When a husband speaks harshly to his wife in a way that is out of character for him, his acknowledgement of wrong doing should be received with forgiveness and restoration.
This kind of offense can be covered in love. The apostle wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (i.e. offenses)” (1 Peter 4:8).
Where love is strong, relationships are not as easily threatened. This is because love “is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).
But if a husband repeatedly speaks this way, he should expect his acknowledgement of wrong to be more difficult to believe.
If the pattern continues, he makes it harder for restoration with his wife. His behavior could lead his wife to tell him that while she forgives him, she will not accept his harshness in the future without consequences.
Does this sound like conditional forgiveness? Does it sound like a threat or the kind of tough love we need to help us change sinful patterns?
How do you counsel a wife who tells you her husband said he’s sorry but it’s at least the tenth time?
She says, “I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive and the Lord knows I’ve tried. But each time I forgive him, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes and I just get more angry. What should I do?”
Is there something wrong with this picture? Is this what forgiveness requires of her? Or, is it possible to forgive someone while withholding reconciliation from him? There is an urgent need in the Church to learn the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Forgiveness is always required by God but it does not always lead to reconciliation.
The choice to forgive is not contingent on the confession and repentance of the one who offended us. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is dependent upon the offender’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
But even if such an acknowledgment is offered, when a relationship has been significantly violated, regaining trust and restoring the relationship will take time. The offender might also need to do certain things to demonstrate the sincerity of his confession. If he resents the need for time and demonstration of changed behavior, he gives those he sinned against reason to doubt the sincerity of his confession.
Swallow hard, let him off the hook?
Lewis Smedes told the following story in his book on forgiveness:
“Jennifer Klein was the kind of woman you could count on to reach out to a person in trouble. For instance, when Archie, her husband of twelve childless years, came home with a story about this poor kid named Lennie he knew at the shop and how her parents had tossed her out in the street, he sparked Jennifer’s inner urge to seek and to save the lost. Without so much as looking up, she said, ‘We’ve got an extra room, maybe we can do her some good. Why don’t you bring her here?’ So he did. Lennie was only seventeen, nothing fetching to look at, and no joy to have about, mousy and weepy one day, poutish and irritable the next. But her manners only encouraged Jennifer’s hunch that she was performing a bona-fide Christian service. Care and nurture were what the child needed – unconditional love if you will -and Jennifer felt that she had a calling to give them. Maybe this was why the Lord never gave me any children of my own to take care of, she would muse to herself.
“Meanwhile, she never worried for a minute about leaving a mere child like Lennie hanging around the house alone with Archie. Well, on a Sunday afternoon, two months after Lennie had moved in, Jennifer strained her thigh while she worked out at her fitness center and came home a half hour earlier than she said she would. When she got there, she found Archie and the castaway in the family room in a compromising position.
“Jennifer felt like she had been mugged inside her soul by a two-ton thug. Is this what a person gets for showing someone a little tender mercy? Jennifer wasted no time. She found herself an apartment and left Archie the very next day.
Now, two years later, her spirit is still aching and wracked in pain. She still has a hankering to kill the two of them. ‘Was he up to something even before he brought her home? I don’t know. And me, what a fool I am. I don’t know why I set myself up for trouble, me and my idiotic need to be everybody’s guardian angel. But he took advantage of me. Dear God, I hate that man so much it’s killing me.’
And then, without so much as a shift of tone, she dares me to tell her what a person is supposed to do when she needs to forgive somebody. ‘I’ve heard it all my life, we should forgive people who slam us. But now when it happens to me, I don’t have a clue what it is I am supposed to do.’
Somebody had told Jennifer that if she forgave Archie she would put the episode behind her, forget the whole thing, go back to him, accept who he is, and get on with their life together– as if nothing ever happened. But this sounded phony to Jennifer, and she knew she could not do it anyway. ‘Are you supposed lo swallow hard, let him off the hook, and pretend the whole thing never happened? If that is what forgiving is about,’ Jennifer said, ‘I would rather buy a gun and shoot them both.’” (The Art of Forgiving).
When Jennifer forgives Archie, what is she actually doing? What does forgiveness include? What does forgiveness require?
Option A: When I forgive someone, I treat him as if he had never wronged me. True? or False?
Option B: “When I forgive, I surrender my desire to get even with the one who hurt me.”
“When God forgives sin, “He will remember your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25); He “will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” ( Jeremiah 31:34); ”as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). When He forgives, God chooses not to call to remembrance our sins but he does not always remove the consequences. He often relates to us through the consequences.
When we ask God to forgive our sin, we are not (if we are genuinely repentant) asking him to take away all the consequences caused by our sin. When God forgives our sin, he takes away the guilt. Yet God’s forgiveness does not rule out accountability for the consequences caused by our actions (see: Psalm 32:3-5; 51; w/ II Sam.12:9-30).
To explore this theme more deeply, see: Moving from Forgiveness to Reconciliation.