As a new bride, I knew that many aspects about my marriage to Dennis would be different from what I expected, but I’ve still been surprised by this truth: Even after more than 40 years together, our need to forgive each other is as fresh as it was on our wedding day. You’d think we would have learned not to say unkind things, not to hurt each other, not to take each other for granted. But we are imperfect human beings who don’t love each other as well as we wish.
As Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” And because we love poorly, we must forgive frequently.
Sometimes I wish that wasn’t the case–that we would outgrow the need to forgive each other frequently. But then I remember that this is what Christianity is all about: a loving and compassionate God pursuing His stubborn, sinful creation. He demonstrated this love by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us while we were still sinners (see Romans 5:8). He forgave us and made it possible for us to enjoy fellowship with Him. And He calls us to forgive each other as He has forgiven us (see Ephesians 4:32). That’s why marriage is a reflection of the gospel, a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church.
Christianity, then, is all about forgiveness. And a great marriage is, in the words of Ruth Bell Graham, “the union of two good forgivers.” Two imperfect people living together will need to forgive each other multiple times–maybe even each day. And by the way, If you add children to the family, the need for forgiveness will be compounded because of the increased number of sinful people who are living under one roof!
One of my favorite stories about forgiveness is that of Joseph in the Old Testament. He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, who told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph was taken on to Egypt where he was sold again, this time to an officer in the army. Later he was unfairly sent to prison for something he did not do. But instead of being angry, Joseph believed God was with him. He believed God was to be trusted, feared, and obeyed.
Eventually, through God’s providence, Joseph rose to a position of great power and influence. Fast forward another 12 years, and Joseph was busy meeting with people from all over world who had come to request food to survive a severe famine. And who showed up begging for food? His brothers.
Joseph could have used his power to seek revenge on his brothers, and who would have blamed him? Instead he forgave them and told them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Joseph’s story illustrates the truth that forgiveness means giving up the right to punish the person who sins against you. Often it may feel as if you are going against everything inside you–your desire for justice, for revenge. But it is grace in action–giving the person something he or she doesn’t deserve.
Perhaps that’s why forgiveness will feel more reasonable, and perhaps a bit easier, if you remember the grace of God in your own life. The power of forgiveness lies in its ability to replay God’s forgiveness over and over. Forgiveness announces the gospel and its unparalleled healing power to a broken world.
In the end, forgiveness means cooperating with God’s plan. Joseph recognized that God had directed His life for His own purposes: God had taken an unspeakably cruel act that Joseph’s brothers had meant for evil and, ultimately, had used it to save the Jewish people.
In a similar manner, you must cooperate with God’s plan for the intimate relationship you share in marriage. Your spouse may hurt you more deeply than any other person ever has. Yet if God forgives you daily, how can you not do the same?