heal within themselves, and for the marriage to be healed, as well as releasing the unfaithful spouse to have opportunity to heal, that we must seek to forgive the individuals in the affair.

Even the affair partner. You need to forgive them for your own healing. For the bitterness and hate it can generate will poison your spirit and will carry over to the unfaithful spouse. The affair partner is an easy target since you are not reconciling with him, and you hope to never see or speak to him. But the unfaithful spouse and the affair partner, in most all cases, willingly participated together, even if one seduced the other or took advantage of the other's weakness. Hate for the affair partner will transfer to the unfaithful spouse by the fact that he or she joined with him against you. So even harboring unforgiveness toward the affair partner while forgiving the unfaithful spouse will block rebuilding efforts.

This is often seen when the inability to forgive results in the hurt spouse's obsessions over the affair partner, seeking revenge on him, or wanting to punish him. It puts the focus on the affair partner and the wrongs he committed against you and the marriage, instead of on the marriage and working with your unfaithful spouse to heal it. The best way to focus on the marriage and its healing is to forgive the affair partner and then take them off the radar screen.

What about forgiving yourself? Sometimes you see an unfaithful spouse talk about their difficulty in forgiving themselves for what they did. But you can't really forgive yourself. You didn't commit the offense against yourself, but against the hurt spouse and God, as well as the affair partner. What most people who ask this are really concerned about is being able to receive forgiveness. They face their guilt, and have trouble believing that anyone really forgives them for that act. They don't accept that their spouse has forgiven them, or that God forgives them. That can result in shame which causes a "death spiral" affect of encouraging the unfaithful spouse to repeat the unfaithfulness. The only way out of that cycle is to come to a place of accepting forgiveness.

There are two aspects of forgiveness as it relates to infidelity that need to be kept in mind. One, that forgiveness is a process and not a one-time event. Most people will not be ready to forgive upon discovering the affair. Most must go through the stages of grief as it pertains to their loss, and the stages of denial and anger don't lend themselves to an attitude of being ready to forgive. The pain is too fresh and the hurt still being processed to expect an immediate forgiveness. Some can do that, but it is also true that some may short-circuit the grieving process by forgiving too quickly, and in effect end up failing to deal with their anger and hurt. There can be an initial desire to forgive, while not yet knowing all that it entails.

That leads to the other part of the process. We can often think we've forgiven, but then a new layer is peeled back and we must continue to apply forgiveness. We may be faced with the details of what we had forgiven, whereas previously it was generic actions, and feel the hurt once again. Fresh hurt should remind us of our commitment to forgive and applying that fresh each time to release the bitterness and hate it would engender, and the depression that can trip up rebuilding a marriage.

Two, that forgiveness is only effective in healing the marriage if the unfaithful spouse accepts and allows it to change him and the situation. For the problem has never been whether God will or can forgive us for our sins. No, it has always been about whether we are able to accept His forgiveness. For as long as we are not, His forgiveness does us no good.

That is why God gives the following conditions for His forgiveness to be active in healing us in 2 Chronicles 7:14, and therefore what the unfaithful spouse needs to do for the hurt spouse's forgiveness to be effective in healing the marriage:

Humility – if we do not lower ourselves before God, if we think we know better than He does how to live our life, our pride will prevent us from receiving His forgiveness. Indeed, the one key to why most people cannot receive forgiveness nor give forgiveness is their own pride. Pride says, "I don't need your forgiveness, I'm right," to God, and to those we've offended, "My rights have been violated, and I will be given what is due me in retribution." If the unfaithful spouse maintains an attitude of pride and not owning their responsibility in the affair, no forgiveness will be received by the unfaithful spouse.

Pray – if we do not ask, due to that pride, if we do not make request for forgiveness, it shows our unbelief that the offended is or can forgive us. It means you don't believe the forgiver when he says, "I forgive you for what you did to me." So you refuse to even ask for it.

Seek my face – if we do not face the one we've offended and look them in the eye, if we refuse to face the guilt in our lives and desire mercy for what we've done, if we avoid him, don't want to talk about it, ignore him, then we cannot receive his forgiveness and have it be active in healing us and the marriage.

Turn from your wicked ways – if the unfaithful spouse refuses to stop the affair by making no further contact with the affair partner(s), is more concerned about the feelings of the affair partner than he is about his own spouse, if he continues the affair or returns to it, and does not stop doing that which is hurting his spouse and destroying their marriage, the hurt spouse can forgive all he wants, but it will do no good for healing of the marriage. To not stop is to say, in pride, "I am not wrong. I want to do this, my way."

If these things are done, however, we are promised that God will forgive our sins and heal our land. If the hurt spouse is able to get to the point of offering forgiveness to the unfaithful spouse, unless the unfaithful spouse is doing the above, he will not be helped by his spouse's forgiveness nor will he and the marriage be healed.

Forgiveness is not an option if the goal is healing of the hurt spouse, the unfaithful spouse, and the marriage itself. While the hurt spouse may not be ready to forgive immediately, it does have to happen at some point in the healing process for the relationship to be restored as it should be. Additionally, the unfaithful partner needs to do the things necessary to receive that forgiveness or they put their own healing and that of the marriage in jeopardy.

Jesus stated it clearly: Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times." (Mat 18:21-22 EMTV)

To heal, we must forgive and accept forgiveness. It is not an option if the goal is to heal.

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