How Forgiveness Happens: Six Elements of Whole Forgiveness
Who is supposed to initiate the process of forgiveness in a marriage relationship: the offender or the offended? We don’t think it really matters. Both of you are responsible for clearing up conflicts by initiating forgiveness. If your spouse offends you and you refuse to resolve the conflict until he or she makes the first move, you could be waiting a long time. And if your spouse plays by the same rules, think of all the intimacy you could forfeit by waiting each other out.
Barb and I mutually accept the role of being peacemakers in our marriage. Ideally, whoever recognizes the conflict first is the one to bring it up and initiate forgiveness regardless of who is at fault. If one of us senses friction, that person usually confronts the other on the issue. I use the words “ideally” and “usually” because, just like at your house, Barb and I are sometimes deterred from initiating forgiveness by hurt, anger, or pride. That’s why it is important to share the responsibility equally. Since both of us are committed to peace, if one is a little slow to step up, the other is there to take up the slack. This virtually assures that the conflict will be resolved sooner rather than later.
We call this process “whole forgiveness.” In any offenses, someone offends and someone is offended. Of course, it is rarely that cut-and-dry. In many conflicts, you both offend each other to some degree. For example, your spouse hurts you with a critical remark, so you snap back with a zinger of your own. Or you forget to buy your spouse a birthday gift, and in return, he or she gives you the cold shoulder for 2 days.
For each offense, whole forgiveness requires action on the part of both the offender and the offended. We have represented this activity with the following 6 statement for closing the loop with forgiveness:
1. I was wrong.
2. I’m sorry.
3. I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.
4. Will you forgive me?
5. I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.
6. I forgive you for…
Statement #1: I was wrong.
The admission of wrongful behavior starts the process of whole forgiveness in motion. It’s not very important which partner points out the offense. The key is for the offending party to say categorically, “What I did was wrong.”
You may be tempted to wriggle off the hook at this stage by stopping short of, “I was wrong.” The following statements sound like the admission of wrong, but notice how they don’t quite go far enough: “Ok, if you think I did something wrong, lets talk about it”; “I don’t think what I did was such a big deal, but since you think it was, let’s talk about it.” You need to confront the offense for what it is. Say something like, “I am wrong”; “I have done wrong and need to talk to you about what I did to offend you.”
Statement #2: I’m sorry.
Simply admitting wrong behavior is insufficient. Having determined the nature of what you said or did, you need to state how you feel about what you said or did. Do you feel regret over hurting your spouse? Certainly you do! You need to express that sorrow. Together, the admission of wrongdoing and the expression of sorrow covey to your spouse your sincerity about making things right.
The Apostle Paul understood what it means to express sorrow. He wrote: “Now I am glad I sent it (a letter of correction), not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to have remorse and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants His people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation. We will never regret that kind of sorrow but sorrow without repentance is the kind that results in death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
The expression of remorse and sorrow is healthy when it leads to healing in the relationship with your spouse and with God.
Statement #3: I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.
True repentance requires a change of heart and mind. It goes beyond “I’m sorry” to actually changing your hurtful behavior and the patterns of your offenses. Seeking forgiveness without promising repentance is pointless. Only when you commit to turning away from your hurtful behavior can true healing take place.
This is the same response God seeks from us in our sinfulness. When we confess our sin, He graciously forgives (see 1 John 1:9). But He doesn’t expect us to keep going in the same sinful direction. He is looking for us to change direction.
Statement #4: Will you forgive me?
This key question brings the process of whole forgiveness to a crescendo. It is forgiving love at its best, the ultimate of humility and intimacy in marriage. You are never more vulnerable to your spouse than when you make this request. It means putting yourself at his or her feet as a servant to receive an undeserved favor. In asking this question, you are swinging the door wide open for whole forgiveness.
If you omit any of the 4 elements in requesting forgiveness, you run the risk of leaving the conflict unresolved. Too often we leap to the final element and ask for forgiveness without acknowledging any understanding, remorse, or repentance. This is cheap forgiveness, and it creates uncertainty in your spouse about how to respond. It is very important that you take all 4 steps as you approach your spouse for forgiveness.
