“And the second [greatest commandment] is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” -Jesus in Matthew 22:39, NIV
Even with the betrayal being fresh, religious people are apt to tell a faithful spouse of their obligation to forgive their adulterous spouse. The charge of “unforgiving” or “bitter” are always close at hand for religious people who think they know best. And some may even have a plan prepared for how the faithful spouse’s “healing” ought to progress. They may even be quick to tell the faithful spouse that a good Christian would not divorce the adulterous spouse adding human conditions to God’s permission in own Word (see Mt. 5:32 and Mt 19:9).
It is rather sickening and quite unhelpful.
As I have written elsewhere (e.g. on forgiveness and grief), I consider such responses very cruel and ultimately unhelpful if the goal is spiritual and emotional healing for the shattered spouse. It smacks of control. And it resounds like an echoing cavern empty of all true compassion and empathy for the hurting.
Let’s take another situation where one person traumatizes another. It’s a thought experiment and sort of metaphor for surviving adultery:
Sandy stabs Bob with a six-inch knife one night over a domestic argument regarding not staking the dishwasher “correctly.” You happen upon Bob shortly after the stabbing noticing he is still in great pain and is bleeding.
Is the first thought in your mind, “Bob, you need to forgive Sandy?” Or are you concerned about his pain and the bleeding that may be life-threatening?
Do you judge him when he shouts out in pain thinking this is a clear indication of his unforgiving heart? Do you condemn him for feeling angry towards Sandy for stabbing him wondering if such anger means he will inevitably become bitter? Or do you see it as part of the process of dealing with a significant trauma and loss of safety?
Do you question Bob’s faithfulness to Christian principles when he tells you that he will not return home because he does not feel safe around Sandy? Or do you recognize this as wisdom understanding such a reunion should only take place under the circumstances of knowing Sandy won’t stab Bob again?
Do you view Sandy’s stabbing Bob over–say–stacking the dishwasher correctly as justifiable needing Bob to repent of “his part” in the stabbing? Or do you view such violent behavior as an unexcusable choice Sandy made and of which she is completely responsible?
Adultery is a great trauma than a simple knife wound. It is wound to the soul of a person. The marital betrayer stabs the faithful spouse at the level of their very being for they were/are one with the treacherous spouse. Adultery is soul rape. It feels like a dismemberment.
Don’t get me wrong: Forgiveness is an important part of the journey to healing. We do need to hand over the perpetrators of our pain to God and let go of our impulse to punish. However, I feel like Christians over-emphasize this part of the journey to the detriment of empathy and true love.
So, I ask in conclusion:
When your soul is hemorrhaging from getting stabbed in the back, do you want someone to “help” you by asserting moral demands (like “you must forgive now!”) or someone to hold you assuring you that you will make it through this pain? Would you like someone to listen to your pain validating that it is real or someone who judges and minimizes the trauma you just experienced? Or worse, do you want someone to tell you how you deserved the betrayal or someone who understands that you are not at all responsible for someone else’s choices/actions?
If you chose the later, I encourage you to follow in Jesus’ teaching of “The Golden Rule.” A faithful spouse is your neighbor. They deserve to be treated as well as you would want to treat yourself.
That’s what Jesus taught.