8 Common Myths about Forgiveness in Marriage
Emmanuel (Noel) Villarivera
Our culture has bought into the lie that humans are inherently good, but unfortunately, the church often promotes this message as well. While the church proclaims the message of the gospel, I still encounter many Christians who don’t think they are sinful.Typically they are people who grew up in the church, possess moral virtue, and exhibit good behavioral tendencies. Of course, they need to be saved, but to them, salvation is more of a costume change than a heart transplant.
Why do I say this? Because it has profound implications for how we practice forgiveness. People who don’t believe they need forgiveness of sins are people who find it difficult to forgive others who sin against them. Put another way, those who believe they have been forgiven little tend to forgive little. Yet the gospel is clear in its message – you are more sinful than you ever thought possible, but you are also more accepted and loved than you ever dared imagine.
Too often in marriage counseling, we overlook this critical aspect of forgiveness. We jump to the horizontal aspect of forgiveness between spouses before we lay the foundation of understanding the forgiveness we need before God. Why is this so critical?
Only people who realize the magnitude of forgiveness they have in Christ are likely to grasp and show a measure of that forgiveness in their personal relationships. Savoring and meditating on this truth necessarily compels a believer to be more forgiving in their posture and their actions. Paul frames this in his writing, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32).
In counseling, I often encounter bad theology about forgiveness. Instead of building on a bad foundation, I take time in the session (or through homework) to dismantle their faulty theology in order to build a more biblical, healthy foundation.
8 Common Myths about Forgiveness in Marriage
As we consider and pursue resolving conflict biblically, it’s helpful to clarify what biblical forgiveness is and is not.
Here are eight common myths above forgiveness in a marriage relationship:
1. I don’t need to forgive to have a good marriage. Is forgiveness really that important? Recently a wife told me in counseling with her husband that she had figured out how to make things work with him. She excitedly told me that she had made a resolution to “let things slide off her back” and not be bothered by her husband’s behavior.
For her, forgiveness was one of several options for dealing with hurt and offense in her marriage. She had resolved, instead, to simply let things go; unfortunately, this only worked until the next time her husband said something she just couldn’t let go.
If our marriages are to embody a story of redemption, then forgiveness – sincerely sought and genuinely granted – must be the central plotline, the thread that binds two sinners together in a transformative relationship.
2. Apologizing is the same thing as repenting and asking for forgiveness.
In my experience, this is one of the most common myths about forgiveness. The language of “I’m sorry” becomes the lingua franca of a relationship, and no care is given to biblical forgiveness. The problem with apologizing is that it is not a biblical concept!
Often when you ask couples how they resolve conflict, they will say they simply apologize. Yet the problems continue to persist and no reconciliation takes place. A counselor must help couples see that the language of “I’m sorry” is not a substitute for the biblical pattern of repentance and forgiveness.
3. Forgiving means forgetting.
Forgiveness is frequently equated with forgetting. I’ve had scores of husbands and wives tell me they cannot forgive because they cannot forget the wrongs done to them by their spouse. In the economy of their relationship, forgiveness is withheld until the offense is forgotten. The problem with this myth, like many others, is that it is not grounded in Scripture.
If our forgiveness is to embody and exemplify God’s forgiveness of us in Christ, we will understand that Christ does not “forget” our sins in order to forgive them. In fact, quite the opposite is true – we are told he forgives and then chooses not to remember: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). This active disposition of forgiveness must be clarified and put into practice.
4. I need to learn to forgive myself.Like myth number three, this is one of the most frequent myths surrounding forgiveness. This myth gets repeated so frequently in pop psychology that it has filtered down into Christian thinking and behavior. Simply put, forgiving oneself is not in the Bible.
Blogger Lara d’Entremont explains, “Self-forgiveness says that we have the authority to choose if our sins are forgivable or not. But that’s not the case. Rather, Jesus paid the full price for your sins when He died on the cross and rose again. Jesus didn’t pay a part of the price and then ask you to finish it off. He fully atoned for each of your sins and bore God’s wrath that you deserved because of them.”
Self-forgiveness might sound like a good technique to alleviate guilt, but the concept is not rooted in the gospel message.
Spouses might use this language to describe feelings of self-condemnation, self-loathing, guilt, shame, or unworthiness. Perhaps a spouse has difficulty letting go of past hardships, and it is hindering their ability to build healthy relationships here in the present. That individual may say, “I need to forgive myself so I can begin to trust my spouse.”
In a situation such as this, what typically underlies such a statement is a misunderstanding of the gospel. The spouse needs to be reminded to live out of the reality that God has truly forgiven them. When we are able to frame our feelings and experiences in light of God’s forgiveness of us, it helps us better understand our identity and informs our behavior. Understanding and living out our status as forgiven sinners helps us apply this gospel truth in our relationships.
5. I don’t need to forgive if they are not repentant.
We will address this more fully a bit later, but one common reason husbands and wives don’t forgive is that forgiveness is only viewed and understood horizontally. In Luke 17:3–4, Jesus tells his disciples, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Taking this verse out of context and disregarding other teaching on forgiveness would seem to indicate that forgiveness is based on the offending person’s repentance. But other verses such as Mark 11:25 clarify that we are supposed to forgive regardless of any action by the other person: “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
In his book Habits of Healthy Marriage, Paul David Tripp helpfully explains the two aspects of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is a vertical commitment that is followed by a horizontal transaction.” This vertical commitment to forgive and entrust the other spouse to God is key in enabling you to extend forgiveness horizontally. It also prevents superficial forgiveness – forgiving in word but not in deed and heart.
6. Forgiveness is the same thing as reconciliation.Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation; forgiveness is an event that prepares the way for reconciliation. Tim Keller, in his book the Meaning of Marriage, writes, “Forgiveness means a willingness to try to reestablish trust, but that reestablishment is always a process.”
Helping couples see that forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate topics often brings hope. For too long spouses have conflated forgiveness and reconciliation. Because they cannot envision the fruits of reconciliation (renewed trust, renewed relationship, and positive emotions), they put off granting and/or seeking forgiveness.
7. Forgiveness erases consequences.
Spouses often withhold forgiveness because they fear it enables the other spouse to carry on without any consequences. The argument goes, “If I forgive them, then there will be no consequences or repercussions for their behavior.” Again, Scripture is clear that there are consequences for our actions.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Forgiveness of sin in a marital relationship does not remove consequences; however, it does give the couple a foundation of common acceptance and love to stand on as they deal with the consequences of sin.
8. Forgiveness is a feeling or should be easy.
“Why is this so hard?” One of the reasons people don’t forgive is because forgiveness is more associated with feelings than obedience. When forgiveness is grounded more in one’s personal feelings than obedience to God’s Word, then forgiveness will most likely be difficult.
Think about it for a moment: forgiveness almost always entails personal hurt or suffering, so why would we think negative feelings or emotions are unusual? To wait for the absence of negative emotions runs counter to Scripture’s emphasis on the timeliness of forgiveness.
“I love you”, Courtesy of Tai’s Captures, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands in the Rain”, Courtesy of Romnw, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Snuggle”, Courtesy of Justin Follis, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License