By Lanette Zavala, author of the Marriage Vows Under Fire romance series ebooks and A Single Woman’s Journey Through Marriage Preparation
God called marriage to be the most intimate relationship that any two people can have with each other on Earth. In fact, the Lord reminded us that two married people are actually one in His eyes. (Matthew 19:5) This is why husbands and wives are so incredibly impacted by the conduct of the other spouse. If a spouse goes on a spending spree, the other will feel the financial impact in a household that relies on a meticulous budget. If a spouse engages in an inappropriate relationship with someone, the betrayal can deeply wound and haunt the other spouse.
Forgiveness, which is an attribute of a true follower of Jesus Christ, is vital to marriage. Since I’ve been born again, I don’t remember one year going by without hearing or reading a message on forgiveness at least three times within that year. Many times the message of forgiveness is delivered with urgency because even a believer can battle (during the spiritual warfare that we are in) with unforgiveness, until the wrestle is over in our victory. (II Corinthians 10:3-6)
While there is no condemnation to believers in the faith of Jesus Christ, we are always reminded with a common passage in God’s Word telling us in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” So, for this reason, again, this message is often an urgent reminder within the Body of Christ.
Unfortunately, the message of forgiveness can also be very arrogantly thrown out at those who are struggling with offenses that have occurred. The attitude of “get over it” has often attached itself to forgiveness-related passages in the gospels by many of us in our own need to conveniently forget and move on unchanged within our hearts. With access to grace that a believer has, we sometimes tend to require our spouse’s grace within favorable timing and comfort to a degree that we don’t really realize we ourselves are withholding by imposing that very attitude of “forgive me, move on, and leave me alone about it, you-bitter-ole-thing-you.”
As in any other relationship (brotherly or neighborly), spouses experience offenses. But in marriage, there are potentially more opportunities for offenses because of the time two humans spend together – many times through trial and error. Each is in a vulnerable position, though it is safe in this faith. When an offense occurs between the two, Jesus instructs both – one to be the forgiver and the other to be the pursuer. (“Forgiver and pursuer/aggressor” are just titles that I’ve labeled while identifying them reading the passages in God’s Word.)
Jesus’ Instructions To An Offended Spouse, The Potential Forgiver
Jesus reminds us in Matthew 18:23-35 of the essential nature of a forgiving heart. He gave the parable of a man who owed his master a large debt and, in the face of consequence for not being able to pay it, he begged for a pardon from that debt. And the master released him of it because he was moved with compassion. This same man, who was released from this great amount of debt, was able to walk away in this liberty and found in his path a man who owed him a debt that was smaller than his own pardoned debt.
In his anger for the money that was owed to him, the man put his hands around his debtor’s throat and demanded his money back. When the money could not be paid, he had his debtor thrown into prison. Well, somebody informed his master about what had happened. As a result, the master became angry and had this hypocrite thrown into prison for the past large debt.
Jesus explained that, likewise, if we are unwilling to forgive others for their sins against us, the Father will not forgive us. He used such a scenario to explain His point in order to convey that our many sins against the Father have been far greater than any sin another could do against us.
We were born into a fallen species called humans, as we all know. Humans have a nature to sin against God. Sin is such a familiar word, that many in our generation are desensitized to its actual affect and disgrace in the eyes of an infinitely perfect God. We had a nature that is so offensive to the Lord, that we were headed in the direction where the tempter of sins is himself destined to go. This place is the lake that burns with fire and brimstone where all, whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, are to be thrown by Whom the human mind cannot grasp as being yet and still a just God. (Revelation 21:27)
This just God knew the outcome of humans who had no Savior that would be acceptable before the Father. So, in His love for the world, He sent His only Begotten Son as the Ultimate Sacrifice for our sins. In Romans 5:7-9, Paul taught, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him (Jesus).”
God’s compassion for us and His forgiveness for us is far greater than we can ever imagine. Also, our sin, our offense, against the holy, blameless, just God Who sacrificed His Son for us (one evidence shown when Jesus asked His Father on that cross, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?”), is far greater than any sin anyone has done against us because, in order to save us from our sins, He went to the distance of giving His only Begotten Son as the Ultimate Sacrifice.
