March 6, 2019

The Most Difficult Thing God is Asking You to Do

Gary Thomas — 

Miranda had been spending money on a secret credit card for months. She hid receipts, she removed price tags, she sometimes even lied about where something came from. “My mom gave that to me!” Eventually she couldn’t hide the bills any longer, and her husband realized they were going to have to sell their house to get out from under their unsecured debt.

Franklin shared a very personal secret about his wife with his best friend, “just between the two of them.” His best friend told his own wife so you could imagine the shock Franklin’s wife felt when the other wife told her she was praying for her. For that.

Since the Bible tells us we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2—just pause for a second and think about the implications of the words “all” and “many”), every married person can write their own stories about the despicable things they have had to forgive. In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey recounts his wife telling him, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgave you for some of the dastardly things you’ve done!”

If you want to build and maintain a lifelong, intimate marriage, one of the most difficult and yet most essential spiritual skills is forgiveness. It may feel like the hardest thing God ever asks you to do. It seems unfair and sometimes even unbearable. But if we call ourselves followers of Christ, we must come to grips with the fact that Jesus never allows forgiveness to be “negotiable” among his disciples:

  • “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
  • “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).

Forgiveness is the spiritual air we breathe in from God, and the spiritual air we breathe out toward others. If breath is stopped in either direction, we suffocate spiritually. Our marriages will wither and so will our souls.

Forgiving your spouse isn’t an option. It’s not something we can consider: “Do I want to forgive him? Should I forgive her?” When we decided to become Christians, we decided to be and to keep being, forgivers.

Such forgiveness begins with understanding how God has forgiven us. Andrew Murray writes, “The redeemed saint can never forget that he is a forgiven sinner. Nothing works more mightily to inflame his love, to awaken his joy, or to strengthen his courage, than the experience, continually renewed by the Holy Spirit as a living reality, of God’s forgiving love. Every day, yes, every thought of God reminds him: I owe all to pardoning grace.”

Think often of what God has forgiven you and how he continues to offer you forgiveness for today. The stream of God’s forgiveness should flow through us; we mustn’t be dams that stop its run. Murray again: “As forgiveness of your sins was one of the first things Jesus did for you, forgiveness of others is one of the first that you can do for Him.”

It’s frustrating to work with a couple where one person is obsessed with their spouse’s sin while being so very blind to their own. Because they think their sin is less odious, they resent the implication that it’s even worth mentioning in comparison. Our stink is always less to us than the stink of others. It’s a monumental challenge whenever any spouse comes in for pastoral counseling and there is no conviction in their life and no perception of their own need for God’s grace. Blind self-righteousness imperils a marriage. If any spouse forgets they also stand in need of daily grace, they become vicious accusers and manufacturers of contempt. It usually sends a marriage into free fall.

I’ve seen couples survive affairs, porn, food addictions, substance abuse, financial misdeeds, and other challenges. But since all of us are sinners, no marriage can maintain its intimacy without regular and frequent forgiveness. Thinking you can be married—or be a Christian—without forgiving, is like pretending you can run the hurdles without jumping. You can’t do it. It’s part of the journey. At some point you have to realize that the problem isn’t just that your spouse sinned; it’s that you can’t forgive. The unwillingness to forgive may be what’s holding your marriage back.

On the positive side, there are few things more moving to me than those testimonies of spouses who have shown supernatural forgiveness in such magnitude that God becomes the hero of their story. I’ve been moved to tears hearing accounts of wives who forgave their husbands so generously, and husbands who forgave their wives and dropped it, without all those wicked passive-aggressive reminders of previous misdeeds. Such accounts lead me to worship because such forgiveness may be the most un-human and most divine-like thing we are ever asked to do. Andrew Murray writes, “If the world sees men and women living and forgiving as Jesus did, it will be compelled to confess that God is with them.”

