In nine years of working with divorce recovery groups, I have found that the topic most people do not want to talk about is forgiveness. Invariably someone will ask, “Do I have to forgive my former husband or my former wife?”
“No,” I respond, “you have to forgive only if you want to heal.”
What is forgiveness, why should we forgive, when should we forgive, and—most importantly—how do we do it?
Why we resist
People going through divorce want to stop hurting, but they often resist the most effective treatment for their pain—forgiveness. Often people resist because they do not understand what forgiveness is—and what it is not. Forgiveness is not saying that the offenses your former spouse committed against you were OK. Many of the things that occur between a husband and wife when a marriage collapses are, in fact, sin: adultery (Matt. 5:27, 28), anger (vv. 21, 22), lying (Prov. 6:16, 17), selfishness (James 3:16), violence (Mal. 2:16), and arguing and slander (Eph. 4:31). Likewise, forgiveness does not minimize the offense, or say, “It wasn’t that bad.” Neither does it let your spouse off the hook.
Forgiveness also does not say that you must trust your former spouse again. A spouse who has been violent or committed adultery or lied to you repeatedly, will need to regain your trust by demonstrating that they have repented and are working on making restitution (if necessary).
Similarly, forgiveness is not forgetting the offense. In fact, forgetting may even be counterproductive, for we cannot forgive a wrongful act that we do not remember.1 Thus we may be reminded of an offense that was committed against us, but if we have forgiven the offense, the reminder is like a scar. When we see it, we remember there was once a wound at that spot and that the wound used to be painful or tender. But now, healing has taken place, and our wound no longer hurts, even though seeing the scar causes us to recall how the wound occurred.
Another reason we resist forgiveness is that it is not natural. If it were natural, God would not have to tell us to do it (Luke 17:3). After all, He does not have to tell us to eat or drink. These activities come naturally to us; we feel like doing them. We sometimes do not feel like forgiving; but He commands us to forgive anyway (Matt. 18:20, 21).
Our pride also causes us to resist forgiveness; indeed, pride may be the biggest hurdle. Pride results because of our failure—perhaps even refusal— to “ ‘seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness’ ” (Matt. 6:33).2 Instead, we build kingdoms of our own where we are in control and get to decide who deserves to be forgiven and who does not. In our kingdoms, we will be the ones who mete out justice (after all, we are not sure God can be trusted to punish our former spouse as they deserve).
Likewise, our pride prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are—sinners desperately in need of a Savior (Rom. 3:23). Instead, we compare ourselves to others and conclude that we are not so bad, that what our former spouse has done to us consists of an action far worse than anything we may have done to them. But the Bible cautioned, “those who are pure in their own eyes” (Prov. 30:12) to examine themselves more closely (Luke 6:41), and Paul warned us against thinking of ourselves too highly (Rom. 12:3).
Finally, we may resist forgiveness because we do not want to appear weak.3 But because “ ‘[God’s] thoughts are not [our] thoughts, / neither are [His] ways [our] ways’ ” (Isa. 55:8), what appears to be weakness is really strength (2 Cor. 12:10). Forgiveness, then, becomes powerful—so powerful that it can break the chains of bondage. When you forgive, “you set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself.”4
Forgiveness offers many benefits.
For one thing, you feel better, both physically and emotionally. From a physiological standpoint, forgiving can reduce the severity of heart disease and may even help cancer patients live longer.5 Forgiving also may reduce anxiety and depression and improve counseling outcomes.6 In contrast, refusal to forgive may contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction.7
Forgiveness also helps in our interpersonal relationships. “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Col. 3:13). A forgiving spirit may protect us from those who seek revenge against us, as David learned when he spared Saul’s life in 1 Samuel 24.8 It also opens the way for us to receive forgiveness as we “ ‘do to others as [we] would have them do to [us]’ ” (Luke 6:31). In “keep[ing] no record of wrongs,” forgiveness also becomes a mark of love (1 Cor. 13:5). In contrast, withholding forgiveness allows a judgmental spirit to take root,9 because we ourselves decide whether our former spouse deserves to be forgiven (James 4:12). Similarly, it sets us up for judgment by our ex-husband or ex-wife (Matt. 7:1).
