“My soul refused to be comforted.” – Psalm 77:2b (NASB).
“‘For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.'” – Jesus (Matthew 6:14-15, NASB).
I suspect that most Christian survivors of adultery have been told that they have to forgive their cheating spouses. A well-meaning pastor likely told them this as soon as the adultery came to light and anger appeared in the faithful spouse’s voice. Or, perhaps, the adulterer/adulteress led the charge in reminding the faithful spouse of the command I just quoted above from Jesus?
Regardless of who reminded the faithful spouse of this Scriptural mandate to forgive, I feel it is important to make a few comments and unpack the complexities surrounding forgiveness after adultery.
Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the wrong(s), I am convinced, the longer the road to forgiveness and healing. Anyone demanding immediate forgiveness after adultery fails to grasp this spiritual reality. And demanding the world of the soul to be otherwise only causes further shame and hurt in the person trying to heal from a major trauma. Also, it minimizes what happened.
I will likely be able to forgive you on the spot if you unintentionally step on my foot. Now, if you intentionally attacked my sanity through your lies and rape my soul through your infidelity, then that might take a little more time to forgive. It is a bigger debt I am forgiving and is thereby harder to let go.
To be clear: we need to forgive those who sin against us as Jesus instructs us.
However, forgiveness is not minimizing the sinful deed, excusing the wrongness of it, or forgetting it. Forgiveness is a choice to give up my rightful claim to the pound(s) of the offending parties’ flesh–so to speak. I believe it takes a special grace from God to get to this point after adultery. And the first step may simply be asking God for that needed grace to forgive.
Another complicating factor in the forgiveness process is that you are grieving. I think this is often missed pastorally with adultery survivors. Anger is a healthy and natural response to loss and injustice. We have both in the case of adultery. Furthermore, if the marriage was precious to the faithful spouse, the intensity of the loss will bring with it intense emotions. Yes, that includes intense anger. This is grief.
Putting a timeline on someone’s grieving process is plain cruel. Also, to think the person will never again feel angry or sad about the lost marriage and betrayal because they have forgiven the cheater is unrealistic and reveals gross ignorance about what it means to grieve.
We are never the same after we lose a significant relationship–whether by death or divorce. There will always be a hole in our lives where that relationship used to be.
Sure, the intensity of the emotion and the pain will lessen over time as we walk through our grief. However, grief has a way of ambushing us even years after the loss. And it is fundamentally an emotional process, not a rational one. It will not be controlled.
Grief can only be felt and experienced–i.e. not corralled by reason.
To the caregivers and pastors, I urge you to view the intensity of the emotion as a sign of how much the faithful spouse valued the marriage and desired to honor God through honoring their marriage vows. Please do not view it through the lens of a bitter person with forgiveness issues. While forgiveness issues may be present, I doubt that is the sole source or even the primary source of the emotional intensity. I encourage all to remember that.
Be kind to yourself.
Grieve and encourage others to grieve.
Don’t judge the grieving.
And if you struggle to forgive the perpetrator of your pain, ask God for the grace to be willing to do so. It is okay to need His help in this. And remember that grieving like forgiveness is a process.
***A special thanks to CH Peter Lundholm at St. Cloud VA Medical Center for teaching me much of the content in this post in leading forgiveness and grief groups for Veterans.