Good advice for adult children of divorce

In his helpful book, “Breaking the Cycle of Divorce: How your marriage can succeed even if your parents’ didn’t,” Dr. John Trent suggested that adult children of divorce (ACOD) face daunting challenges in both life and marriage.

“Statistically, studies have shown that children of divorce suffer from more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, poor inter-personal relationships, and criminality than children from intact homes. Sixty-five percent of children from divorced families will never build a good post-divorce relationship with their fathers. Thirty percent will be unable to build a good post divorce relationship with their mothers”

Most ACOD are resolved to have strong and lasting marriages. But, as Dr. Trent says, they live with a “nagging fear that your marriage will fail — just as your parents’ marriage did.”

As an ACOD himself, Dr. Trent offers 10 helpful points for people who never had the benefit of seeing a loving, committed marriage modeled for them.  If you suffered wounds when your parents’ marriage ended that make it difficult for you to trust other people, and even God, despite these struggles, Dr. Trent  encourages you not to think that you’re doomed to divorce. You can break the cycle and build a healthy marriage.” Share his advice with others.

  1. Embrace the love that will never abandon you. Understand that, while people might let you down, God will come through for you. Accept the love that He offers you —unconditional love that you can count on, no matter what. If you haven’t already, begin a relationship with God through Christ. Make it a top priority to build a closer relationship with God each day. [If you need further direction on this issue go to our web site. There you’ll find a number of web links to ministries and organizations, like NEED-HIM, where you can find answers.]
  2. Know that you have a choice. Recognize that you aren’t a powerless victim. Know that what happened to your parents doesn’t have to happen to you, and that you aren’t a slave to your past. Decide to choose to respond to your circumstances in ways that will lead to a positive future.
  3. Face your fears. Take your fears out of the dark (lurking in your imagination) and bring them into the light by talking about them openly with your spouse. Pray about them specifically rather than just worrying about them. Seek and accept help from a close friend or a professional counselor to confront stubborn fears.
  4. Focus on positives instead of negatives. Ask God to renew your mind and help you reprogram your thinking about your marriage and life in general so you’re more positive than negative. Write several lists: one that lists ways you and your spouse are not like your parents, one that lists ways your marriage is not like your parents’ marriage, and one that lists your spouse’s strengths and positive attributes. Then post your lists in prominent places in your home or car where you can see them every day to remind you.
  5. Take small steps toward a big difference. Don’t worry about trying to make huge strides of progress in a short time; recognize that that is unrealistic. But be encouraged that making small, steady steps toward breaking bad habits and establishing good ones will eventually lead to a significantly more positive life for you. Focus on one issue at a time and keep stepping out as God leads you to do so.
  6. Find an accountability partner. Ask God to lead you to someone who will hold you accountable as you make changes for the better in your life. Consider a friend, family member, clergy person, or counselor. Meet with your accountability partner regularly to honestly share your thoughts, feelings, and recent behaviors. Know that support from a relationship like this can be a great source of encouragement and help to you.
  7. Seek professional help when you need it. If you aren’t making progress on your own in dealing with tough issues, don’t hesitate to get help from a professional counselor. Schedule some strategic sessions so the counselor can coach you through the issues. Realize that just a few short meetings can benefit you.
  8. Rely on God’s power rather than your own. Don’t try to wrestle with your struggles on your own. Instead, invite God to work in and through you, empowering you to handle everything that comes your way. Trust that whenever you ask for His help, He will respond —day by day, and moment by moment.
  9. Find a healthy marriage model. Look around for couples who have healthy marriages, and choose one to ask if you can build a friendship with them and study how they interact with each other. Know that observing a good example of marriage can give you: hope that marital commitment can endure for a lifetime, the expectation that commitment will endure for a lifetime, specific ways to relate to your spouse in healthy ways and build up your marriage, and ways to resolve conflicts without destroying your relationship with your spouse.
  10. Pass on blessings to the children around you. Decide that, even though you learned some unhealthy lessons growing up yourself, you will do all you can to be a good example to your own children and others (such as nieces, nephews, and friends of your children). Remember that children you encounter on a regular basis are constantly watching you, listening to you, and learning from your life.

“In candid and age-appropriate ways, show children how to communicate openly and honestly, be proactive and take initiative, make good choices, put the needs of others before their own, make and keep commitments, ask for and offer forgiveness, relate to and draw strength from a loving God. Ask yourself every day what kind of lessons the children around you are learning from your example, and what kind of legacy you’ll leave to future generations.” (Breaking the Cycle of Divorce: How Your Marriage Can Succeed Even If Your Parents’ Didn’t, by John Trent).