Are you committed to forgive your spouse, and to keep forgiving your spouse? Forgiveness does not preclude consequences, including separation or even, in certain cases, divorce. Forgiveness doesn’t mean a woman allows herself to be physically abused. Allowing someone to face the consequences of their sin isn’t, on its own, a failure of forgiveness. You can forgive and separate in a situation that’s not safe.

But let’s not allow the exceptional cases to blind us from the need to forgive in the difficult cases—marriage can and must teach us how to forgive. Christians must be “extreme forgivers.”

We have been forgiven. We must forgive. Grace received must become grace given. It’s a package deal.

Some of you may be letting your marriage slowly die by a refusal to do for your spouse in a much more limited way what God has abundantly done for you. Just know that, in the end, this isn’t as much about being a husband or a wife as it is about being a Christian. Freely you have received; freely you must give and that means freely you must forgive.

[If you struggle with forgiveness and want to know how to get there (as well as the necessary limitations such as holding people accountable as we forgive, etc.) I’ve written on this topic pretty extensively in two books: chapter 7 of Authentic Faith (“Giving up the Grudge”) and  chapter 10 of the revised edition of Sacred Marriage (“Falling Forward: Marriage Teaches Us to Forgive”).]

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18 responses to The Most Difficult Thing God is Asking You to Do

  1. What an excellent way to express the question Peter asked of Jesus related to forgiveness…not just 7 times, but 70 TIMES 7!! I’ve heard this expressed another way: When you want to know when you can STOP forgiving your spouse, stop and ask yourself if you are ready for God to STOP forgiving YOU!

  2. My husband is a narsisist and doubt that will ever get corrected. I am having a struggle forgiving him of all the terrible things his personality disorder has done to me. Yet, moreso, I am having a hard time forgiving myself for not walking away years ago.
    Since he is a Christian, I think I have stuck it out.
    Forgiving him, and myself is super difficult.

    • Hello
      I UNDERSTAND…I too face a similar SITUATION but according to G. Thomas we need to learn to not only FORGIVE but almost not allow their BEHAVIOR to take us away from looking up at Jesus. I know it’s easier said than done and I struggle with this daily, but I believe our reward will be far greater than our hurts/pain

    • Colleen K Lemke March 8, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      Hi Joan- What you’ve been through…God knows, God sees, God care…
      I am a lay counselor who has sat with many couples where one or the other has been through “h*ll” and back trying to love an extremely difficult spouse as Christ would. But you’re not Christ, right? How can you be expected to love like he does? This blog post (see link) might be of some encouragement to you.
      Not sure if the link will work, but if not, copy and paste into your browser window…

  3. I struggle with forgiving when my husband hasn’t asked me to forgive him or admit that he has done something to hurt me. How do I let that go ?

    • Shannon,

      It can be tough forgiving when you haven’t received an apology or an acknowledgement of the hurt inflicted. In my marriage, I pretty much assume that an apology will not be coming my way. For many years, I struggled with that, and I probably was guilty of unforgiveness, but I have learned to accept it and let things go. The biggest thing I had to learn was that it was not about me, but it was her own brokenness that made it so hard for her. I don’t say that to excuse her behavior, but rather to understand it and where it came from. It is not about me. It comes from her childhood and some of the trauma she endured then. I had to really learn to see things in myself and understand them, before I could do the same for her. Does it sting sometimes, sure. But understanding takes some of the sting away.

  4. To say that forgiving my wife has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is the understatement of the century. I know it is eating me up inside and I know I have hurt her as much as she hurt me. I struggle so much with her distance and disconnect and it just triggers me emotionally, spiritually and physically. I give it over to God daily and it is just there in the pit of my stomach and an ache in my heart. I constantly read articles and books and listen to podcasts and videos on forgiveness. I read what Jesus has to say and how I am failing myself in my Christian walk and testimony (or lack thereof). The pain is unbearable. God help me, I am a sinful man who is heading down the pathway to Hell if I can’t get myself right.

