A Guide to Forgiveness in Marriage

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult lessons couples have to walk through. It’s a topic that many get hung up on. The victimized spouse will often have a really difficult time getting to a place where they feel they can forgive their spouse. They may feel that their spouse doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. For the victim, forgiveness can be scary and frustrating. On the other hand, the offending spouse will often struggle to actually practice and live out biblical confession and asking for their spouse’s forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness will also be frightening and intimidating.

For the offending spouse, pride and the temptation to manage how we appear to others usually impacts our decision-making. Selfishly, we prefer to hide our sin and lead a double life. However, when we do this, we inevitably feel as if we are wasting away (Psalm 32:3-4).

That is why it is so important to share regularly with your spouse and others about your sin and the areas where you struggle. Although, even when we have accountability in trusted friends, we often make confession just vague enough to not get in too much trouble. We share only enough to check a box. We give half-hearted confessions that don’t actually produce repentance. This behavior only leads to more hurt and deception.

For the victim, it can be all too easy to respond without remembering God’s grace. Rather than responding to confession how we should, we are instead prone to bursts of anger or retreat into ourselves. The cycle of distrust and fear this can create often results in even more hurt. Sometimes the victim will respond by attempting to take control of their spouse and their spiritual life completely.

Regardless of who hurt who, we can forget that marriage should be a safe place for failure. Learning to practice biblical confession and forgiveness doesn’t just benefit your marriage. Forgiveness will have ripple effects that benefit your whole family.

Three Things to Consider About Confession

  1. Sin separates us from God and from others – When we give ourselves to sin, relationships with others are the usually the first casualty.
  2. Unconfessed sin keeps us in bondage to it – When we have unconfessed sin in our lives, our thoughts and actions are often held captive by it.
  3. Confession is the first step towards intimacy and freedom – We were made to be fully known and fully loved. Confession allows us to begin being fully known (Proverbs 28:13).

If you are wondering what in your life requires confession, it can be helpful to ask yourself “What is the area of my life where I am not experiencing the fullness of what God would have for me?” Or, put another way, “What is keeping you from living free from guilt and shame?” Answering questions like these helps to identify what the Lord would have us confess.

The Forgiveness Process in 5 Steps

1. Take a personal inventory

Spend time in prayer and self-reflection. List out the ways you’ve sinned against your spouse and what you need to ask forgiveness for. Ask the Lord to reveal your transgressions to you (Proverbs 139:23-24).

2. Confess your sin to God

Nothing is hidden from him and he loves us still (1 John 1:9). Feel the immense freedom to lay your sins and burdens on the Lord knowing how much he cares for you.

3. Confess your sin to your spouse

It is by confessing our sin to one another that we can be healed (James 5:16). In addition to confessing to your spouse, you should also confess to a trusted believer or someone in your small group. This person can help hold your accountable for telling your spouse the whole truth.

When we are obedient to confess, God promises to show up. Place your treasure in God’s truth and your heart will come back around even if it isn’t there immediately (Matthew 6:21). Remember that confession and forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to us. It is a learned skill.

Here are 4 tips for confessing sin to your spouse:

  • Confess quickly. Keep short accounts with one another. It can be helpful to enact something like the “24 Hour Rule” where you commit to confessing sin within 24 hours of it occurring.
  • Confess humbly. Seek to understand the pain it causes your spouse. Asking “Can you help me understand how this made you feel?” will help you know more fully the effects of your sin.
  • Confess authentically. Be fully open and honest in your confession. Being willing to share everything. You don’t want to confess half-truths and have the full story come out later.
  • Confess specifically. Be specific, but avoid being too graphic or too vague. You should be willing to share as much as the offended party wants to know, while still guarding their heart. Process with others for what would be best for you to share/know.

4. Ask for forgiveness

When we ask for forgiveness, we come to them in humility and ask them if they’d be willing to release the debt owed to them. We place our imperfections in their hands. When you ask for forgiveness, avoid only saying, “I’m sorry.”

5. Grant forgiveness

Remember that even the victim of an offense has an active role in the forgiveness process.

Here are 3 tips for granting forgiveness to your spouse:

  • Create a safe place. Listen in humility and thank them for sharing. Remember it takes courage to share all your junk. If the process of confession and forgiveness feels dangerous, then the offending spouse will be less encouraged to confess again in the future.
  • Extend grace and forgiveness. In the midst of this hurt, you can remember that Christ extended his grace and forgiveness to us. Even if you don’t want to, work to move toward forgiveness. Note, that this may not be immediately depending on the severity of the offense. However, remember that forgiveness is ultimately about a choice of obedience. This doesn’t mean that you can’t talk through your hurt after granting forgiveness, but it does mean that the offense cannot be hung over your spouse’s head or used as a weapon.
  • Remember you are on the same team. There is an enemy in this, but this enemy is not your spouse. The devil wants nothing more than for you to think each other are the enemy (1 Peter 5:8). Marriage is always high on his list for things to ruin.

Lastly, know that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness can be granted immediately. Reconciliation requires trust to be rebuilt and this trust is rebuilt over time. It needs to be done slowly and purposefully. But it will also be worth it.

Marriage and the forgiveness process are not going to be easy. In fact, it will often be incredibly hard. However, even in the darkest moment, we serve a God that makes dead things come alive again. There is always hope and healing to be found in Jesus.

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