The Struggle to Forgive
I knew that, as a Christian, I was supposed to forgive my ex. But I struggled, revisiting his many lies and the hurts he inflicted upon me. His betrayal haunted my nightmares and sprung up unbidden during the day. I could barely function. “Go ahead, Lord,” I urged, “roast him and toast him!”
“Betrayed” had become the narrative of my life.
What Forgiveness Looks Like
Forgiveness is a Process, not a one time event
I made an appointment with my new pastor, hoping he had the magic words that would help me with this task. “Forgiveness is absolutely necessary, and you should do it as soon as possible,” he responded. “Remember, God has forgiven both you and Jim.” He pointed to some of the passages in the Bible that deal with forgiveness.
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Matthew 6:14
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32
There were more verses, and I knew them all. He might as well have said, “Just do it.” Did that help me? Of course not! I felt more shame and frustration for not being ready to forgive.
I hope by now that pastor has a better understanding of the forgiveness process. Forgiving doesn’t mean we immediately stop feeling hurt or we deny our feelings. I love what Nancy Richards, author of the memoir Mother, I Don’t Forgive You said in a recent interview with Kathy Pooler: “Forgiveness is not an event of immediacy. It’s not a bolt of lightning that brightens the soul and burns the pain to ashes. Forgiveness is a process; one that we must honor with our own healing timetable.” (1)
By acknowledging our pain, not just with our heads but with our whole being, we open the door for healing and forgiveness.
How to forgive
God wants us to forgive, but He doesn’t expect us to forgive on our own. He’s a patient God, waiting to help us on our journey of forgiveness when we’re ready to ask Him.
In his book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Lewis B. Smedes wrote: “[Forgiveness] cannot heal our narcissistic resentments toward people for not being all that we expect them to be … Nobody can forgive people for being what they are.” (3)
I had to shed the illusion that I could have somehow changed my ex into the person I thought he should be. Eventually I realized my resentment toward him was a waste of my good time. If I had anyone to forgive, it was me for being wrong in my belief I could fix him. I also needed to forgive myself for staying so long and letting him get away with his treatment of me.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect ourselves
We can forgive someone even when we don’t trust them. An ex-spouse who has hurt us and remains unrepentant cannot be expected to change because of our forgiveness. I was relieved when I decided to hand over my ex and his problems to God. My job was to take care of me and my stuff. I practiced dealing with my ex as I would a business arrangement, spending as little emotional energy as possible. When the situation called for it, I sought to remind him, in a neutral manner, of his better nature. (I confess it took me a while to get to this point.)
You probably know your ex better than anyone else. Try to imagine what drove him or her to the behaviors that hurt you so much. Would a healthy person do the same? Probably not.
When I think of the parental abuse my ex endured during his childhood, my heart aches for him. That’s not to say I condone his actions, but it helps me see him as a vulnerable human being who didn’t have the capability of being the kind of spouse I needed or wanted. This realization has helped me forgive him.
I believe true forgiveness cannot be achieved in the midst of trauma. If you find yourself endlessly recycling hurt and anger as I did, get help. Many churches sponsor divorce recovery support groups led by people who understand what you’re going through. They’ll facilitate your learning how to heal and gain hope for your future. Individual counselors can be helpful, too. I took advantage of both. My counselor put me on anti-depressants until I was able to better cope. Through my divorce recovery group, I gained new friends as we negotiated our newly single lives. Healing and moving forward opened me to gradual forgiveness.
Use a little humor
Make a list of all your ex’s faults and put them together in a faux dating ad. Would you want to date that guy (or gal), let alone, be married to someone like that? No way!
Understand your power to forgive
In a Psychology Today article, Lisa Firestone writes, “Learning to forgive helps us to control our story and our feelings to avoid unnecessary pain. As powerful individuals, we can choose between living in a victim mode or an adult mode. In the latter state, we acknowledge and feel the full pain of what happened to us without getting stuck in a triggered state in which we feel it is still happening. We can feel our feelings without letting them overtake us.” (4)
Have I been able to forgive my ex, you ask. When some folks learn I’ve written a memoir about my marriage, divorce, and recovery, they assume I’ve done so to “get back” at him. Although there might have been some truth to that when I first began, revisiting my life has given me a more nuanced perspective. I see the whole man now, with both good and bad qualities. He’s someone I spent a great deal of my life with, and with whom I shared a now-grown child. I developed enough emotional distance now that he could no longer hurt me. I was able to have a long-distance cordial relationship with him throughout the rest of his life, leaving me with no regrets.
Imagine you have the power to forgive. Can you feel your shoulders relax and your jaw unclench? Is your walk a little lighter? Just remember, forgiveness takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you follow the path of forgiveness, looking ahead to the many blessings that await you.
Linda M. Kurth is a writer and a divorced and remarried Christian. In going through the divorce, she experienced a dichotomy of responses from the Christian community. After sharing some of those experiences in her new memoir, God, the Devil, and Divorce, she's heard many stories of divorced Christians who have struggled with the same issues. This blog invites divorced Christians to tell their stories with the goal of encouraging churches to resist condemnation and become a source of healing and grace.
I welcome your comments and feedback.
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