It frequently happens that I come into contact with people whose marital relationships have been painfully fraught with turmoil, confusion, and mistrust. In many of these, there have been patterns that have kept one of the parties subjected to cycles of abuse and victimization. Then, when the oppressed person determines that the other has had enough and threatens to leave, he pledges change and begs for another chance.
I have written in regard to forgiveness on a few occasions, so far always addressing the one who has been offended and his or her need (and call by Christ) to do the hard work of forgiving. This time, however, I am speaking to those who have done the harming, intended or not.
All too often I observe in these sorts of situations the injuring party’s demand that the other forgive. Let me point out that if your repentance before God and towards another is genuine, you will not demand forgiveness. In fact, you will understand entirely why they may choose not to.
The desire for another’s forgiveness is natural and normal, yet it innately possesses within it an inclination for the same self-centeredness that caused whatever offense that led to our perceived need for it. We hurt our loved one. We say we’re sorry. We expect them to forgive us. We become angry if they do not. We retaliate when they hesitate. We guilt them. We nag them. We harass them. Why? Because we’ve truly repented and truly regret the pain and anguish they feel from our selfish actions and stubborn pride? Or are we still really the only ones we really care about?
In a marriage that has repeatedly cycled through abuse, I am sometimes asked to “reason” with someone to convince them that the spiritually mature thing to do is for him or her to forgive the other and simply move on.
Granted, Jesus taught us to forgive. But I believe that we have a distorted view of what forgiveness is. For one thing, if at any time a person just expects it, he or she clearly does not understand that with true forgiveness there is grace and grace is unmerited, undeserved favor which, by definition, makes it something we shouldn’t simply expect (let alone demand).
One thing that you and I should take to heart is that if I have betrayed another, if I have hurt him or her, if I have failed to be their friend and have somehow preyed upon them, I do not deserve forgiveness. I have blown it. I should be able to understand completely if he or she does not forgive me.
That is what makes forgiveness truly powerful, the fact that it is freely given, without coercion or compulsion on my part. If I am jockeying for forgiveness, making arguments about why the other should give it, then I am likely not ready for it. Forgiveness just becomes another tool in my toolkit for manipulating another and I will inevitably return to hurting someone I pretend to love and cherish.
Never take grace lightly. Never demand another’s forgiveness. You don’t deserve it. Don’t take it for granted. Their forgiveness of you is ultimately between that loved one and God. Leave it there and give them room to work on the healing that they need and God intends for them. Stop victimizing them when they demonstrate an inward struggle to allow you access to their hearts again.
Not only that, even if they do forgive you, don’t assume that everything can be same as it was before your betrayal of them. It can’t. They have been changed. They have been bruised, anguished, and are vulnerable to the fear of being hurt again. But with God’s help, they can be changed for the good, wiser and made whole once more. Respect boundaries if your loved one feels the need for them. It may be that they forgive you, but choose to not give you the access to their heart and life that you had before. Your cooperation and humility in acknowledging their needs go a long way in demonstrating the genuineness of your repentance. Anything else tells the story that you haven’t really changed and shouldn’t be given another chance.
In a similar way, when we presume upon God’s grace, forgetting how deeply wounded He is by our sin and rejection of Him, we are not ready for His grace. When we lightly say that we “accept Him as Savior” without having felt the anguish of our betrayal of Him, we clearly do not understand grace.
We don’t deserve grace. We cannot ever earn it. God would be in the right if He did not forgive us. He would be in the right if He simply destroyed us, consigning us to an eternity of punishment.
But that is what is so amazing about grace. It is undeserved. It is unmerited. And it’s given to those who have finally realized that it is the one thing we could never hope to have based on anything we do, have done, or promise to do. It is only because God in mercy looks upon us and extends to us His forgiveness of sin that we have the hope of forgiveness. Our rebellious nature deserves punishment and God’s own holy nature must punish it. But His forgiveness moved Him to punish it by giving His Son Who, in turn, freely gave His own life’s blood for us. And because of that, we can receive forgiveness when we fully trust Him as Savior and Lord.
“In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:4b-8a ESV).
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 24 ½ years, is the author of Led by Grace, The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com.” Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)