Forgiveness - Burden or Gift? Part I: What is Forgiveness Anyway?

after the dust settles and the real work of recovery begins forgiveness is something each of us has to face
Forgiveness - Burden or Gift

Part I: What is Forgiveness Anyway?
Part II: The Journey of a Lifetime

When discussing forgiveness of marital betrayal, other words that often spring to mind include impossible, unfair, and undeserved. Some of you may have even cringed at the mention of forgiveness. I definitely understand that. I think this topic is so hard to wrap our heads around when we are reeling from the pain and upheaval caused by infidelity, and it can seem out of the realm of possibility to even care about forgiveness. Every situation is different, so I can only tell you about mine.

When my husband first confessed his affair, I was numb. In my situation, I had waited a very long time for the truth and had basically given up believing it would ever happen. Over the years that I waited, I had continually tried to convince myself there was nothing to know, which he reinforced with layers of lies and denial. So, when it finally came out and I was faced with the exact truth I had worked so hard to dismiss, I was unprepared. Even though your situation was probably different from mine, I'll bet you were unprepared too. My husband spilled the ugly truth all over me and tearfully asked for my forgiveness. In a daze, I offered it to him.

Looking back, I truly meant it in that moment, but I had absolutely no idea what I was saying. I hadn't even begun to understand what I had lost, what he had actually willingly destroyed in our marriage, and as the reality set in over the next difficult season, forgiveness seemed like the least of my problems. However, as a Christian I knew I was commanded to forgive, and as a wife I wanted to be able to forgive, but I had no idea how I was ever going to get there.

Forgiveness felt like it was designed for things that were accidental. Unintentional. Mistakes. Like, “Oh, gosh, I just spilled wine on your shirt; please forgive me.” This was not like that at all. This was a series of repeated choices over a long period of time, done with full awareness of wrongness, layered with deliberate and intentional deception and secrecy to ensure its continuation, uninterrupted and without consequence. This is not to say the hurt caused by those actions was deliberate or even considered, but the choices made were neither an accident nor a mistake.

I struggled with this. It seemed so intentional. I felt caught between my obedience to God and my human nature. My human heart said forgiveness would be saying that what he did was ok, or that it didn't hurt me. It felt like forgiveness would somehow minimize the significance and impact of his betrayal. Or even that I conceded that what he did wasn't actually that bad. None of that was true. How could I forgive something that had cost me so much? Forgiving something of this magnitude just seemed unfair. Hadn't I lost enough already?

But I do love my husband, and following disclosure he was deeply remorseful, truthful, empathetic, and motivated to heal our marriage. So, initially, I willed myself to forgive, through gritted teeth and angry prayers. I definitely did not feel anything resembling forgiveness. I was too busy being angry, even rageful at times, like nothing I have ever experienced before. As the months ticked by I knew I had to figure out a way to forgive him, both for his sake and my own. But how? I prayed about this frequently, but it was a mixture of obligation and desperation. In my heart I did want to forgive my husband. I just didn't know if I could. I really didn't know if I was a good enough person for that. I mostly assumed I wasn't. Forgiveness for monumental things like infidelity was what really good people do - like, super sweet, Godly, loving people who still smile when they're upset and say things like "Goodness gracious". Not angry, resentful, sarcastic people who spew four letter words like me. I continued to pray and ask God to show me how to forgive and to make me capable of forgiveness. I asked Him to pour His forgiveness through me for my husband.

As time went on, I settled into this frequent prayer, and at some point I realized I had committed to forgiveness. That didn't mean I felt any forgiveness yet, but I had made a decision that I would forgive, and was committed to doing so, however long it took to get there. After a little while, that thought was comfortable. I no longer felt as much of a "forgiveness failure", and felt patience in knowing I had made the commitment, so the timeframe wasn't important. I continued to pray about it, but my prayer changed a little. Now I asked God to soften my heart and fill me with compassion for my husband so I could see him as God did, and to fill me with His forgiveness toward him.

I wish I could say suddenly something was magically transformed in me after that, but that was not my experience. Could God do that? Absolutely. But I think He would rather we arrive there through our own struggle. More time passed and I continued to pray that prayer, along with a lot of other stuff about healing. Slowly my anger began to subside.

Perusing the Affair Recovery forums and reading extensively on the topic over the years, I have noticed some recurring misconceptions of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not require justice. Sometimes people can get caught up in wanting justice or restitution before considering forgiveness. If you are looking for justice in the aftermath of infidelity - spoiler alert - there isn't any. You will never find it because it doesn't exist. The same goes for restitution. I personally cringe when I hear people talk about restitution in this circumstance, as though the losses can be replaced. They can't. However, that being said, with enough perspective and forgiveness, the need for justice becomes irrelevant. What matters more is redemption, along with finding meaning and purpose. Redemption for myself and my life, as well as having a role in my husband's redemption. That is deeply meaningful to me. Does it take away the sting of betrayal or make forgiveness easy? No. But it exists alongside all of that, and is equally important.

Forgiveness isn't saying that the betrayal was okay. It actually says the opposite. It implies that what happened was so significant that there's nothing that can make up for it, and that is why forgiveness is needed. It comes at a cost to the person doing the forgiving. It can never be made right by human means. That's the message of the gospel. God did not forgive our sins because they were trivial. Our sins were monumental and we could never do enough to make up for them. Forgiveness is supernatural, and I believe as flawed humans, we are unable to do it on our own.