Steve Cornell

Is God’s will specifically revealed?

Does God promise to reveal His specific will on matters not directly addressed in Scripture?

Few of us struggle with discerning God’s will on matters that are clearly commanded or clearly forbidden in Scripture. When we lack specific biblical directives, we often look to other means for discovering God’s will. But in such undefined areas, we must remember that Scripture firmly warns us to attach an “if” to all our plans.

James 4:13-16 provides us with a very helpful illustration concerning God’s will in these areas. Take a moment and read this text.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ 14. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ 16. As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.”

The picture here is of first century Jewish merchants confidently asserting their plans for future business and profit.

James does not explicitly condemn them for planning, but warns them to attach an “if” to their plans out of honor for God’s final authority. James wrote, “…you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that’” (v. 15.)

The merchants in the illustration confidently assert

    • A short-term plan: “today or tomorrow,”
    • A long-term plan: “spend a year,”
    • A specific plan: “in such and such a city,” and
    • A final result: “to make a profit.”

The problem is not really with the detail of their plans, but with the arrogant attitude behind the plans. Nor does James say, “First ask God to reveal the plan, then you can speak confidently about the future.”

No amount of prayer will give us the authority to drop the “if” from our plans. Christians should therefore not say, “we prayed fervently about this plan and we know God is going to accomplish it.” James would say, “Where is your ‘if’?” And the absence of the “if” in our plans is disrespect for God’s final right to change anything he desires. It fails to honor God’s sovereignty over life itself. Thus, “you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that'” (15). The presence of the “if” recognizes God as supreme over all of life. 

James is not requiring a slavish use of the phrase, “If the Lord wills…” as much as a submissive attitude of heart and restraint in how we speak about the future.

Proverbs 27:1 wisely reminds us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

The “if” is also a place of peace and security in God’s final authority over life. Our decisions should be made with peaceful assurance that our Heavenly Father (who knows our needs before we ask, Matthew 6:8) is sovereign.  

The recognition of God’s sovereignty is not just that, “He works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), but that He also promised to, “work all things together for good for those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).

“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). 

The Bible repeatedly advocates wise planning. But it also announces God’s right to change or set limits on our plans. So be careful in how you speak about God’s will on matters not specifically addressed in Scripture. 

God has provided us with a great wealth of wisdom in Scripture (I Timothy 3:15-17) and gifted us with teachers to equip and mature the Church (Ephesians 4:11-16). God holds us responsible for our use of His provisions.

God may not choose to tell us everything we want to know but he has told us all we need to know.   

“…it is to be feared that many today who profess to be Christ’s never learn wisdom through failure to attend sufficiently to God’s written Word. … It is folly to pretend to seek God’s will for your life, in terms of a marriage partner or some form of Christian vocation, when there is no deep desire to pursue God’s will as he has already kindly revealed it” (D.A. Carson, Spiritual Reformation).

When making decisions our first responsibility is to discover whether there are any direct commands in Scripture either forbidding or demanding a specific course of action. If specific statements cannot be found, we must seek general biblical principles or examples that apply to the decision. But even here we must be careful not to normalize biblical examples as if God works the same way in every period of history. Gideon’s fleece, for example, was never intended as a normal pattern for guidance.

Circumstantial signs, opened doors, inner impressions, or feeling called by God

The most important matter is whether circumstantial signs or inner impressions align with Scripture and sound counsel. Subjective data (desires and signs) must always be determined by objective considerations. For example, one may feel called to pastoral ministry and even believe God has opened doors to pursue this desire. But the final test of God’s call is the qualifications for church leaders in the New Testament (see: I Timothy 3 and Titus 1). A man disqualifies himself from pursuing his desires and opened doors if he fails to meet the objective qualifications for Church leadership.

Steve Cornell

See also, “Do inner promptings reveal God’s will?”

Listen:      Short audio about God’s will

Tough advice

My father use to say, “You are where you are because that’s where you want to be. If it wasn’t, you’d do something about it.”

This advice might sound a bit simplistic or even reductionistic, but I wonder how many times it’s true.

In a culture where excuses are continually used to justify all kinds of inaction, Dad’s tough advice might be just what is needed. Dad would often add a final line: “So do something about it!”

