Have we forgiven someone if the wrong they committed against us keeps replaying in our minds? It’s a question from a listener named Emily. But before we get to the question, today is the final day of T4G in Louisville, and we are talking today over the phone, not over the studio line. Alright, so here’s the email from Emily.
“Dear Pastor John, thank you for your years of faithful ministry online. My question is in regards to forgiveness. The other day my husband made a hurtful comment about my appearance, and with the help of wise counsel, an older woman in the faith walked me through expressing my hurt to my husband about it. Of course he asked for my forgiveness right away. But the lingering question is this: How do I know if I have truly forgiven him? It still hurts when I think about it, and I do think about the event. I’m seeking by God’s help to serve and love him despite what I feel, but is lingering pain from the offense a sign that I have not really forgiven him?”
Responding to Sin
I want to start in a more general way that I think will be more helpful to all of us who are married and even others in similar kinds of relationships. Then I want to get more specific for Emily’s issue of whether she has really forgiven her husband.
“My responsibility before God is not the behaviors of my wife, but my responses to those behaviors.”
What I have found in our marriage is that the battle for holiness, more than I ever thought it would, centered on the struggle to avoid sinning in response to being sinned against. I did not expect this. I think this a common battle in marriage as Christians, who want to bring their lives into complete conformity to the teaching of Scripture, engage in the great battle for holiness.
The battle for being the most loving person that you can be as God portrays and defines holiness in the Bible consists more than I ever thought it would in the struggle to avoid sinning in response to being sinned against. Let me say that again because it might sound a little complicated.
One of the greatest battles for holiness and love in Christian marriage is the battle to avoid my sin in response to my wife’s sin, which I may feel against me. I have in mind the kind of thing that Emily’s talking about — for example, being sinned against by words that hurt, or by neglecting words that would have helped, or by facial expressions that seem to indict, or patterns of behavior that seem indifferent, or disappointments that seem they could have been avoided with just a little more care.
Of course, complicating this is that we often feel sinned against when the words or the behavior had no sinful intention behind them at all, and if we tried to forgive such a behavior, it would be offensive because the other person doesn’t even feel that she or he did sin against us. So our offering forgiveness is like an indictment that they don’t feel guilty of.
So with that complication, one of John Piper’s major battles — and I think others share it — is that my battle for holiness in marriage and other relationships is not simply avoiding sinning against others. That’s the simple way I thought about it as I began marriage. I thought, “I’m just going to avoid sinning against my wife.”
But rather, the situation is more complicated: you have to avoid sinful responses to the sins of others. What makes this battle so peculiar is that in the very moment when we may be sinning against someone, we have strong feelings of self-justification because of how we’ve been sinned against. It’s subtle.
We can hardly bring ourselves to think of dealing with our own sin because the issue seems to be their sin. Your (what Paul Tripp calls) “inner lawyer” is rising up and saying, “Hey, it’s their problem. You don’t have any sin problem here.” When in fact, my biggest issue right now is my sin.
Some of the feelings that we have may be warranted, even justified; some of the hurt or the indignation may be justified. So you can see how complicated the emotional moment is when there is an actual warranted sense of being wrong. Let me say that again: we feel an actual warranted sense of being wronged along with the heart’s rising up sinfully in response to the wrong.
All of that to say that Emily’s question is a very important part of a larger and common issue in most long-term relationships, especially marriage, where we inevitably say and do things that hurt, or disappoint, or frustrate the other person. We must navigate the complexities of both being genuinely wronged and yet dealing with our sinful responses to being wronged.
“My number one challenge in holiness is not getting my wife changed, but getting myself changed.”
One of the most important things that I see in all relationships, especially marriage, is that my responsibility before God is not the behaviors of my wife but my responses to those behaviors. That’s my responsibility.
It is very easy, especially in the beginning of a relationship, to feel like I’ve got to fix all the things that are coming against me that I don’t like, that frustrate me, or disappoint me, or wrong me. I’ve got to fix that other person and help them stop doing the things that bother me, or frustrate me, or wrong me, instead of realizing that my number one responsibility before God and my number one challenge in holiness is not getting my partner changed but getting myself changed so that I respond in godly, Christlike, humble, loving ways even if what is being said is hurtful.
Repay with Good
It seems to me that the overwhelming challenge of the New Testament to all of us is to not return evil for evil:
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9)
“Do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)
When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. (1 Corinthians 4:12–13)
The deep, sweet, strong contentment we have to have, we must have in Christ in order to have emotional resources to respond like that. That’s the great beauty of the Christian life. That kind of sweet, deep, strong contentment in Christ magnifies Christ wonderfully.
We must have Christ to have resources to respond encouragingly and hopefully and wisely to the one who wrong us, instead of angrily, or with self-pity, or whining, or manipulative moping, or the silent treatment, or solemnness. You can hear my acquaintance with my sin. This is the great miracle that the children of God — John Piper, anyway — want to experience.
We all hurt each other and disappoint each other and frustrate each other almost every day in some degree. The great challenge in the Christian life is to be so deeply and joyfully content in our fellowship with Jesus and all that God promises to be for us in him that we are not drained by the disappointments of our relationships.
With regard to Emily’s specific question, I would say this: consider the analogy between being emotionally hurt and physically hurt. When Paul was whipped with 39 lashes, even after he forgave his persecutor, there would have been big welts on his back and terrible lacerations on his back that would have hurt him for weeks to come.
“The real sign of forgiveness is that you don’t seek to punish the other — you seek the good of the other.”
On this analogy, there can be both physical and emotional pain that lingers after the act of forgiveness. This pain in and of itself is not necessarily sinful. It’s not necessarily a sign of unforgiveness. However, we all know that both physical pain and especially emotional pain can morph in an instant into resentment and anger and bitterness. That morphing can be so subtle that it’s hard to know when it’s happened. That’s why Emily is asking her question. It’s hard to know when her pain is morphing into selfishness and bitterness and resentment.
I would just conclude with four brief suggestions for Emily and for the rest of us to keep our pain and our sorrow from morphing into sinful, unforgiving resentment.
1. Let’s do what Jesus did in 1 Peter 2:23, where instead of returning evil for evil, he handed himself over to him who judges justly. We consciously take any sins of being wronged, and we hand it over to God, who is able to settle accounts more justly and wisely than we can.
2. Direct your mind away from the hurt, away from whatever act you’re remembering. Direct it to what is true and beautiful and pure and lovely and praiseworthy — with the sense of being treated by God better than we deserve — like Paul says (Philippians 4:8).
3. Renounce all tendencies to punish or wound your spouse with acts, or words, or looks, or silence.
4. Earnestly will and work for the good of the one you have forgiven. The real sign of forgiveness is that you don’t seek to punish the other — you seek the good of the other.