Forgiveness: A Blurring of Worlds
Nicholas A. Natale, PhD

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Julie stared at her husband’s phone in a motionless haze.  It’s true; she could no longer deny it or hide from it. What she suspected deep down was now squarely confronting her.  Pics, texts, meeting places – it was all here.  This was really happening.  Her hands shaking, she consciously remembered to breathe.  

The following weeks were hard.  They talked a lot, cried, yelled, moving towards an uncertain future with each passing day.  In the months that followed, Julie sought the support of her family and friends.  Her husband had ended the other relationship, took steps to be more transparent, and sought out a marriage therapist to work on their issues.  Julie was beginning to believe that he was attempting to make real change in his life and they were emotionally closer than they had been in years.  Things finally started to turn around. 

Life was hard but manageable.  That is until the question of forgiveness surfaced.  Julie was confronted with the question most unexpectedly.  Over breakfast, on a Saturday morning, before taking their son to soccer practice, she heard these words: “Will you forgive me?  I almost threw all of this, all of us, away. I’m so sorry.  Could you ever forgive me?”  Frozen, Julie did not know how to respond.  She knew the right answer, but it remained unsaid.  The “right answer” felt strangely weak for the question he asked.  Standing motionless again months later, this time holding a cereal bowl, Julie’s reply was honest, “I don’t know if I can.”  Driving to practice, she began to think and cry and feel all over again. 

“Can I forgive him?  How could I ever really forgive what he did to me?  The pain, the hurt, the humiliation. What happens if I do forgive him?” 

Up until this moment, the work of restoring the relationship largely hinged on his willingness to come clean, address issues that led to the affair, and work to get the marriage back.  But this moment was different.  Julie knew that he was now asking of her something that was beyond words, nearly impossible.  Yet, somehow, she knew that restoration of her marriage and herself rested on this question of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness: An Otherworldly Deed

One of the most consistent topics I encounter centers on forgiveness.  Is it possible for a person to truly forgive someone else?  The follow-up question is just as difficult, “How do I forgive?”  Regardless if it’s over a small thing like forgetting to pay a bill or something big, stepping out of the relationship, the question of forgiveness surfaces with most couples who deeply want to change their relationship.  

Forgiveness is mysterious and often mercurial.  Its otherworldliness and foreign nature leads us to believe that the concept that we can truly forgive or be truly forgiven is more myth than anything else.  Yet, we long for it.  We need forgiveness to be part of our relationships.  How could we possibly live with someone who’s collecting an ever-growing debit of forgotten promises, slips of the tongue, and other missteps that are naturally part of our experience.  We want to forgive and be forgiven for the sake of the relationship and for our own soul’s sake.  Intuitively, we understand that if our relationships are going to flourish, forgiveness needs to serve a role.  We are too human, foolish and stupid, for any other possibility.  We know that we are going to mess up at some point.

Most people only give cursory lip service of forgiveness, “of course, I forgive you;” offering an anorexic shadow of its full potential.  In the end, forgiveness becomes more of an ideal rather than living flesh for most.  Regrettably, their relationships suffer from its absence.

Forgiveness is possible. 

It is possible to forgive someone, and it is possible to experience the inexplicable joy of being forgiven.  As a therapist who works with couples on a variety of issues, the question of forgiveness surfaces so often that I’ve come to believe that forgiveness is essential in order for any relationship to flourish. 

Full disclosure, I identify myself as a Christian in the classical sense of the word that echoes the work of Christ and his teachings: self-sacrifice, thoughtfulness, humility, and self-reflection.  At our core, we are a Forgiven People who have experienced the forgiveness of God and who have been charged to, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).  Forgiveness is a central theme of our spiritual experience and serves as the means by which we live at peace with all.  This includes peace at home in our most intimate relationships. 

What is it & how to do it

What is forgiveness?  Reduced to its essential form, forgiveness is no longer holding it against him/her.  Whatever “it” means, the offense has been made right between you.  The actions or misactions are no longer counted against him/her. 

How does a person forgive another?  It is an action.  Far more than an ideal of human potential, forgiveness is an act of the will.  As a relational creature, you were born with the capacity to forgive; written on the fabric of your soul.  The simplicity of its essence is often overlooked by persons when faced with the need to forgive another.  It is often made overly complicated because of emotional strife involved or, even more compelling, releasing the control inherent in being “owed,” making forgiveness of another far more difficult.  It’s understandable how excuses to not forgive can abound.   

Keep the following in mind in your effort to forgive. 

A Reoccurring Event

The act of forgiving someone is often thought of as an event; a moment in time when the decision is made to step into the unknown void of letting go.  Forgiveness, however, is not a one-time event, rather a reoccurring one. 