Think about it

“You are where you are because that’s where you want to be. If it wasn’t, you’d do something about it. So do something about it!”

Perhaps you need to hear or share this tough advice. I realize that there are things we cannot change, but how many things could we change if we dropped our excuses and decided to do something? 

Dad knew a lot about things we cannot change. In his mid-thirties, he came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. This devastated our finances and placed a great deal of challenge on our family. We lost the home my Dad built and struggled through years of setbacks and limited finances. But Dad pressed on working in the trades with his twisted fingers and painful arthritis until he passed away in his late seventies.  

Dad’s advice reminded me of another dear friend (who is now in heaven) whom we called “Dr. B.” She was a tough and tender lady who didn’t want to hear excuses but wanted action. If you shared some difficulties with her, it was not unusual for her to say, “Get with the program, kid!” “God knows, He cares and He is in control! So let’s do something about it!” 

A prayer worth praying

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Dad’s life Scripture

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”” (II Corinthians 12:9).

Steve Cornell

 For a light and humorous side to this advice, see: Stop it!

Discouragement – a “dis” on courage

Discouragement is a “dis” on courage! Have you ever thought about it that way? It’s a loss of courage, confidence or hope. Discouragement includes some degree of fear. 

The word “courage” is part of the word “discourage.” It’s like the word disheartened (a “dis” on heart or a loss of heart). Don’t let life “dis” on your courage or heart! 

Why do our words need prefixes and suffixes?

When we rebelled against God’s good plan for us, our existence required prefixes and suffixes to negate otherwise good words. Dis -courage, dis-obedience, dis -able, dis -agree, dis -advantage… Faith-less, hope-less, etc…

We must come to see sin as something that not only disobeys God’s will but also spoils the good and corrupts worthy virtues. Discouragement assaults and spoils courage.

This is why we need exhortations like the one to “….. stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).

Like Joshua, we need to hear God saying, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Sometimes, (with sensitivity), discouraged people need gentle but firm admonishment about a loss of perspective that leads to a loss of courage.

Discouragement is more than a feeling. It involves a loss of wider life perspective. It narrows life down by discounting things that count. Courage is necessary for life in a fallen world. It helps us see things more honestly and positively. It fortifies us to tackle the work of everyday living.

“Despondency has a way of selectively focusing on certain aspects of life and conveniently overlooking others. Despair is always colorblind; it can only see the dark tints” (David A. Hubbard).

Discouragement wants to blind me to all the encouraging little things in life. I need to be admonished to, ““Stop being unamazed by the strange glory of ordinary things” (Clyde Kilby).

And sometimes I allow discouragement to derail my prayers so that I focus prayer so much on obstacles and challenges that I fail to give thanks for many great little ways God is working.

The way out of the dark tunnel of despair is not always a change of circumstance but a change of perspective. The humble worship of repentance (over my ingratitude) leads me to the worship of gratitude and frees me from the feelings of hopelessness and anxiety that so often accompany discouragement.

It’s easy to be misunderstood when you need to discourage the discouraged. People will sometimes accuse you of causing them more discouragement. But we cannot adequately encourage those who have lost perspective without discouraging them from a frame of mind that binds them to their discouragement. (Read it again).

Sometimes we can’t shake our discouragement because we don’t feel God is caring for us as we believe He should. When we feel down we often lock ourselves more deeply into our feelings with wrong ways of thinking. We bury ourselves more deeply into discouragement by listening to ourselves instead of speaking truth to ourselves. Part of the cure is to begin to think differently based on God’s truth and hope-filled promises (see: Spiritual Depression).

The primary New Testament Greek word translated “encourage” is “parakaleo” and means to call alongside. The word was used in a military context to call for reinforcements. Encouragement (like an encourager) functions as a reinforcement for life — a boost to our courage!

Offering encouragement is a means of giving courage, hope and confidence to others. It’s usually in the form of verbal affirmation, comfort, and exhortation. We need encouragement as part of the cure for discouragement. But sometimes our need is not merely to hear words of positive reinforcement. 

Getting out of the fog of despondency often requires a little loving admonishment. Caring friends will cross this line with love and sensitivity when they sense we need a better perspective. But we must allow people with mature perspective to have this kind of access to us. (For building larger perspective: Counseling the whole person).

Steve Cornell

Suffering in silence

They try to force themselves to appear cheerful as they struggle to survive. But, under the surface, life feels anything but happy as they suffer in silence, shame and confusion.

