It happens every day. A husband refuses to forgive his wife, because she just can’t see all the sins he ascribes to her. A wife won’t reconcile with her husband until he fully endorses her view of reality. A marriage teeters on the brink of ruin because one spouse has marked the other’s motives as irredeemable.
Some use the marriage escape hatch, calling it “irreconcilable.” It’s so sad, but they had irreconcilable differences. The word is trivialized when used this way — emptied of its moral freight. In Scripture, the term “irreconcilable” has ugly teeth. In 2 Timothy 3:1–9, Paul gives a list of the various ungodly people who will roam the world in the last days. The Greek word aspondos is used in 2 Timothy 3:3 to identify those who are “corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith” (2 Timothy 3:8).
The word describes someone who nurtures a “hostility that admits of no truce” (Pastoral Epistles, 174–175). It describes a person who is grudge-holding, unforgiving, and implacable. The irreconcilable person buffers his bitterness; with sophistication, he insulates his resentment from others’ reach. This state is dangerous to our faith, our families, and our marriages.
Such a person claims to be a Christian, a faithful parent and spouse, but resists reconciliation and contends he’s obeying God as he does so. In the church, few people are more vulnerable to spiritual harm than those aggrieved persons who spiritualize their bitterness. Such a person has likely believed one of three diabolical lies.
1. “I can’t forgive you until you confess all the sin I see.”
In 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, a man sinned in a serious way. The sinner repented sincerely, but the Corinthian church wouldn’t accept his repentance. So, Paul stepped in and made an appeal on his behalf. He told the Corinthians that they should “reaffirm [their] love to” this man. They should forgive this man as he requested (2 Corinthians 2:8).
The man’s repentance must be accepted “so that [they] would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). Here’s the point: one of the enemy’s evil devices, one of the many schemes he employs, is to convince believers they don’t need to forgive repentant sinners.
“When we forgive, we must say, ‘I see the cost of forgiving you, and I accept it.’”
When we fail to forgive, the sticking issue is often our estimation of the offender’s confession. We assume the other party isn’t genuine, that they haven’t yet achieved the full measure of authentic repentance. We’re suspicious, thinking we’ve X-rayed this sinner’s heart and discerned insincerity. Then, just like the Corinthians, we block the sinner’s attempts at reconciliation.
2. “I can’t forgive you if it costs me.”
In Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus tells the story of a servant whose master forgave him an enormous debt. Right away, this man encountered a colleague who owed him a smaller amount. Instead of passing along the forgiveness he’d received, he enforced the penalty and threw the second servant in prison.
With this incredible example, the Savior teaches us that forgiveness absorbs at least two costs.
First, a spouse must say, “I’m not going to punish you.” There’s not a married person among us who hasn’t mentally prosecuted our spouse and delivered the verdict spoken by the unmerciful servant: “Pay what you owe” (Matthew 18:28)! For true forgiveness to happen, a spouse must sometimes deny an understandable instinct to exact vengeance on their mate, and instead release them from punishment, placing their sin under the atoning blood of Jesus.
Second, the one who forgives must literally choose to pay the debt their loved one owes. Forgiving doesn’t magically evaporate what is owed. If I loan you ten dollars and you refuse to pay, the money doesn’t mysteriously appear back in my wallet when I forgive you. Think about it. For Christ to forgive us, he had to absorb the emotional pain — the shame and humiliation of bearing our sins. When we forgive, we must absorb costs as well. We must say, “I see the cost of forgiving you, and I accept it.”
This is hard. Sure, we want to forgive, but we instinctively think it shouldn’t cost us. Absorbing a debt is unjust, so we instinctively react: “What? You did it! Now I pick up the tab? Isn’t forgiving you and choosing not to retaliate sufficient? Haven’t I suffered enough?”
“One of the enemy’s evil devices is to convince believers they don’t need to forgive repentant sinners.”
It’s not enough if we want true reconciliation. The unmerciful servant is rebuked by his master for enforcing the smaller debt. The injustices we suffer, however, rarely feel small. How can we absorb such pain? The answer is found in looking back at the greatest injustice in history. The spotless Lamb of God was tortured and crucified as a substitute for our sins. We deserved the punishment that was inflicted upon Jesus, but he absorbed the cost; Christ forgave our incomprehensible debt. Now, because we’ve been forgiven, we are called to forgive.
3. “I can forgive you without moving toward you.”
Mark and Shelly were hurt by their friends. When the friends suggested they get together to discuss what happened, Mark and Shelly kept the door shut. They had gone through the motions of accepting their friends’ apology and extending forgiveness, but their perspective on the offense wasn’t up for discussion. Sadly, the narrative nurtured their aggrieved status and allowed the relationship to remain unreconciled — even while they claimed to have forgiven their friends.
Mark and Shelly dealt with their hurt by building walls. It’s like they’re saying, “I forgive you, but we can never be friends.” Such forgiveness falls short of reconciliation. It’s protection from, not restoration of the relationship.
Certainly, there are cases where we must distinguish between forgiveness and trust. An abused wife may forgive her husband, but she’s not obligated to live under the same roof immediately. Her safety must be ensured, and trust must be rebuilt. Very often, that takes time. Similarly, a business executive can forgive a staff member who embezzled money, but that doesn’t protect the embezzler’s job. That staff person is forgiven and fired. Why? Forgiveness may be present, but trust is not. In such cases, true mercy forgives and acts wisely. It doesn’t place abusers or embezzlers back into sensitive situations until there is clear evidence and fruit of repentance.
The truth is, these cases are more exceptional.
It’s more common to find a spouse twisting the Scriptures to remain unreconciled, making himself the judge or indulging his need to feel morally superior. But when we’re irreconcilable, we overlook the words of our Savior: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3–4).
“Christ has forgiven us freely, lovingly, sacrificially, completely, joyfully, and eternally.”
When you think about it, confessing seven times a day hardly seems like repentance — unless you’re talking about a toddler. But it’s not our job to parse another’s soul and pick apart the sincerity of their confessions. Our responsibility is to maintain a heart that is quick to respond to earnest confessions, one that anticipates good fruit from the lives of repentant people. Wise is the couple who errs on the side of forgiving rather than risking the rapid spiritual decay of being irreconcilable.
Tip the Balance of Your Marriage
I recently read a book by Andy Crouch in which he makes a striking observation. It’s aimed at social institutions, but there are undeniable applications for marriage as well:
It is amazing how consistently the stories of even the most complex institutions come down to their trustees, the ones who, at their best, bear the institution’s pain and brokenness, forgive it and serve it. It is amazing how consistently the fate of institutions hinges on a few people, and their own personal character, how much even one person can tip the balance toward devastating injustice or toward redeeming abundance. (Playing God, 219–220)
Are you acting as a trustworthy trustee for your marriage? Are you bearing its pain and brokenness while forgiving and serving your spouse? Or are you a complaining consumer, keeping a record of all the ways the marriage isn’t meeting your needs?
Paul instructs us: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Christ has forgiven us freely, lovingly, sacrificially, completely, joyfully, and eternally. Can you believe it? Jesus didn’t shield himself from the pain of relating to us. He pursued us, pardoned us, and now prays constantly for us. One spouse with the courage to display God’s remarkable grace can “tip the balance . . . toward redeeming abundance” in marriage. That spouse could be you. The path toward becoming a joyful trustee could begin by choosing to reconcile today.