Grace for When You Can't Forgive

BY GRETCHEN RONNEVIK

“I know God wants me to forgive him, but I just can’t.  I’m not strong enough.”

She was my friend, walking through marriage troubles.  Her husband was unfaithful to her, with the technicalities and carefully drawn lines of “not technically sex” and justifying himself, which had wounded her deeply.

She didn’t think she could ever trust him again.  He had wounded her in the most tender and scared places in her heart.  We helped them find a marriage counselor, and they had to decide what they were going to decide if their marriage would move forward.  I was her friend who helped her process.  Through their counseling, God brought the husband to a place of repentance, turning his life upside down to make things right.

But her heart remained broken and untrusting.

As any good counselor will tell you, trust and forgiveness are two very different things.  As a daughter of an alcoholic, I concur.  Those in the church should not shy away from accountability or giving time to rebuild trust openly.  Boundaries aren’t bad, and often prevent putting people on pedestals that should never be there.

We talked about it, and I tried to speak freedom over her that it’s okay to insist on accountability.  It’s okay to insist on transparency.  That doesn’t mean she hasn’t forgiven.  It means she’s participating in the rebuilding of trust.

But it was deeper than that.  She worried that forgiveness would make him feel like what he had done was okay, and he would get the message that he could expect forgiveness.  She didn’t want to let him off the hook.  It hurt too much.  Her broken heart was hardening, and she knew it, and it scared her.  The pain suffocated her.

She knew that if she didn’t forgive, that God wouldn’t forgive her.  (Matthew 6:15) She knew that it wasn’t just her marriage that she was wrestling through.  She simply could not complete her religious obligation to forgive him.  Tried as she may, she couldn’t muster it up.

I prayed for wisdom.  I had compassion for her pain.  I understood God’s great patience.  She was facing her brokenness and incapableness to fulfill the law of forgiveness, and it terrified her.  The more I prayed, the more I realized that what she lacked wasn’t forgiveness.  She lacked faith in the power of unconditional love.  She knew God, but had never seen him reach down to wounds this deep. Could God reach that far?

My grandpa’s deep voice rang in my memory of his recitation of one of his favorite passages: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2.

So we shifted gears.  Instead of trying to muster up the forgiveness, I prayed with her over the phone, every night for a while, that she would fix her eyes on Jesus, and that he would grow her faith and trust in the power of HIS forgiveness.  “Just borrow God’s forgiveness” I would say. “His forgiveness is enough for you to use too.  You don’t have to muster it up.  He is the source of forgiveness, not you.  Just use his.  He is the source of unconditional love.  You don’t create it.  It flows through you.  As for you?  Your husband isn’t the healer.  Your husband is broken.  Your heart won’t get fixed by your husband.  Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, and see what he will do.  He is the healer.  He is the restorer. Bring your pain there.”

Our prayers together every night for a few weeks would end often in tears.  She felt such relief from the law of forgiving as the victim of such deep hurt.  She learned that God could change her heart.  God could heal her wounds.  God would grant her the gift of forgiveness.  It wasn’t a performance she had to do for him.  It was a gift he would give her, through faith.

Gretchen is a mom to 6 hilarious kids from toddler to teenager. She works as a homeschool mom, writer, and tutor to middle school kids in classical studies.  She has published an e-course for mentors in intergenerational ministry called Gospel Mentoring and works to equip women’s ministries in churches from falling into legalistic patterns that compromise the message of the gospel.