Our own sins can remind us why we should forgive anyone. If we are willing to forget our own sins (sin being the very act that offends God and separates us from Him) and love ourselves despite our knowledge of our sins (which are all against God), do we not have love also to forgive others with the love we have for ourselves as the guide on how to do so? When Jesus told us “love your neighbor as yourself”, He really was not telling us to love ourselves first in order to love our neighbor. Such an encouraging angle, but just so out of context.
Jesus was pointing out (paraphrased in other words), “Because y’all love yourselves, you have a first-hand and very likely unfailing guide to refer to on how to love your neighbor.” Think about it. Even if you beat yourself up over a past mistake or offense, you won’t miss too many meals. You won’t let yourself go thirsty past forty-eight hours if you can help it. You’ll feed yourself and drink water or something like it. If you’re cold, you’re going to warm yourself. If you’re hot, you’re going to find out how to cool your body. If there is no other way, you will at least love yourself to this minimal extent. And Jesus knew to use such love as a sure measurement on how we are to love others.
Thus, Paul wrote in Romans 12:20, “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” James and John also pointed out in each of their letters, along this same message with James’ actually on showing faith, that there is no way to show love toward someone if the opportunity to minister to their basic needs is neglected. (I John 3:16-18)
So, while the opportunity to offend our spouse is more likely to occur because of our closeness and vulnerability, as explained, the opportunity to forgive is also very likely in the life of a true believer because God transferred that forgiving nature into us through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Jesus’ Instructions To An Offender, The Potential Pursuer or Aggressor of Love
At one point in my life, it would have surprised me to learn that Jesus’ message for two people, one from whom an offense came while the other one harbored anger about it, did not stop with a message addressing the offended person. Between those two people, He instructed the offended to become the forgiver but also addressed the offender to become the pursuer. In fact, the pursuer is instructed to become the initial aggressor of love.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:23-24 (NKJV), “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” For the spouse who has offended the other, there is no room for any arrogant entitlement, as we can see reading this verse. (My husband of eighteen years rarely harbors anger and has made the role of pursuer primarily easy for me when I’ve done something wrong toward him.) But if he communicates to me or sends out unspoken vibes concerning some sin I committed against him that he’s been struggling to forgive, I am instructed by my Lord to address that issue in order to reaffirm my love for my husband and even to help him forgive me .
The Lord knew that having an attitude of entitlement is far easier than denying self through self-examination to the point of bearing the offended’s burden with what may be an unrecognizable heavy matter. In a form of arrogance (many times unintended), we can so easily harbor the thought, “I don’t have to pursue him/her. If he/she can’t forgive, it’s no longer my problem because God forgave me already.”
Do not require unconditional love from your offended spouse within the same heart that is failing to show unconditional love in a different way. You’re basically telling the person that he or she owes you beauty for your ashes. But God is the One to Whom we take our ashes to receive the beauty though the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. So, if you take your ashes (the offense you committed against your spouse – even as that offense has been forgiven by God) and you impose those ashes on your spouse (setting up a standard of expectation that requires a beautiful response to a possibly unapologetic offense – or synthetic apology – you’re going to come out of the dispute smelling like ashes.) God did not tell us to go and impose those ashes on that vulnerable person.
Instead, God told us to go first be reconciled to that brother who has something against us before we take a gift offering at the altar. What makes us a possible aggressor of love is because aggressive love may be the extent required to win back that spouse’s comfort with us. And if we neglect this passage for our own comfort, for our own determination to move on with some pseudo-peace that we’ve defined for ourselves, and for our own facades that we like to publicly display sometimes, then we fail to obey one passage while sitting back and comfortably watching our spouse fail to obey the other passage about the same past issue. So, who’s really walking in obedience here? Neither.
Jesus is showing us how to step up, as the past offender, and show love to the point where we are willing to ensure both of us in the marriage are obeying God. Galatians 6:1-2 tells us, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”