My Husband Left Me — How Do I Respond?
Good Monday morning. Thanks for joining us again. Well, we happen to be in a season on the podcast looking at some mature issues, and those issues are rather bleak. Not by design — it just ended up that way providentially in the questions we have on the table. Last Monday, we looked at whether we can be angry at God when life doesn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. That was APJ 1828. Then we looked at how to overcome anger in the home. That was APJ 1829. And last time, on Friday, a wife asked about how to confront some deep, ongoing sin patterns in the life of her husband. That was APJ 1830.
And that brings us to today. A young wife writes in. She was betrayed. And now she endures the lingering pain of a husband who left her for another woman. Here’s what she writes: “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for taking my question. I’ve been struggling for two years to find the right biblical approach to this, and hope that perhaps you can afford me some clarity. My husband, once a professing believer in Christ, left our three young girls and me for another woman. He divorced me a little over a year ago. Throughout this journey, I have struggled with an appropriate, God-honoring response to his ongoing sinful and hurtful behaviors toward our daughters and me. I am torn between a righteous anger and ‘tough love,’ as Jesus showed by turning tables in the temple, and an unconditional grace, as in turning the other cheek, loving my enemies, and 1 Peter 2:23. What is the biblical approach to responding to such betrayal and unrepentant sin?”
Let’s start with some things that Jesus says about forgiveness and about loving our enemies.
Full Forgiveness and Enemy Love
Forgiveness in its fullest form involves two parties, one of which has sinned against the other and is repenting and asking for forgiveness. And the other was sinned against and is graciously granting the forgiveness being sought through repentance. We see a picture of this in Luke 17:3–4: “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.” So that’s a picture of the two-way street: wronging and repenting, and forgiving. And forgiveness in the fullest sense is only possible when there is that kind of repentance.
Then we ask, “Well, what’s required of us if the person who has sinned against us does not repent?” And the answer is that we are called to love our enemy. In a sense, you could call this a kind of forgiveness because forgiveness in its essence means letting something go. Don’t use it to return evil for evil or to hurt another person.
But this one-sided mercy is not forgiveness in the fullest sense. And so the New Testament has other ways of describing how we relate to people who wrong us and either don’t care (they’re just thumbing their nose at us), or they don’t think they wronged us. We call this different names. The New Testament calls it patience, long-suffering, forbearance, or enemy love.
And to be clear, when Jesus speaks of loving our enemies, he doesn’t have in mind warm feelings of admiration or approval. Instead, Jesus gives three examples — or maybe better, three explanations — in Luke 6:27–28. He says that loving our enemies involves this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” So three things: do good, bless, pray for.
So what we’re called to do toward those who have wronged us or continue to wrong us is to wish their ultimate good — which might involve temporary pain, like prison. I mean, he’s not saying there’s no consequences for sins and crimes — it might be some discipline from the church or some justice in society. But he is saying, “Wish their ultimate good.” That’s what bless means, and that’s what we pray for. And then put that into action by doing good — that is, seeking to treat them in ways better than they deserve.
Four Objections Overcome
Now, I can think of numerous objections that might come up of why such forgiveness or love toward people who have wronged you, like this particular betraying of a husband that is so painful, why it would be so hard. Or maybe we would feel it to be even wrong to treat a person as well as Jesus says we should.
So let me address four of those objections that might arise, particularly for this wife. And I think maybe even this will even clarify what’s really involved in such a relationship of betrayal and forgiveness.
No Injustice in Eternity
Here’s the first one. It just seems unjust that, in a sense, the guilty person has gotten away with so much, a great wrong, without paying any serious price, while leaving a lot of devastation in the wake. Now, the biblical answer to that objection and that heartfelt concern is that God, in his universe, never lets anybody get away with anything — never. Nobody gets away with anything. The way we can sleep at night, knowing that it seems like someone has gotten away with murder, is this promise in Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Now that’s a promise: “I will repay.” What that means is that God will settle all accounts with absolute justice, and nobody ever gets away with anything when you take all of eternity into account. When we refuse to enact vengeance ourselves, God takes up our cause and performs, eventually, everything that needs to be done so that there’s perfect justice. Therefore, we dare never say, “Well, I guess they just got away with it.” Nobody ever gets away with anything. But the burden of settling accounts is lifted. It’s lifted from us and put on God’s shoulders, who does all things well. He will settle accounts either in hell, or he has settled accounts on the cross. Nobody gets away with anything. That’s the first objection that God overcomes with this promise of justice.
Forgiveness Versus Trust
A second objection to this kind of forgiveness that feels so hard — or this enemy love — is that we simply cannot trust the person who has wronged us. Now, the answer to this objection is that forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. You can genuinely forgive while not yet trusting again.
“Forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. You can genuinely forgive while not yet trusting again.”
I don’t say this will be easy. It won’t be easy. A person might say, “You have not really forgiven me, because you’re holding this over my head in not trusting me.” But the response to that is this: “I’m not holding the guilt of past acts, or sin, or hurt over your head. I forgive you for that, and I pray God will, and I wish you well. What I am dealing with is not a past guilty act but a present concern that your character does not warrant a present trust. You may gain that trust eventually, but it has not yet been established.”
That’s my answer to the objection “It’s just too hard to trust.” And I’m saying forgiveness and trust aren’t the same.
Love and Abhorrence
A third objection to forgiveness and love that’s so hard is that the action, the wrong, was so abhorrent to your heart — that is, you still recoil inside with disgust or abhorrence toward it. Now, the answer to that objection is that genuine love and abhorrence of evil are not mutually exclusive, not even in the same heart at the same time. I’ve always been amazed at Romans 12:9, at what Paul puts back-to-back. He says this: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil.” That’s amazing that he would put love and abhorrence next to each other in the same command, in the very same verse, back-to-back. “Let love be genuine. Abhor . . .” — it’s a big word. I mean, it’s not the word hate. It’s really emotionally a strong word in Greek.
“It is possible to bless, and pray for, and do good to a person whose destructive attitudes and actions we abhor.”
It is possible to bless, and pray for, and do good to a person whose destructive attitudes and actions we abhor. That’s my answer to the third objection.
Deep Wickedness, Glorious Forgiveness
Finally, a fourth objection might be, “Look, Pastor John, my children, who’ve been abandoned and betrayed by their dad, need to know how evil the action of their father was, and that doesn’t seem loving to him or maybe to them to tell them.” Now, I think that’s one of the hardest issues in dealing with a divorce while trying to maintain some kind of relationship between the children and both parents, especially when one of them has grievously, maybe abhorrently, sinned. So much will depend on how old the children are, and how much they can understand, and what their own spiritual maturity is.
But I would say that it is essential that the evil of the betrayal not be minimized, because in order for forgiveness to be as glorious as it is, evil must be as wicked as it is. Therefore, as the children are able, we try to make both of those clear: the evil of the sin, and the beauty of the forgiveness — because of how the Lord has forgiven us.
And so it may be that, in the end, even at one of the most painful points in the tragedy, the gospel can shine brightly in the lives of our children.