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by Michael Hildreth

This is the final installment in a three-part lesson on Biblical forgiveness. We will conclude this series with an application regarding forgiveness in the marriage relationship.


Certainly, it is Christ-like to forgive indiscretions that sully the marriage relationship. Like Hosea demonstrated, a husband should forgive his unfaithful wife even if she has fallen into the sin of adultery.

     Yet, there are many instances of an unfaithful wife or husband never repenting of illicit sexual behavior. They enjoy the sin and wish to continue sinning. In some cases, the unfaithful spouse even calls for an “open marriage”. This has recently become fashionable in American pop culture, but how can a faithful spouse forgive such behavior?

     Jesus permits divorce as a last resort to resolve the problem of infidelity. After having offered forgiveness, praying fervently, and failing to elicit any repentance from the sexually immoral spouse, reconciliation seems to be impossible. There is no sin in divorcing him or her (cf. Matt. 5:32; 19:9).

      If God can approve the withholding of forgiveness under such circumstances, who are we to condemn? Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce proves that forgiveness, even when freely offered in love, is sometimes impossible. This example alone dispels the falsehood that Christians must always forgive, regardless of the offender’s repentance.


It is important to understand why falsely forgiving a wayward spouse or brother is not a harmless mistake. False forgiveness (forgiveness without repentance and reconciliation) vainly offers a quick fix to a problem which cannot be resolved instantaneously.

     Not only does issuing false forgiveness make us less like God, but it also promises us an empty peace. It undermines the true healing process God designed for us to experience after we have been harmed by others.

      In spite of what some are saying, forgiveness is not the answer to being freed from carrying the weight of an offense. Many victims who claim to have forgiven everyone will also tell you that they continue to struggle with feelings of bitterness, anger, and hatred.

      Why is this so often the case? As they are told to forgive their offender and be healed, their faith is damaged because that promised healing doesn’t immediately happen. So, they struggle even more.

     They don’t realize that forgiveness, whether it is legitimate or issued prematurely, is not a cure-all for the residual pain of trauma. True healing is found in committing to God all of the suffering and hurt inflicted on us by abusers. Giving up on judging and condemning the people who hurt us is very difficult but very rewarding. It is a process requiring faith, spiritual maturity, and time.

     Had victims started by turning it over to God, instead of trusting their own decision to “forgive”, they may have already arrived at a better place spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. False forgiveness bogs them down, delaying the healing process.

     Although some who “forgive” prematurely still experience healing, it happens in spite of their faux forgiveness, and not because of it. It would seem that adjusting their attitude away from judging the offender helped them to relinquish their hurt to God. Their “forgiveness” is credited for all the mental and emotional progress they enjoy, even though spiritual pardoning of the crime never really took place.


We accept by faith that God will handle every injustice on the Day of his glorious appearing. In his own time, he will grant full “relief” to those of us who are afflicted by the sins of evil people (2 Thess. 1:6-8).

     In the meanwhile, we allow all condemnation to belong to him alone. In this way, we are set free from the anguish and heavy weight of rage, resentment, and grudge harboring. The healing process takes longer for some than for others but surrendering everything to God will gradually take us all to the place we need to be.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”  Romans 12:19

     While it is true that we must lovingly pray for those who sin against us, we cannot grant forgiveness to the unrepentant. Our Heavenly Father does not do this, and neither can we. From his example we learn that reconciliation is the entire purpose of issuing forgiveness to others. It is not a self-help strategy. It does not make all the pain suddenly disappear.

     It is one thing to offer forgiveness to sinners with a heart eager to forgive them. This is admirable and God-like. It is another thing entirely to falsely claim someone is already forgiven. A marriage cannot thrive under such conditions – no relationship can.


Michael A. Hildreth is a Marriage Counselor at Ranger Counseling (marriageranger.com). He resides in Abilene, Texas


See the June and July editions of Word & Work for the previous articles.


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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10