Forgiving is not forgetting. If we could just forget, there would be no need for forgiveness. The principle of forgiveness is that, in spite of the fact that you will always remember, you give up your right to punish, and you come to accept the consequences of another person's actions. That is really hard. I didn't take these actions and I don't want these consequences. So please don't think I'm glossing over it all and saying it's easy, as it definitely is not. Not at all. For me, part of the process of forgiveness is my growing acceptance of these costs. The more time has passed, the more I have accepted that there are many things that might just always be painful and disappointing. It is not the shock that it once was, and my expectations have changed to accommodate reality. I would love to say that forgiveness will result in the resolution of pain but I don't see that happening. Maybe for some people it does, I don't know. For me, it is more about making peace with having to live with the pain indefinitely.

Forgiveness does not equal trust. Trust is completely separate from forgiveness, and may or may not be restored in a relationship where infidelity has occurred. Trust is built by believable behavior over time, not by forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often confused with reconciliation. They are definitely not the same thing. You can have one without the other. You can have both. But they are separate. Forgiveness is a critical component for successful reconciliation, but even if reconciliation is not possible or advisable, forgiveness is still important - even if it's just for the freedom and peace of the betrayed partner. Not every relationship can be reconciled, but forgiveness can still take place regardless. Rick Reynolds explains the paradox of social shame that can take place with a decision to forgive and reconcile, but he also highlights the ultimate benefit for those who make it.

Forgiveness will not remove the negative feelings about the betrayal. Nope. I wish that was true but it isn't. Mona Shriver describes this well and offers validation about feeling conflicted that we still feel angry and hurt, even though we are forgiving the person who hurt us so deeply.

After the dust settles and the real work of recovery begins, forgiveness is something each of us has to face. Not everyone will choose this path, and we have the free will to decide for ourselves. Some people will flat out refuse to forgive, while others feel an inability to do so. Then the rest will try to figure it out to release the burden they are carrying. I'm sure you have heard the adage about the person who released the prisoner through forgiveness and then realized he himself had been the prisoner. I want the peace in my heart of forgiving my husband, and yes, even his affair partner. Initially I had zero capacity, or even desire, to forgive her. There is a lot to forgive. She feigned friendliness toward me and my children throughout the affair while enjoying a secret relationship with my husband. That continues to feel so calculated, humiliating, and without remorse, like I was just a pawn in a twisted game they were playing. After the initial shock of it all, I asked God to help me even want to forgive her, and then to help me do it. To see her as He sees her. Am I there yet? Not completely, but closer than I thought I would be. God tells us to bless those who persecute you. That is a very tall order, and one that I cannot do alone without the help of God.

Come back next week for Part 2 of Forgiveness - Burden or Gift?

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Comments

Thank you so so much for this

Thank you so so much for this very honest piece about forgiveness. I can particularly relate with your comments that forgiveness is not forgetting, often confused with reconciliation and neither will it remove our negative feelings about the betrayal.

A lot of the teaching I had heard about forgiveness was as you say for those super godly people who don't feel pain as passionately and intensely as I do and are able to "forgive and forget" so it's taken a lot to accept that it's a process. I also agree with what you say that for some us Betrayed, it's making peace with having to live with the pain of infidelity indefinitely.

Thanks again for a lovely piece. I can't wait to read part 2.

Still Standing

Thank you for your comment. This is definitely a hard topic and I appreciate your thoughts. I do think once I really accepted that forgiveness was a process and stopped being in a hurry, it felt less overwhelming. I wish you well in your recovery, and I'll see you next week with part 2. :)

Jen,

Jen,
These words are beautiful, powerful and have given me a lot to think about. I am currently working towards forgiveness. For me, I am going into great detail as to what forgiveness means to me and I will share with my husband my exact definition when I do forgive him. It has been 19 months since dday and from day 1, I have known that I will forgive my husband and the interloper (I refuse to use the word "partner" of any kind). But what exactly would that look like or entail? I've been working through this process and wrestling with all things forgiveness related. I look forward to part 2 of this. Thank you for sharing your journey. Hugs and peace to you.

Thank you.

I appreciate your comment and I think explaining what forgiveness means to you could be very meaningful when you share it with your husband. I'm glad the blog offered something for you to contemplate, and I wish you well. I'm still figuring it out as well. Hugs and peace to you too :)

Spot on Jen, you express

Spot on Jen, you express yourself well on this topic of forgiveness. Your thoughts have been, and are, my thoughts.
Early on I recognized that true forgiveness is only something God can do; we are imperfect, weak, and fallible creatures, not capable of such a super human feat as forgiving a devastating betrayal.
I needed help!
So I asked God to make me strong enough to forgive my husband; I told God that left to myself I could not do this thing.
You stated this well: “Forgiveness is supernatural, and I believe as flawed humans, we are unable to do it on our own.”
And God met me there in my weakness as He promised He would. Over time my heart melted, I was able to see my husband as one of God’s lost sheep, the one he left the 99 for so that He could go search and bring the lost one home. I saw my husband as the “weaker brother”, in need of grace and healing. He didn’t need my wrath, he was already beating himself up over his stupid decisions. His repentance certainly helped the process of forgiveness along, but that in itself was the Lord’s work. God is truly the “hound of heaven”, not letting my husband sink into the pit, but using me to help rescue him.
Thank you dear friend for your encouraging thoughts and words, your honesty and transparency.

Bighorn Mountains

Thank you my friend. You have been a support to me and many others, and you echo the essence of forgiveness in your comments. I am not quite to where you are in this endeavor (yet) but your words help me to envision a future with greater peace in this area, and I'm sure they will be helpful to others reading them.

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I would highly recommend giving this a try.
 
-D, Texas