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Marriage counseling is the most common type of help sought within the Christian community. Most of these couples come because they are willing to work through the struggles between them. They want help and are eager to work together. These couples are more straightforward to help because they want to be on the same marital page. They are not biting and devouring one another, as Paul would say. There is a maturity about them and mutual recognition that there is work to do for both. Then there are the other couples who bring issues to you, but it’s more complicated. They are not pulling in the same direction but working against each other. These complex couples represent a higher degree of difficulty because they are not on the same marital page and are less desirous of reconciling.
Ironically, God’s grace is sufficient for both sets because His Word can sift through the problems and bring resolution. (See 2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Amos 3:3.) The key to discerning the second couple’s lack of desire to reconcile ties almost always to one of the spouse’s unwillingness to forgive the other person. Without forgiveness, you cannot reconcile with someone attitudinally and transactionally. Attitudinal forgiveness is an attitude of forgiveness that releases someone from the management of what the other person did. Minimally, the offended person can forgive the offending spouse in their heart. Transactional forgiveness is when the perpetrator comes to you and transacts forgiveness by asking you to release them from their sin.
There is a complexity in a spouse’s heart when she comes to marriage counseling to reconcile with her husband but is unwilling to forgive (attitudinal or transactional) her husband for what he has done. In such cases, the wife has set up an impossible problem to solve. There is an uncomfortable truth operative here: You cannot move toward reconciliation with your spouse if you are unwilling to forgive, at least attitudinally. Minimally, you must be willing to release the other person in your heart from what they did to you. Some spouses attempt to maintain a posture of unforgiveness while reconciling. It’s as logical as slashing your wrist and expecting not to bleed or jump off a ten-story building while anticipating you will not hurt. A spouse must first decide if she will forgive her husband.
Some years ago, I was counseling a couple like this. The wife was furious at her husband. Simultaneously holding onto her anger and unforgiveness, she expected me to fix her marriage. It reminded me of the parent of an angry teen illustration. The parent is trying to get the rebellious teen to sit down. The angry teen refuses. Then the parent makes the teen sit by force. The teen sits but defiantly says, “You can make me sit down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.” This attitude is the way some spouses are. They are not honest with themselves, God, their spouses, or their counselor. They are trying to have the best of both worlds. They do not want to let go of their unforgiveness while perplexed at why they can’t have a reconciled marriage. You can’t sit down and stand up simultaneously; you can’t have it both ways. The four most common responses when a spouse tries to justify or explain their unforgiveness, though she rarely admits the intellectual dishonesty in her heart, are as follows.
At best, these deceptions are devoid of the gospel. At worst, it is willful deceit. Without a doubt, it is a hurt spouse unwilling to apply the gospel to their situation or, worse; they do not want to implement the gospel to their marriage problems. I am not marginalizing what a sinful person has done to them. To trivialize or overlook suffering would not embrace the compassion of the Savior, or recognize the necessity of the gospel. The gospel implies that sin is real, damaging, hurtful, and hard to change. But if you want to reconcile with your spouse, you must do some of the hardest things God has ever called you to do. Firstly, you will have to take your soul to task to determine if you want to focus on the reconciliation process while moving toward reconciliation goals. You cannot reconcile while giving most of your mental space to what someone did to you.
Being sin-centered is not the way of the Savior. Jesus fixed His heart upon the cross—a posture that He calls all His children to emulate. He was thinking about how He could die for another person’s sins. He had a reconciling heart, not an unforgiving one. His point of focus was not primarily on what individuals did to Him but on how He could reconcile a broken and sinful people to His Father. What is the fixation of your heart: to reconcile a captured person (Galatians 6:1-2) to God or to keep what they did to you in the front of your mind at all times? Christ never avoided, ignored, or highlighted what sin had done to His creation. He wept over Jerusalem, Lazarus, and He carried much sorrow in His heart over what you and I have done to Him. He never overlooked the problem of sin and how the complexities of sinfulness have disrupted the Divine Community of Father, Son, and Spirit (Philippians 2:6-7).
Do you want to be Christlike? If so, God calls you to forgive your spouse—attitudinally or transactionally—so you can move toward reconciliation (1 Peter 2:18-25). You can do this because the gospel is not an unforgiving gospel. The gospel is a reconciling gospel. Thus, you want to address here is your point of focus: what you can do to forgive, or what someone did to you? This intersection in your life is a marriage-shaping, future-altering, and God-honoring question. Take time to ask yourself: What am I more about regarding my life with God and others? While I’m not asking you to ignore what your spouse did to you as though it does not matter, I am asking where you are primarily directing your heart. If you have a reconciling heart, you will desire to do these four things:
The Savior loves you, and He likes you, not because you have merited His affection but because He is a reconciling friend. Your sin does not overpower His love for or His liking of you. A reconciling person would not make false intellectual assertions because they don’t focus on the sin committed, but the grace appropriated through the gospel. Let me track back through all four of them, making a gospel application that I trust will assist any wayward offended heart to seek to align themselves to the potential and power of the gospel.
All four of these assertions slant the heart of the person—who has been hurt—on what happened to them while pushing the gospel to the periphery of their marriage. Reconciliation cannot occur when these things are lingering or festering in the heart. These intellectually dishonest assertions are only an issue for a person struggling with unforgiveness. If you are leaning into reconciliation, you will not make these assertions. While they may exist in your heart—because you are human—God’s grace is more extraordinary than our shallow resistance toward forgiveness.
You do not have to tell the reconciling heart how to forgive or forget. The reconciling heart pursues forgiveness and grace-empowered forgetfulness. Yes, such a person will struggle, especially with deliberate, intentional forgetfulness, but the grace in her heart will overpower temptations toward falling back into those traps. Pursuing forgetfulness does not mean you will develop amnesia. It means you will choose not to bring it up punitively. Omniscient God can never forget any sin we have perpetrated against Him or others. Not remembering something would take away from His all-knowing, making Him less than Himself. Impossible. Our great and gracious God chooses never to bring up what we have done in a punitive “get back at you” way. He can do this because He has punished the sin through His Son. The crime is not being neglected, overlooked, or marginalized.
The best news is that He mercifully gives you the grace to do similarly—toward those who sin against you. It’s your choice. You will know if you have this kind of grace in your heart to the degree that it does not control your thinking and tempt you to sin. If you can’t do this, the problem is not with what happened to you or who did what to you but your unwillingness to trust God by forgiving the person who sinned against you. If you will not apply God’s all-sufficient grace to what someone did to you, it means that that person’s sin keeps you from getting something you desire—something you crave more than you want forgiveness and reconciliation with God or them.
Unmet desires are the resisting forces with forgiveness. The only reason a person will withhold forgiveness is that the perpetrator of the transgression has disrupted, hindered, held back, or stolen something that the offended desired. The thing craved or desired is more significant than God’s ability to make things right by His grace. Unforgiveness becomes the method of choice to make them pay for what they took from you. Regardless of your motive for withholding forgiveness, the result will be the same: there will be no possibility of reconciliation. You cannot hold onto your hurt, regardless of how painful it is or how disappointing what they did to you. Perhaps your spouse is not asking for forgiveness. It happens. The good news is that you can release yourself from what they did by forgiving them attitudinally—in your heart. It won’t be transactional, and the person will not experience release from sin, but you can experience freedom from their evil.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).