This was the story for a bright university student who attended our Church. She appeared to be happy and was eager to participate in Church activities. But inwardly she was fighting a losing battle with turmoil, fear, confusion and depression.

As she slowly weakened in her efforts to maintain control, she hesitantly agreed to the recommendation of a friend that she should meet with me to talk about her struggles. In this meeting, she finally gained the necessary courage to tell me a story that she had kept to herself until that point. She had been sexually molested by a family member when she was a little girl and, to my surprise, I was the first person to hear her painful story.

This began a challenging yet essential path to healing and rebuilding. Today she is doing well and able to help others facing similar circumstances.

A time to learn

Several years before this encounter, I was taking a graduate course in pastoral psychology and I impatiently asked myself, “Why do we have to spend a whole section on sexual abuse?” We even had to read a book about it and listen to a guest lecturer. Although I knew little about the subject, I didn’t expect to encounter very often. I was very wrong — and very humbled by God’s grace in equipping an impatient pastor.

Over the next couple of decades, I counseled more people dealing with a history of sexual abuse than I ever imagined. I’ve also repeatedly recommended the book I was assigned in the class. I remain humbled by the kindness of God to equip me to help those struggling to overcome the life-debilitating effects of sexual abuse.

During my graduate class, my eyes were opened to a world of darkness that holds many victims in silent pain. The more we learned about the issue, the more my heart grew heavy for the victims of such evil. 

Most of my counseling has focused on those who were sexually abused as children by family members. They come to me as adults who are struggling to live normal lives. They battle feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Since their abuse included manipulation and force, they long to feel a sense of security and control. They often substitute excessive and controllable behaviors to feel a sense of normalcy. Extreme exercise and dieting are two examples. Yet they easily spiral out of a sense of control. Inability to function and overall lack of motivation can inexplicably grip them.

It’s not unusual for survivors to experience significant loneliness, loss of appetite and need for unusual amounts of sleep. Mood swings plague those battling the grip of sexual abuse. Unusual gregariousness can give way to unexplainable depression and crying. Other waves of emotion include self-hatred, panic attacks, irrational phobias, guilt, shame, overall sense of humiliation, unexplainable anger and rage, lack of normality and a feeling of being trapped.

Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes turn to other forms of abuse to escape their pain. Obsessive behaviors rang from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual addictions and promiscuity. Sometimes victims engage in self-mutilation and battle suicidal thoughts.

Without help from a caring friend, most victims don’t recognize how badly they’ve been affected. They tend to suppress the past to survive in the present. Victims often conceal their pain and keep others at a distance. Relationships don’t come easily to these adults. Trust, one of main chords of healthy relating, feels out of reach because of their experience of betrayal. Yet they long for close relationships as much as they fear them. They fear that allowing someone to become a caring friend will cause suppressed feelings to emerge. Vulnerability is risky but necessary for gaining freedom.

Marriage and sexual abuse

Those who enter marriage relationships without first addressing their history of sexual abuse rarely do well. To flourish in marriage requires vulnerability, transparency and trust — painfully difficult qualities for victims of sexual abuse. Marriage can also provide a helpful context for recovery and renewal through the love and devotion of a spouse. But it typically requires assistance from a wise counselor.

The person who marries a victim of sexual abuse is often surprised by the effects of the abuse. It’s not uncommon for the mate of a victim to feel frustrated, confused and helpless. Making matters worse, they typically interpret the behavior of the victim as a personal affront when they don’t know the source. When victims put up walls or shut down their emotions, their mates often interpret it as rejection or personal failure.

The intimacy and closeness of marriage requires a level of vulnerability survivors feel unable to give. Adults who are victims of child sexual abuse must seek wise counsel if they want to enjoy healthy relationships.

Overcoming the past

The only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to effect us in the future. One victim of abuse expressed her pursuit of freedom as a refusal to tie her soul to her abuser. As hard as it will be, victims must courageously acknowledge their pain and confront their past.

The path to freedom requires dealing with the past but the most formidable obstacle is often fear. Those who have been abused should remember that they have been victimized by the evil actions of others. They must reject self-blame and all blame that others try to project on to them. Although difficult, they must reject the powerful emotions of shame, guilt and fear that hold them in bondage.

The book I was assigned to read, “A Door of Hope: Recognizing and Resolving the pains of Your Past” by Jan Frank, emphasizes the importance of confronting your past. As Jan Frank explains, this must also involve some form of confrontation of the abuser. After counseling others through this painfully necessary process, I know with certainty that the freedom awaiting the victim is worth the challenge of confronting the past.