Most important, though, are the spiritual benefits of forgiveness. First, we are obedient to God when we forgive (Luke 6:37). Second, we become more like Christ as we extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us (Luke 23:34). Then, as we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), forgiveness offers us an opportunity to partner with God in what He wants to do in our lives as well as in our former spouse’s life. And one of the things He wants to do is to bring healing; in fact, that is why He sent Jesus (Luke 4:18). When we forgive our former spouse, we experience the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
When to forgive
When people experiencing divorce ask, “Do I have to forgive my ex?” they often are still experiencing pain. They may be still in the heat of the battle: working out a settlement, deciding child custody issues, talking with lawyers, appearing in court, facing almost daily some new consequence of the sins that have been committed against them. They cannot imagine forgiving their soon-to-be-exspouse, and at this point, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to forgive. One researcher says that before forgiveness can occur, “the offending act must be past.”10
But once life has assumed some new semblance of order, the individual who wants to heal (John 5:6) should begin to consider forgiveness. Recognize the importance of not waiting until you feel like forgiving because—you may never feel like it. Besides, forgiveness is not a feeling but a decision. When God says, “ ‘I will forgive their wickedness / and will remember their sins no more’ ” (Jer. 31:34), He does not mean that He cannot remember them; He means that He has decided to act toward us as though He does not remember them—and this He asks us to do when He commands us to forgive (Eph. 4:32). He asks us to decide to behave as though we have forgotten what our former spouse has done to us. You will make that decision “when you don’t want to hurt any more.”11
Sometimes people say, “My ex has never said they’re sorry for what they did.” But you do not need to wait until they ask for forgiveness. Once you know the benefits of forgiveness, why would you wait to reap them? Besides, what if your former spouse suddenly did ask for forgiveness? If you have not begun to work through the process, you will be broadsided.
You might say something you will regret later—“Never! I’ll never forgive you!” If you have begun the process, you will be able to respond in a more reasoned way, perhaps saying something like, “I’m working on forgiving you; I’m not quite ready yet to say I’ve forgiven you, but I am working on it.”
Until you forgive, you are allowing your former spouse to control you—how you feel and your physical and emotional well-being. You are “surrender[ing] [y]our future” to them.12 Not forgiving is “like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.”13
How to forgive
The process of forgiveness begins with the decision to let go of the offenses your former spouse committed against you. Remember, you are not saying that what they did was acceptable; you are simply saying that you will no longer hold it against them. You are surrendering your right to get even.14
Begin praying about your decision (Matt. 7:8). Be honest with God. Tell Him how badly you hurt.15 Confess what you are feeling: anger, hatred, resentment, jealousy. Ask God to remove these feelings and bring healing. If you are not ready to forgive, ask Him to help you to become willing. Talk with a counselor or a trusted friend (Prov. 15:22). Ask them to pray for you too.
When I began the process of forgiveness after my divorce, I found it helpful to ask God to show me the offenses I needed to forgive. It had occurred to me that I might forgive my ex-husband for divorcing me, but then I might think of something else later and be tempted to withdraw my forgiveness. Throughout 20 years of marriage I had harbored an unforgiving spirit, although I had not recognized it then; now I wanted to be fully cleansed, fully at peace. I fasted and prayed and, as God responded, I began to make a list of those offenses. I filled ten pages on a legal pad, beginning each line, “I forgive [my ex-husband] for . . .” To me, it was important to write those words for every offense. When I was finished, I felt like I was, indeed, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Another question we frequently hear is, “Do I have to tell my ex I’ve forgiven them?” Lewis Smedes, probably the foremost Christian writer on forgiveness, says, “Forgiving is essential; talking about it is optional.”16 I believe in the importance of examining your motive in telling them. Be sure that your asking their forgiveness does not consist of a self-righteous act (Luke 18:14), or intend to prompt your former spouse to extend forgiveness to you, too, perhaps before they are ready. Ask God to show you whether your motive is pure and the timing is right. If you decide to tell them, Smedes recommends that you “make it short [and] keep it light.”17
How will you know if you have forgiven your former spouse?
