Christians must forgive. We understand from Matthew 18, and the parable of the “Unmerciful Servant” (Matt. 18:21-35), that Jesus expects us to forgive. But the divine command does not mitigate the emotional difficulty. Forgiveness is hard. That is especially true in cases where there has been a betrayal by a spouse. This means counselors need to think carefully about how they encourage the betrayed spouse to pursue forgiveness. There are two common dangers in counseling after adultery as it relates to forgiveness.
The first great danger in counseling those who’ve been betrayed by their spouse is to push for forgiveness too quickly. The pain of betrayal and the tension between couples afterward can be so unbearable that many victims of adultery will be tempted to move quickly, to just put the event behind them. They don’t want to feel the way they do, so it seems better to simply “forgive” and move on. This, however, is often not real forgiveness. Rather it is pretend. It is an effort in denial that tries to live as though things are not broken, as though the past never happened. It seems appealing at first, but this kind of denial rarely lasts long. The pain and brokenness do exist, and without working through the adultery and its impact, the hurt will eventually resurface.
When the spouses are two Christians, the temptation to move quickly is accompanied by a sense of obligation. Evelyn was devastated when she discovered her husband Tom’s sin. He was the pastor at their church and for months he had been sneaking around with his administrative assistant. The pain was real, but she knew that Jesus had taught the priority of forgiveness. “I have to forgive him,” she said to me at our first meeting. Her words revealed a begrudging responsibility, not a sincere desire. In her mind, her forgiveness was Tom’s right, and she had to grant it. In a sense, she was right, she needed to forgive her husband, but she also needed to process what had happened, what his repentance should look like, and seek God’s help in cultivating the heart of forgiveness. That last part, the heart of forgiveness, is key. Jesus warns us in the aforementioned parable not simply that we must forgive, but that we must forgive “from the heart” (v. 35). She had a semblance of forgiveness, but it was definitely not heart forgiveness.
The second danger counselors run into is a reluctance to encourage forgiveness at all. It is natural to want to give the betrayed spouse time to grieve and process the betrayal, but if we allow this to go on without ever encouraging them to work on forgiveness, they will easily become bitter and resentful. The temptation for counselors is to continually justify and excuse hurt spouses’ lashing out, their rehashing of details, their anger. While these emotions and practices are somewhat expected – though they may still be sinful – in the beginning of counseling, eventually they must be addressed. Sometimes a counselor can be afraid to say hard things to those who are living with sorrow, but if we don’t we will do them more harm than good. Bitterness is a poisonous root that will cause all kinds of “trouble” (Heb. 12:15); we must help our counselees avoid it or cut it out.
It’s also tempting for a betrayed spouse to seek punishment instead of reconciliation. Forgiveness lets go of the right to exact payment for an offense, but for some spouses the desire is to “make them feel my pain.” So, they become police officers in their own home, constantly scouting out evidence of wrong in their spouse, investigating, presenting evidence, and enforcing “jail time.” This makes the ultimate goal revenge rather than forgiveness, and the process of policing does not help a betrayed spouse learn to forgive. Understanding the importance of accountability, some counselors may be inclined to let this practice continue, but they are setting up their counselees for a future of distrust and bitterness. Good counselors will restrict, as best they can, the level of responsibility a betrayed spouse has for their loved one’s accountability. Counselors should hold the betrayer accountable and do the appropriate investigation on behalf of the betrayed spouse, freeing them up to move towards forgiveness.
Forgiveness is essential for healing, not just for the marriage but for the betrayed spouse himself or herself. The sad reality in our fallen world is that not all marriages survive. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. A betrayed spouse may be ready to forgive, but unless the betrayer repents, there can be no reconciliation (Luke 17:3). Adultery can be devastating to a marriage, and spouses sometimes refuse to give up their illicit relationships. The victim of the betrayal can find peace and progress through the development of a forgiving heart. Good counselors must help them develop such hearts slowly, over time, and in the right ways.
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