Relating to God

Relating to God is another difficultly for victims of sexual abuse. “How can I trust God if He didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable?” they ask. It is hard to fully understand how God’s control relates to the evil actions of people. And these kinds of questions mixed with feelings of worthlessness and anger combine to obstruct faith in God. Such hesitations and struggles must not be treated lightly. Scripture reminds us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22).

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need merciful and wise guidance to help them in their struggle to trust God. They especially need help to understand the difference between forgiveness of their offender and reconciliation. See here. 

Many others (like the student who entered my office) have walked this path. It is possible to know the joy of freedom from bondage to a painful past.

Steve Cornell

Defeating worry

A Reader’s Digest article, “Winning Over Worry,” recommended the following:

“Put aside a period each day when you sit down and deliberately worry about things on your mind. It is easier for most people to stop worrying during the day and concentrate on productive thoughts if they tell themselves that they’ll have a chance to get back to the worry later. Researchers agree that the worry period ought to be 30 minutes long. Don’t use your favorite living-room chair, because the associations might make you start worrying every time you sit there. The researchers have discovered that a shorter worry period might actually increase the amount you worry.”

The Christian alternative is better.

Christians have long advocated a daily devotional time. Choose your favorite chair; open the scriptures and commune with your Heavenly Father. Recite His promises. Sing His songs. Humble yourselves before Almighty God by casting your anxiety on Him. He cares for you.

Let’s not be like Martha, “worried and upset about many things.” Instead with Mary, choose “what is better” by sitting at our Lord’s feet (Luke 10:38-42).

Many people waste too much time and energy on past regrets (leading to guilt and depression) or future fears (causing anxiety and fear). These feelings are intruders; thieves on a mission to steal our joy.

I am not suggesting we ignore the past or become cavalier about the future. Trusting God as the alternative to anxiety must never be used to justify indifference or laziness. God calls us to diligently and realistically deal with the difficulties of life.

Jesus never promised a trouble-free life to his followers. He said, “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Normal life in a sinful world involves vulnerability, threat, and suffering. Life involves sudden changes, rejection, loss of health, aging, financial collapse, crime, accidents, failure, broken dreams, etc. These are common causes of anxiety for all people.

But God offers himself to us as “a refuge and strength–an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Practicing Psalm 62:8 and Hebrews 4:16 as a daily exercise is one of the best ways to conquer fear and anxiety (see also, Proverbs 3:5-7).

Steve Cornell

 

Mind, emotions and the gospel

“Human life is fundamentally a life of the mind. The posture of the mind determines so much about the character of an individual’s life.” (Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion, p. 26).

Mind and emotions

Emotions are based on concerns. They arise because one cares about something that gives occasion to certain feelings.

Emotions are deeply connected to how one chooses to construe her circumstances in a matter related to a real concern. A construal – is an interpretation of the meaning of something; a way of viewing or a perspective on a situation, experience, or person.

Emotions and construals

  • To feel indignant is to choose to see myself or someone close to me as intentionally injured by someone in a matter of some concern to myself.
  • Becoming angry with someone necessarily involves construing him as obnoxious, offensive, or some such thing.
  • To feel despair is to see my life, which I deeply desire to be meaningful, as holding nothing, or nothing of importance to me.
  • To feel envious is to see myself as losing against some competitor in a competition on which I am basing my self-esteem.
  • To feel guilty is to see myself as having offended against a moral or quasi-moral standard to which I subscribe.

How to dispel emotion

“Because emotions are construals, and construals always require some ‘terms,’ to succeed in dispelling an emotion, I must somehow get myself to cease to see the situation in one set of terms, and probably must get myself to see it in different terms.”

Control over emotions

“It is important to Christians that emotions are partially within people’s control, that they can be commanded. Scripture commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. When Scripture reminds us that love is not jealous, or irritable, or resentful it seems to assume that these feelings are broadly within the control of the reader. Being resentful is not like being five foot six or having congenitally bad teeth.” (R. Roberts, p. 21).

Emotions and the Gospel

The ‘terms’ of the Christian emotions are provided by the Christian story, there is a necessary connection between the Christian emotions and the Christian story” (Ibid. p. 21)

“The gospel message provides people with a distinctive way of construing the world: the Maker of the universe is your personal loving Father and has redeemed you from sin and death in the life and death and resurrection of His son Jesus. You are a child of God, destined along with many brothers and sisters to remain under his protection forever and to be transformed into something unspeakably lovely” (Ibid., p. 16).