One indicator that forgiveness is occurring is that you will be able to let go of the outcome of the situation;18 you will no longer feel the need to control or manipulate, but are willing to trust God to deal with your former spouse. A lingering desire for revenge would suggest that you have not forgiven.
When you can extend compassion to your former spouse and no longer want to see harm come to them, forgiveness is taking place.19 Being able to pray for them, not just about them, remains a good sign that you have forgiven them. For example, if your divorce has caused your former spouse to move away from God and you can pray for that relationship to be restored, or if your former spouse was not a Christian and you can pray for their salvation—then you can know that your forgiveness is real.
Just as forgiving an offense is not the same as forgetting it, forgetting it is not a test of having forgiven it.20 I am convinced that when Jesus commanded us to forgive often (Matt. 18:21), He did not necessarily mean that our brother (or ex-spouse) would sin against us over and over. I believe He knew that we would remember a person’s single sin against us many, many times, and He was telling us that every time we do, we must choose again to forgive.
Of course, we would like to believe that our former spouses were completely at fault in our divorce while we were the perfect mate. But the hard truth is, we committed offenses against them, too, and we need to seek forgiveness.
Chances are you do not remember all the ways you have offended your former spouse. Or you may have said or done things that you did not, and perhaps still do not, realize were hurtful. Therefore, the first step in seeking forgiveness is to ask God to show you the things for which you need to seek your former spouse’s forgiveness.
You will know that you are ready to seek forgiveness when you possess genuine sorrow for your offenses. You also should feel empathy for them, some sense of the pain they must have felt when you hurt them and may yet feel. Finally, you should have an attitude of repentance, even a desire to make restitution, if necessary and possible.21 If any of these are missing, ask God to create within you that sorrow, empathy, or repentant spirit (Ps. 51:10).
Forgiveness becomes crucial to healing in divorce. But divorce also is one of the areas in which forgiveness is most difficult. Because of God’s design for marriage, in which a man and woman “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), a husband and wife achieve the greatest level of intimacy possible between two human beings. The depth of that intimacy, however, also makes them more vulnerable to one another than to any other individual. Our spouses know those places in our hearts that are most tender, most easily bruised—and when the marriage covenant has been broken, the wounds we inflict on one another are especially deep . . . so deep that we really do not deserve to be forgiven for having inflicted them. Yet, by the amazing grace of God, we can be. And just as we can be forgiven, we, too, can learn to forgive.
1 Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget (New York: Harper &
Row, 1984), 39.
2 All Bible references are from the New International Version.
3 Bob Jones, “When Forgiveness is Hard” (Lancaster, CA:
Central Christian Church), retrieved April, 22, 2006, from
4 Smedes, op.cit., 133.
5 Campaign for Forgiveness Research, “Research Into the
Strength of Forgiveness”; retrieved April, 22, 2006, from
6 Scott Heller, “Emerging Field of Forgiveness Studies
Explores How We Let Go of Grudges,” Chronicle of Higher
Education 44, no. 45 (July 17, 1998), A18-A20; retrieved
April 22, 2006, from http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.
7 Tara Roberts, “Why Forgive?” Essence 36, no. 12 (April 2006),
180; accessed April, 22, 2006, from Academic Search Premier.
10 Heller, op. cit.
11 Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to
Forgive and Don’t Know How (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 66.
12 Ibid., 178.
13 Actress Carrie Fisher is credited with this expression in
reference to resentment. Retrieved December 27, 2007 from
14 Smedes, Art of Forgiving, 7.
15 Ibid., 139.
16 Ibid., 178.
17 Ibid., 146.
18 Beverly and Tom Rodgers, Adult Children of Divorced
Parents: Making Your Marriage Work (San Jose, CA:
Resource Publications, 2002), 132.
19 Smedes, Forgive and Forget, 29.
20 Ibid., 39.
21 Rodgers, 133, 134.