    • CJ, I struggled with forgiving my abusive father for most of my life. One of the issues was that I thought if I forgave, then I would have to forget and move on as though nothing ever happened. Once I realized that wasn’t the case, it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Another thing that helped me was stepping back and looking at the circumstances that turned my father into the abusive man he was. He was also abused and never knew how to work through it in a healthy way. I know that your circumstance is different because it’s your wife and not a parent, but the principle of forgiveness is the same. Make sure you have someone you fully trust to discuss the struggle – a counselor, pastor, or friend. God bless!

  5. Thanks Gary, your articles are so encouraging and still challenging. I am committed to forgiving my husband. I believe and trust God that it is right. I find I become the most confused in a difficult, possibly destructive marriage, I feel like I forgive him, but I also need to be able to recognize when change happens so I can stay healthy in my marriage. He sees that as unforgiveness, and often it make m doubt as well if I have truly forgiven. I love my husband, but he is emotionally detached, totally unempathetic, and often isolating. Finding the strength to stay healthy in that has been hard. I can see him as a brother, a human that has sin just like me, someone God loves just like He loves me. Forgiveness doesn’t seem hard, being told I am unforgiving is confusing.

    • Jami, Forgiving does always mean we can continue a relationship. We can forgive, and you have described how that looks for you, while also setting healthy boundaries that protect us from not only physical abuse, but emotional, spiritual, financial abuse as well. Forgiveness toward someone who is not repentant looks different than with someone who is actively working toward healthy change. I know Gary has other blog articles addressing this. Your confusion may lie in simply confusing true forgiveness with what others, including your husband, may expect it to look like. Forgiveness takes one. Reconciliation takes two.

    • I am in a similar situation and I do believe there are times that my husband manipulates me, especially when I have a very strong sense something just isn’t right. In 20 years of marriage my husband has never just come to me and said ” I’m struggling, can you pray for me”. I have tried very hard to make it as easy for him as I can.
      All that being said, we must recognize the fact that spiritual warfare is very real. The evil one seeks out to destroy and cripple God’s people, specifically by dividing us.
      So now, I just pray and leave it up to God, because although it is very painful to find out about him hiding and lying to me, I can trust that God brings sin to light. There are times when I feel like I am praying for my enemy, who also happens to be my closest neighbor.

    • He is confused. You are not.

  6. Excellent. Forgiveness is a MUST in ALL relationships.

  7. This message is truth. I love that you recognize that forgiveness doesn’t remove consequences and that even separation or divorce doesn’t necessarily mean a spouse is unforgiving.

    I have forgiven my husband much but enabled him to continue in sin without realizing it. He is finally in counseling for anger and other behaviors that have been destructive and my prayer for him is that God will heal him.

    In the meantime, I’m trusting God that He will make a way for us to move forward in our relationships with God and each other.

    My current heart’s cry is that God will teach me how and when to move forward and give me what I need to love my husband well without reservation. I feel emotionally dead but keep telling myself that I can trust God and wait on Him.

    • Trusting,

      I am glad your husband is in counseling. I had a serious anger problem for decades, but I didn’t realize it. I honestly believed that everyone else was the problem, and when the world didn’t turn in the direction I thought it should, I felt justified in my anger. What I can tell you from my own experience is that I would not have reacted well to an ultimatum or a threat. It would have almost certainly ended my marriage, and I would have let it.

      I wish I knew something that made it easier. I know. I pray that things improve as he attends counseling.

  8. I have lost count of the number of times in my marriage that I have built up resentment and bitterness toward my husband for something he said or did that hurt me (intentionally or not) and caught myself assaulting him in a very similar way whether in thought or action. **Of course these are minor assaults, we haven’t had to walk through an affair or anything close to a serious issue, praise God. We live daily to protect and preserve the beautiful relationship we have been blessed with.**
    I am often reminded from reading your blogs that our marriage is about Something much larger than just the husband and wife. As Christians, my husband is God’s son, and I am God’s daughter…when I remember this truth, my marriage becomes a ministry, not just in my household but to anyone who might see it. I pray our marriage simply glorifies the One who helps us hold it together!

  9. What a precious reminder, and how well explained! Thank you!