When your spouse comes seeking your forgiveness, you can participate in whole forgiveness in 2 ways: graciously and specifically.
Statement #5: I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.
When you say, “yes, I forgive you,” you are reflecting the love of a gracious, forgiving God. You are granting something your spouse doesn’t deserve. It is a free gift; it cannot be earned or bargained for.
When you say, “I forgive you,” you must let go of the offense once and for all and set your spouse free. When you do, there is closure. Both you and your spouse experience emotional relief. The pressure is off, the pain begins to subside, and the healing starts.
Statement #6: I forgive you for…
In addition to being gracious, your forgiveness needs to be specific. State precisely the offenses for which you are granting forgiveness, the very offenses for which your spouse has requested forgiveness. For example: “I forgive you for not spending more time with me last weekend”; “I forgive you for committing me to serve on a church committee without asking me first.”
Being specific assures your spouse how complete your forgiveness is. It doesn’t leave anything hanging in the air. It answers for your spouse the nagging question he or she may have: Did he or she understand what I was asking forgiveness for? Did he or she really forgive me for what I did?
Rebuilding the Walls of Your Marriage
Almost 2,400 years ago, the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had ordered his army to plunder and destroy it, tearing down its protective wall then deporting and enslaving the Jews who lived there (see 2 Chronicles 36:15-21). Among those deported was a godly man named Nehemiah. Many years later, after Persia had conquered Babylon and taken over all its territories, God gave Nehemiah in the eyes of Artaxerxes, the Persian king. He allowed Nehemiah and a group of Jews to move back to their homeland and the city of Jerusalem. Then God used Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so the returning Jews could live in safety and security.
Cities in biblical times needed walls to protect them from invading armies. In a similar way, a marriage relationship needs a wall of protection around it to keep it healthy and secure. This wall is built by faith in God and by developing disciplines and habits that strengthen commitment and trust. When a loop of conflict has been opened and your spouse is wounded, that wall of trust around you begins to crumble. Repeated offenses break down that wall just like the battering rams of an invading army. Hearts are plundered, security is undermined, and trust is eroded.
Step 1: Weep and seek God.
While still in Persia, Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, heard the troubling news: “things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned” (Nehemiah 1:3). What should he do? Ask for a meeting with King Artaxerxes? Gather some people together and head to Jerusalem to do the work? There is nothing wrong with these steps but that is not what Nehemiah did first. Upon hearing the news Nehemiah says, “I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). The first step to rebuilding trust in your marriage is to mourn what you have lost and go to God for help.
Step 2: Pray.
Next, Nehemiah confessed his own sins and asked God to give him favor with Artaxerxes (see Nehemiah 1:5-11). As Nehemiah prayed, he knew that he could help to restore the wall around Jerusalem.
How do we respond when the wall is tumbling down around us at home? Some of us cower in fear. Others deny that there is a problem and even try to anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, other drugs, spending, pornography, or anything that feeds our rationalization. Still, others get angry. But look at what Nehemiah did. After expressing the pain of his heart, he prayed. And it wasn’t just a quick, catch-all prayer. The second chapter of Nehemiah reveals that he prayed earnestly for four months before he set out to do anything.
Step 3: Communicate needs honestly.
One day, King Artaxerxes noticed that Nehemiah was not himself. God had opened an opportunity for Nehemiah to explain his feelings about the destruction in his homeland, so he told Artaxerxes the sad story.
When the king asked Nehemiah what he wanted to do, Nehemiah didn’t just spit out his request. He prayed first and then asked for the opportunity to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. The king asked how long he needed. Nehemiah not only gave him a timeframe for completing the task but also ask the king for some materials for the rebuilding project. Artaxerxes gave Nehemiah everything he asked for.
The rebuilding process works when God is at the center.
Step 4: Commit to the journey.
