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Marriage counseling is the most common type of help sought within the Christian community. The majority of these couples come because they are willing to work through the issues that are between them. They want help in collectively working toward a resolution. These couples are more straightforward to help because they want to be on the same “marital page.”
Then there are the other couples who bring issues to you, but it’s more complicated when trying to help them. The “complicated couple” represents a higher degree of difficulty because they are not on the same marital page and are less desirous to reconcile.
Ironically, God’s grace is sufficient for both sets because His Word can sift through the problems and bring resolution (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. In this chapter, I’m defining forgiveness as attitudinal and transactional.
Attitudinal Forgiveness: This is an attitude of forgiveness that releases you from being managed by what they did. Minimally, you can forgive your spouse in your heart.
Transactional Forgiveness: This is when the perpetrator comes to you and “transacts” forgiveness by asking you to release them from their sin. In this case, you both are no longer controlled by the misdeed.
There is a contradiction 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 the things he has done. The wife, in such cases, has set up an impossible problem to solve.
Uncomfortable Truth – 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 are looking for a way to “maintain a posture of unforgiveness” while reconciling. It’s as logical as slashing your wrist and expecting not to bleed, or jumping off a ten-story building while anticipating you will not hurt.
The first thing a spouse is going to have to decide is if she is going to forgive her husband. Some years ago, I was counseling a couple like this. The wife was very angry at her husband. Simultaneously holding onto her anger and unforgiveness, she was expecting me to fix her marriage.
It reminds 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 reaction is the way some spouses are. They are not honest with themselves, with God, or with their spouses. 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 at the same time; you can’t have it both ways.
Here are the four most common responses I hear when it comes to a spouse trying to justify or explain their unforgiveness, though she rarely admits the intellectual dishonesty in her heart.
At best, this type of deception is devoid of the gospel. At worst, it is willful deceit. Without a doubt, it is a hurt spouse who is either unwilling to apply the gospel to their situation or, worse, they do not want to use the gospel to their marriage problem.
I am in no way marginalizing what a sinful person has done. To marginalize, trivialize, or overlook suffering would not embrace the compassion of the Savior, and it would not 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 will have to do some of the hardest things that God has ever called you to do. Firstly, you will have to take your soul to task as to whether 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 stayed focused on the cross. He was thinking about how He could die for the sins of another person. 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 point of your heart: to reconcile a “caught” 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 or ignored or made light of what sin had done to His creation. He wept over Jerusalem; He wept over 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 issues with sinfulness have disrupted the Divine Community of Father, Son, and Spirit (Philippians 2:6-7).
Do you want to be Christlike? If so, you’re called to forgive your spouse–attitudinally or transactionally–so that 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. Where is your point of focus?
This intersection in your life is a marriage-shaping, future-altering, and God-honoring question. Take some time to honestly ask yourself this question: 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 did not matter, I am asking where your heart is primarily directed. If you have a reconciling heart:
The Savior loves you, and He likes you, not because you have merited His affection, but because He is a reconciling Person. Your sin does not overpower His love for or His liking of you.
A reconciling person would not make the previously mentioned false intellectual assertions because all of them focus on the sin committed, not the grace appropriated through the gospel:
All four of these assertions slant the heart of the person–who has been hurt–on their hurt while pushing the gospel to the periphery of their marriage. When these kinds of things are lingering or festering in the heart, reconciliation cannot happen.
These “intellectually dishonest assertions” that I have raised are only an issue for a person who is struggling with unforgiveness. If you are leaning into reconciliation, you will not make these assertions. While they may exist somewhere in your heart–because you are human–the grace of God is greater still.
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 in a punitive way. Omniscient God can never forget any sin that we have ever perpetrated against Him or others. To not remember something would take away from His all-knowing, which would make 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” kind of 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 of all is that He mercifully provides you with 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 when you “neutralize” the sin of others 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 so much with what was done 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 the sin of that person is keeping you from getting something that you desire–something that you crave more than you want forgiveness and reconciliation.
Unmet desires and fears are the rubs with forgiveness. The only reason a person will withhold forgiveness is that the perpetrator of the crime (sin) has disrupted, hindered, held back, or stolen something that was desired by the one who was hurt.
The thing craved or desired is more significant than God’s grace. Unforgiveness becomes the method of choice to “let them know about it” to make them pay for what they took away 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 to you by forgiving them attitudinally. It won’t be transactional, and the individual will not be released from his sin, but you can experience freedom from his 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).