When we step out to forgive, the thoughts, memories, fears, and hurts of the offense continue to linger within us.  The lingering, tormenting memories of the offense can even go as far as re-traumatizing, as if reliving the events.  If we wait for the hurting to stop or wound to heal before we forgive, we would never forgive at all.  Days and years after we forgive, the memories can trigger the pain of the experience again.  It is at this crucial moment when we must forgive again.  We don’t forgive one time but again and again. 

Back to Julie, even as she takes the enormous risk of forgiving her husband, the memories of those early days of her discovery, ensuing arguments, words that should not have been said, could potentially wound her all over again.  In those moments of hurt, she chooses to forgive again and again and again.  We don’t forgive once, rather, we forgive often.  We live in a forgiving stance that makes forgiveness living flesh. 

There is a teaching that Christ gave that shocked his listeners.  He was asked, “How often should I forgive my brother, seven times?”  His response informs us of the nature of forgiveness, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).  Even the memory and hurt associated with one act could cause a person the need to forgive multiple times.  Each moment when hurt returns, it’s time to forgive. 

It is also true that simply because Julie is wounded again at the memory of what her husband has done doesn’t mean that she didn’t forgive him.  It could mean, however, that she needs to forgive him again. 

Forgive but Not Forget

There is a strange yet familiar false-axiom that has been burned into every little child’s brain from the time he or she first tussled on the playground – “You must forgive and forget.”  A heinous, monstrous aberration from the pit of Hell.  Such a catchy and dangerous lie that left unchecked, destroys the potential of forgiveness outright. 

Please hear the truth!  You cannot forgive and forget.  There are no means by which a person was created that would cause such a deep wounding to be simply forgotten.  It is impossible to forget because memories of horrific experiences are needed in order that they are not repeated.  You cannot and should not forget the offense.  It is part of you and you need it.

Forgetting is a divine quality.  One that you do not possess.  It is informed in our teaching that God alone can choose to forget, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).  God can choose not to remember your mistakes, sins, transgression, whatever you want to call it, but you cannot forget your offenses or the offenses of others done to you. 

Forgetting should never be the barometer to evaluate whether or not you have forgiven someone.  You need the memory of what happened in order to inform you actions how.  As a child, you reached up to touch the hot iron only to be burned by its heat.  The memory informed you.  You needed it.  You need that memory even now, years later.  The same is true for the offense that you must now forgive. 

You can forgive, but you can never forget.  It is an unfortunate reality of the human condition.

A Spiritual Expression

A final thought on forgiveness rests in otherworldly places.  The act of forgiveness is undeniably tethered to our spiritual selves.  It is a spiritual expression.  The frightening truth does not bode well for us who are part of the Forgiven People under the work of Christ.  The varied teachings that elate our souls with words of comfort inherent in our forgiveness by Christ for unspeakable transgressions, also inform us that if we withhold our forgiveness of others, Christ withholds forgiveness from us.  It is a truth that few are willing to face, “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).  A fearful thought that compels us to work to live at peace with all. 

The translucent truth of forgiveness also tethers us to the work of Christ that deeply echoes his suffering on the cross that affords us any form of forgiveness.  It is possible that by forgiving others in the midst of woundedness, we are joined with Christ in his suffering.  “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:13).

It is not easy to forgive again and again for the offense as memories continue to wash over you.  To continue to forgive is a form of suffering.  Not a mournful suffering, but one of celebration.  It is good as Good Friday is good; knowing that peace and freedom is also shared it.  Forgiveness is otherworldly that transcends ourselves and touches parts of the Divine. 

Your forgiveness is more than making peace.  It’s discovering freedom within by touching something that is even deeper; echoes of eternity. 

Forgiveness Begins and Continues

Julie can forgive and by doing so finds freedom for herself and her marriage.  It is not easy, and it is not accomplished in a single moment on Saturday morning holding a cereal bowl.  It may begin there, but it continues as they walk together to make changes in themselves and their relationship. 

The courage to forgive strengthens the resolve to live life to the fullest; recognizing that this world is made of flesh and spirit, will and Divine.  Forgiveness is one means of crossing the blurred boundaries between them: an otherworldly deed that possesses the potential of freeing us from the chains of woundedness and opens us further to a broader world outside ourselves. 

 

Dr. Nic Natale is a sex therapist practicing in Columbia, SC.  His practice focuses on helping couples flourish in their intimacy.  Leading research, cultural trends, and a biblical perspective informs his work.  For information about Dr. Natale, go to www.nicnatale.com or contact him at nicnatale@palmettocounseling.com.