  • To experience peace with God is to view God as a reconciled enemy.
  • To experience hope is to see one’s own future in the eternity of God’s kingdom,
  • To be Christianly grateful is to see various precious gifts, such as existence, sustenance, and redemption, as bestowed by God.

Not our whole story

“Christianity is, among other things, the wonderfully good news that this life is not our whole story… The few years that we live in this body… are a kind of pilgrimage, a sojourn, a preparatory trip on the way to something much greater. For the Christian, this present existence is provisional. He is aware that every activity he undertakes is schooling for something else—that it is all directed toward a higher end” (Roberts).

Steve Cornell

Forgiveness is first about God

The act of forgiveness occurs first in the presence of almighty God as I surrender my desire for revenge before the God who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” (Romans 12:19). This is why I view forgiveness as an act of worship — as occurring in the context of worship as Jesus taught (Mark 11:25). Forgiveness is first about God. It is a confessional affirmation of God’s prerogative over justice. 

But this is not a “God will get you mentality.” Such an outlook would be an effort to use God not worship Him. Forgiveness happens in response to the God who holds the right of vengeance, but also the God who forgave my sins (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

This way of approaching forgiveness provides a gospel-focused perspective that frees us from the grudge-bearing vindictiveness and the troubling and infectious root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). It equally empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8; see also,Genesis 5:15-20Romans 12:17-21). This is how forgiveness liberates us to pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:28).

Yet approaching forgiveness this way does not ask us to downplay commitment to justice with silly clichés like: “It’s no big deal.” or “We’re all sinners.” When I forgive, I bring the matter before the one who is both Judge of all the earth and my faithful and merciful High Priest. No moral neutrality here! This is not a feigned effort at “forgiving and forgetting.”

When my heart allows feelings of hurt and betrayal to lead to desires to “even the score,” I must return again to this place of worship (Mark 11:25). I must reaffirm my confession of God as final Judge. 

What about reconciliation?

With this view of forgiveness in mind (and heart), in cases where an offender is unwilling to acknowledge wrong-doing, sometimes we have to build boundaries around our relationship with him. But, in such cases, we must guard our hearts (and perhaps seek wise counsel from one who clearly understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation) so that our boundaries are not retaliatory but appropriately protective and guided by the hope of restoration.

Quick reset

As forgiven people, we should be open to the possibility of reconciliation (unless personal or family safety are clearly at risk). Forgiveness requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and regain trust.

Forgiveness and reconciliation must occur together in resolving minor offenses. But when behavior is repeatedly hurtful in significant ways or trust has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, “Pretending” all is well (when it clearly is not) is not a loving option.

As John Stott noted, “If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. Forgiveness which by-passes the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality (Confess Your Sins, p.35).

Steve Cornell

Do Christians understand forgiveness?

Audio Link: Forgiveness or enabling?  (717) 872-4260

I’ve traveled to many places teaching groups of Christians about forgiveness and restoring broken relationships. There is widespread confusion on these subjects. When people share their stories with me, I find that,

  • Some have sinned in ways that make them feel beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. Trapped in a prison of regret and guilt, they’ve lost their joy.
  • Others have been so badly hurt that they find it hard to forgive. Engulfed in the pain of their past, they don’t know what to do with their hurt and loss.

Most of these people know God is forgiving and that He expects forgiven people to forgive. Yet they struggle to apply what they know. “How could God forgive me when I’ve failed so many times?” “How can I forgive the one who hurt me after what he did to me?”

Reconciling broken relationships presents a greater area of confusion and difficulty for people.“I forgive him” one woman told me, “but I don’t want anything to do with him!”

  • Does forgiveness always require reconciliation with an offender?
  • Is it possible to genuinely forgive someone and withhold reconciliation from him?
  • How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation?

There is widespread confusion about this — especially among Christians.

Cheap versions of forgiveness

Struggling with an irresponsible husband, one wife shared her story:

“He said I am sorry, but this is at least the tenth time! I don’t know what to think. I am told it’s my Christianduty to forgive, so I try. But whenever I forgive him, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling that I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes and I just stay angry. Then I feel guilty. To be honest, I don’t know if I have it in me to forgive him one more time. But I am afraid to disobey God’s command to be forgiving. Maybe God won’t forgive my sins. I don’t know what to do.”

