My parents got divorced because my father was unfaithful to my mother. How can my mother—and I—truly forgive my father?
Thank you for reaching out. I am so sorry to hear what you are going through. May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
In your note, you touched on a number of difficult questions about forgiveness: How should my mother forgive my father if she doubts that his repentance is genuine? Should she forgive him just like that? Is part of forgiveness that she needs to retry the marriage? How does the church handle problematic marriages? How does my mother protect her reputation? Finally, how can I forgive my father, especially when I’m not convinced he is really sorry? Let’s work through these questions one by one.
Forgiving someone who may not be sorry
How should your mother forgive your father when she doubts his repentance? When I was a parish pastor, it was frustrating when a member would go through with an unscriptural divorce and then only mention it after the divorce was finalized. Often the member would say, “I’m sorry.” It was hard for me to believe that the repentance was genuine.
What I needed to remember was that I can only “read” the words spoken, but God reads the heart. According to the person’s words, I announce forgiveness. I need to leave it to God to know whether or not the person is actually repentant. In the end, God leaves it to himself to dole out the penalty when he says, “It is mine to avenge” (Romans 12:19).
God tells us that people look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Our job is not to read hearts. Our job is to use the binding and loosing keys (that is, not forgiving or forgiving) according to the confession we hear from the person. The reality is that your mother, the one wronged, has the doubly difficult task of forgiving because she was hurt and now she also needs to find it in herself (or in Christ, more accurately) to forgive.
Is she to forgive him immediately? The answer is yes. “Peter . . . asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ ” (Matthew 18:21, 22), or in other words, an unlimited amount. God shows that holding on to a grudge or holding someone else’s sin against him or her is spiritually damaging. To forgive literally means to “send away.” You are sending away that sin when you forgive. You are not saying, “It’s okay.” It is not okay. It hurt and perhaps still hurts. But as Christians who have had all our sins sent away by Christ, we will do likewise. “Forgive them,” Jesus prayed on the cross for those who crucified him (and they were not sorry).
However, forgiveness does not mean that your mother must pretend like everything is normal. Sin has consequences. If I walk through a door nine times and each time I walk through you punch me in the face and then say, “I’m sorry,” I’ll forgive you. But that does not mean I need to walk through the door for the tenth time!
Even though my encouragement to couples is to try to reconcile if possible, especially when children are involved, God permits divorce when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. God makes the two one flesh in marriage. When a spouse deserts the marriage or joins with another, the “one flesh” of the marriage has been broken. Then God allows the offended party to let it remain that way. That is a God-pleasing choice as well. The offended partner can say, “I forgive you, but the consequence of your sin is that we can no longer remain husband and wife.”
Because of the level of this betrayal, the offended partner is not obligated to try to reconcile. Yet often, those who can reconcile end up stronger, as they display true Christian love and forgiveness day in and day out.
When does the church step in?
How does the church handle it when it becomes aware of problematic marriages? One principle of pastoral ministry is never to act on hearsay. Irreparable damage can be done by bringing up an accusation that is not true. It can ruin a pastor’s ability to serve that person. The pastor is not an investigator. The people involved need to come to the pastor for help. If someone told me that so-and-so is having problems, I might look for opportunities to chat with that person so the person has a chance to bring up the issue. This is one of the reasons pastoral home visits are encouraged. Pastors can build relationships so that when there is a problem, members know they can come to their pastor.
The sad reality is that the offended party is often embarrassed and may drift away from the congregation. Often, the offending party stops coming because of impenitence or embarrassment. Sometimes both find a different congregation to make a fresh start. It all depends on the situation. How does the church guard reputations in situations like those? By preaching about attitudes to the whole church and applying law and gospel.
Forgiving your dad
Your father’s actions hurt you as well as your mother. Your father’s unfaithfulness is not God’s design for marriage, and your feelings are the natural result of your father breaking God’s design. When someone is not sorry, it adds another layer of difficulty to forgiveness.
God’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) offers these thoughts on forgiveness. First, we will forgive because God has forgiven us far more than any person could have sinned against us—and that includes your father. Second, forgiveness does not mean that the other person needs to “make up” for his or her debt. This would be impossible. Third, forgiveness does not mean that when you forgive your father, you need to behave as though nothing happened. There are consequences for his sin in your life as well. By forgiving, you are moving on. You leave your father to God and his will.
Unfortunately, the devil wants you to say, “I won’t forgive. He still owes me.” Satan knows that no one who sins against you can actually make sin right—no matter how hard that person may try. Forgiveness not only sends away the sin, but it also lightens your burden of carrying around that person’s sin. You don’t need to carry that sin with you. Jesus took that burden on the cross. Instead, rejoice in God’s forgiveness for you, and experience the freedom God has won for you. Ephesians 4:31,32 says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” We do not forgive because a person deserves it but out of love for the One who has forgiven us and deserves our unending thanks.
No child should have to experience what you are experiencing, but you do have One who understands (Hebrews 4:15).
Have a question, ask it here!
Author: David Scharf
Volume 109, Number 08
Issue: August 2022