As Nehemiah set off on a journey of hundreds of miles, what went through his mind? He probably had little idea of the extent of the devastation he would encounter. He likely knew even less of the amount of resistance he would face and the hard work needed to rebuild the wall. But he still went for it. He was committed to doing what was needed to be done.
When you and your spouse commit to the journey, you remind each other that the relationship is nonnegotiable. You honor the covenant expressed in your marriage vows. You commit to strengthening your marriage both for your sake and the sake of future generations.
Step 5: Evaluate the damage.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah set out to survey the damage done to the wall. The rubble was so great that he couldn’t even ride his horse through it. He must have been overwhelmed.
In order to close the loop and rebuild trust, you need to evaluate the damage in your relationship. Admit your failures, acknowledge your offenses, talk about your hurts. Lay it all out there. You can’t effectively rebuild and heal if you don’t bring all the hurt and the anger into the open.
Step 6: Formulate a plan.
Nehemiah urged the people to get started on the project. He reminded them to trust God to help them get the job done. And he not only came with the blessing of the king and some materials but also had a plan for completing the work. Part of that plan directed the people to rebuild the portion of the wall that was in front of their homes. What better motivation could Nehemiah have provided?
Trusting God and devising a plan is critical to the process of rebuilding trust. You may feel helpless to change your situation or behavior in your own power. Perhaps you have tried and failed repeatedly. You need to devise a solid plan while trusting God to make it possible.
Step 7: Begin the work.
Chapters 3 and 4 of Nehemiah describes the actual rebuilding of the wall. Nehemiah wrote, “At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard” (Nehemiah 4:6).
There is a honeymoon effect in the process of rebuilding marital trust. A couple launches into it with a lot of hope and energy, the healing begins, and they think Hey, this isn’t so hard. But they often fail to realize how much time and hard work it takes to complete the rebuilding.
The element of time can work in your favor in at least 2 ways. First, it takes time to heal the pain – often months or years. We often tell people that when there is a serious breach of trust in the marriage, it often takes 18-24 months to rebuild the trust. But as the weeks and months go by you should experience greater levels of healing.
Second, you need time to inject some positive experiences into a relationship that is accustomed to pain. As you spend time nurturing the relationship and storing up positive memories, the healing process is encouraged.
Step 8: Trust God through the inevitable resistance.
Nehemiah faced resistance continually throughout his project in Jerusalem. He had many enemies who did not want to see the wall rebuilt. They tried to stir up the people against him, planting doubts in their minds. They conspired to harm him. They even hired a prophet to try to intimidate him. In each case, Nehemiah prayed to God for guidance and asked Him to lead the way.
Satan is threatened when you and your spouse grow in trust and intimacy. He is actively at work trying to keep you isolated from each other, trying to keep you suspicious and distrustful. So when you set out to rebuild trust in your marriage be aware that the enemy will be there to discourage and deter you.
But God is eager for you to close the loops in your marriage by experiencing forgiveness and restoration. He will empower you to work through the resistance and discouragement.
Step 9: Work toward completion.
At one point Nehemiah was able to write, “So on October 2, the wall was finally finished – just 52 days after we had begun. When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it they frightened and humiliated. They realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” Nehemiah 6:15-16). Can you imagine Nehemiah’s joy at writing that the wall was finally finished? What a sense of accomplishment. In reality, the major part of the work was done but, as some scholars suggest, the Jews continued to patch the wall for some time.
Rebuilding trust and restoring marital intimacy after offenses is a job that is never fully completed. Each area of healing continues to need maintenance long after you have closed the loop. Enjoy each victory along the way, but continue to allow God to do His “finish work” in your marriage.
As you do, something wonderful happens. Your marriage will be a strong testimony of the power and grace of God. Just like Nehemiah’s detractors, those who didn’t see any hope for you will have to say, “Wow, look what God accomplished in their lives!” That’s your great hope, even in the middle of the work. You are not alone in the rebuilding process. God is at the center of the work. It is His desire to restore your relationship and strengthen your marriage. He is the God of restoration and reconciliation. He is the God of closing loops.