Misguided thinking about forgiveness and reconciliation has produced cheap versions of forgiveness that send people through cycles of anger and guilt. Trying their best to forgive, some people repeatedly subject themselves to the hurtful behavior of others. Then they vacillate between anger and guilt. These people usually acknowledge deep-seated doubts about whether they are handling things the right way.

I repeatedly encounter people who enable others in the name of forgiveness. They struggle to relate to unrepentant loved ones and often excuse their enabling tendencies as an effort to be forgiving. This response reveals that they do not understand how to apply forgiveness and reconciliation to unrepentant offenders.

Lines of manipulation

Some of these offenders use lines of manipulation to hold well-intentioned Christians hostage to their control.

  • “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.”
  • “You just want to rub it in my face.”
  • “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.”
  • “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”

These lines reveal an unrepentant and manipulative attitude. This study will equip you to respond to those who use lines of manipulation.

Angry with God

When speaking on issues related to forgiveness, I often encounter people who feel angry toward God. Detecting this is sometimes tricky because I mostly speak in Christian settings. People who feel anger toward God but retain association with Christians hide their feelings well. When these buried feelings surface and people gain the courage to approach me about their struggles, they usually start by expressing confusion about how God relates to evil in general. Then they share their own story of being deeply hurt.

Some of them move from confusion to anger and I usually detect it in a change in their tone of voice and facial expression. This is how God detected it in Cain when he asked, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7).

Anger becomes bitterness

Angry people are vulnerable to bitterness. God pictured anger as a vicious animal looking to pounce its’ prey. Anger gains full hold when it turns into bitterness and bitter people are difficult to help. We must deal with our anger before it becomes bitterness (see: Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:26-27).

When bitterness is a fully entrenched condition of the heart, it is more difficult to dislodge and becomes infectious.  To gain freedom, we must see bitterness as a protective mechanism used to guard our cherished resentments. Bitterness can become a form of idolatry that rules the heart in place of God.

Opening Questions

  • Since we must forgive as God does, what does God’s forgiveness involve?
  • Do we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others?
  • Why do people struggle with so much guilt when God is willing to forgive them?
  • When we forgive someone, what are we actually doing? What is forgiveness? Do we confuse forgiveness with other things?
  • How can we possibly forgive people who have deeply hurt us?
  • Does forgiveness require us to enable unrepentant people to continue their behavior?
  • Can we withhold reconciliation from unrepentant offenders? Would it be unforgiving if we refuse to reconcile?
  • How can we know if someone is sorry for the wrong she has done?
  • What does genuine repentance look like?

These are the questions I answer in my series.

Jesus knew our needs:

Unresolved guilt and unresolved anger are two main issues related to forgiveness. These matters emerge repeatedly in my counseling experience. They each affect our relationship with God and with other people. Jesus taught his followers to pray about both issues in the request: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we forgive those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12 NEB). Daily we face the need to be forgiven (addressing unresolved guilt) and the need to forgive (addressing unresolved anger).

Can you identify with these two concerns?

  1. “God must be tired of me asking for forgiveness for my sins. Sometimes I feel I’ll never deserve to be forgiven. Does God ever give up on us when we fail too many times?” (Unresolved guilt)
  2. “He said I am sorry but this is at least the tenth time! I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive so I try. But each time I forgive, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling that I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes and I just stay angry. What should I do?” (Unresolved anger)

Steve Cornell 

10 goals in parenting

We desired (like most parents) to build positive character traits in our children. These were traits we knew to be necessary for both surviving and thriving in the world. But my extensive work with people (especially in counseling) taught me quickly about ways that positive traits could become negative. Life is so often a balancing act.

This led us to be more conscious about what I call trimming the positives to protect them from becoming negatives. Discuss with others the 10 contrasts below between positives and negatives. Your strategy as parents will likely have to change based on the personality and temperament of each child. But your example will be the most important factor in shaping their lives.

Positives without negatives

  1. Confident without being arrogant.
  2. Humble without being weak.
  3. Determined without being stubborn.
  4. Teachable without being gullible.
  5. Friendly without being naive.
  6. A servant without being an enabler.
  7. Merciful without being undiscerning.
  8. Discerning without being a critic.
  9. Capable without being overly self-reliant.
  10. Godly without being Pharisaic.

Steve Cornell