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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

The Power of UN-forgiveness: A Case Study

The Power of UN-forgiveness

The Drama in the Home

Everybody loves Bill. The consensus is that his perceived spiritual maturity and humble servant’s heart have been an encouragement to many. When he isn’t running his moderately successful engineering firm, he volunteers for his local church. The pastors love him and usually include him in their quarterly planning retreats.

There is one problem however. Bill’s wife, Mary, cannot stand him. No one knows this, but Bill. She has been living with a low-grade animosity toward him for nearly 20 years. The only reason she has not left is because of the stigma of divorce and what it would do to their kids.

Mary’s issue with Bill is that he is a hypocrite and her assessment is spot on. Bill is a self-absorbed religionist, who has learned how to manage the gap between who he really is and the person he presents himself to others. The problem for Bill is that he cannot maintain his hypocrisy in every context of his life. His home is the one place where he is known for the hypocrite he really is.

With no public chink in his spiritual armor, Mary silently suffers through it all. She knows something is wrong, but cannot put her finger on it. Coupled with this unmitigated anger toward Bill, is her fear that whatever he is into will devastate her should the truth come out.

The Nightmare is Revealed

Late one afternoon Mary was emptying the home office trashcan and noticed a receipt from a strip club. It was unmistakable. She confronted Bill and after a week of arguments, denials and threats, Bill finally came clean. He is a porn addict.

Mary was devastated.

Bill did repent of his sin and they sought counseling. One year later, Mary is still unwilling to forgive Bill. She is angry, critical, bitter, self-justifying and self-righteous.

The Weapon for the Wounded

Mary has been hurting for two decades. She also has been stewing in anger during this time. She knew she was right and everyone else was wrong. She saw Bill for what he was, a hypocritical fool. Additionally, Bill did not willingly confess his sin. He was caught. She believes that if she had not found the strip club receipt, he probably would never have confessed his sin.

Mary says she has forgiven him, but there is nothing in her attitude or actions that would support her claim. During counseling, Mary’s counselor confronted her for her unwillingness to forgive Bill. From Mary’s perspective she has been living alone her entire marriage and God never intervened. Mary believes if she forgives Bill of his sin, then it would be like he never sinned; he would get off free and clear and the door of her nightmare would be closed, as though it never happened as well. She is bitter and not ready to forget all her hurt.

The Power of UN-forgiveness

Bill has repented of his sin, though he did not initially confess it. He has admitted to everything. But Mary is not ready to let him off the hook by freely forgiving him.

To forgive someone of their sin is to say:

“I will be obedient to God and release you from your sin regardless of what you have done to me. What I have done to the Savior is far worse than what you have done to me. I will not hold this over your head anymore, but will make myself vulnerable to the possibility of you hurting me again. In essence, I trust God’s method in this matter. I forgive you.”

Mary’s unwillingness to forgive Bill is her man-centered way of protecting herself from ever being hurt again. She believes as long as she can hold Bill’s sin over his head she will not be vulnerable. Since God did not come through for 20 years, she is more comfortable maintaining control of the situation. To forgive Bill is to say, “It’s over; let’s move on.” Her sinful method accomplishes three goals:

1. She is punishing Bill for all the years he punished her.

2. She is protecting herself from ever being hurt again.

3. She is perverting the Gospel.

The Power of the Gospel

Mary is playing god. She is holding Bill’s sin over him while making a mockery of the Cross. The Father’s punishment of the Son on the Cross is not enough for Mary. She is a legalist who believes in the Cross, but also believes that Bill needs to be punished as well. Grace seems too easy.

What Mary does not understand is that grace was not easy. It cost the Son of God his life. The infinite Father PUNISHED the infinite Son for the infinite crime. The infinite Savior PAID the infinite price for the infinite crime.

For Mary, the death of Christ is not enough for what Bill did. Because of Mary’s high view of herself, she will not accept the death of Christ as payment to cover what has been done to her. In her world, this sin against her is greater than her sin against the Savior. She is treating her husband in a way that God did not treat her. The Father forgave Mary of her sin against his Son, but Mary will not forgive Bill of his sin against her.

Mary needs to repent of her self-righteousness by humbling herself at the foot of the Cross and accept the death of the Son of God as payment in full for what Bill did. The Father put the Son on the Cross. Mary needs to take her husband off the Cross. His sin has already been paid on the Cross.

Join the Conversation

In your life and ministry, what examples have you seen of the power of un-forgiveness?

This entry was posted in Bitterness, Forgiveness, People in Need of Care, People Who Offer Care, People Who Train Caregivers, Sin and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Steve Cornell

    It is obviously hard to adequately address a situation like the one described above in a short article. The thing I find among many Christians is a failure to distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. 
    Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is a process that is conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. In many cases, even if the offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt, and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is surrender of a vindictive or vengeful response (see: Romans 12:17-21), but it’s not always found in an automatic restoration of relationship.When forgiveness has to do with minor offenses, restoration does not need to be drawn out. But when trust  has been deeply betrayed, forgiveness does not necessarily grant the same level of relationship back. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Being forgiven, restored, and trusted again is an amazing experience. Yet it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust.When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when the offense has been repeated. Reconciliation requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust (unless a clear issue of safety is involved).When a person has repeatedly behaved in a sinfully harmful and irresponsible manner, he must accept the fact that reconciliation will be a slow and difficult process.The timing of the process of reconciliation:Three main considerations1.     The attitude of the offender2.     The depth of the betrayal3.   The pattern of the offense (often repeated offenses)When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is the confirmation of genuine repentance on the part of the offender (Luke 17:3). An unrepentant offender will resent your desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. He might resort to lines of manipulation. “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.” “You just want to rub it in my face.” “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.” “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”These lines reveal an unrepentant attitude. Don’t be manipulated into avoiding the step of confirming the authenticity of your offender’s confession and repentance. Carefully and prayerfully use the seven signs of true repentance listed below. It’s advisable (in difficult cases) to seek the help of a wise counselor (only one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation). This counselor can help the injured person to establish boundaries and steps toward reconciliation that are restorative rather than retaliatory.It is hard to genuinely restore a broken relationship when the offender is unclear about his confession and repentance. You must be as certain as you can of your offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses. Even God will not grant forgiveness to one who is insincere about his confession and repentance. The person who is unwilling to forsake his sin will not find forgiveness with God (Proverbs 28:13).Of course, only God can read hearts– we must evaluate actions. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16a). We must not allow superficial appearances of repentance to control our responses. Displays of tears or appearing to be sorry must not become substitutes for clear and demonstrated changes in attitude and behavior.Christian counselors must be careful not to rush to reconciliation (wrongly equating it with forgiveness) without gathering the right amount of information. Otherwise, it might end up compromising the gospel in a different direction. For further consideration of this perspective, see: Cornell

  • Brad Bigney


    So true! You’ve described what I see in so many counseling cases with couples. Forgiveness sounds so basic, but is so hard for most people to truly forgive. The flesh wants revenge… And too often even Christians are guilty of looking just like the world on this. Great article.

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