It was a very difficult afternoon for both of us. I had to explain to Jen (my then girlfriend, now my wife) about how I had been looking at pornography. That day, as we went for a walk, Jen could sense that something was up. She could see I was angry with myself and holding something back. I was nervous about confessing, as I expected it would hurt her, but felt I had to be honest. So, we sat on a park bench and I began to explain what I’d done.
After I told her, Jen said she felt betrayed and upset. She was hurt that I would fantasise about others and worried I would compare her to them. We discussed it and decided this was comparable to me being unfaithful. As we walked around the park, there was shouting, crying and sharp words exchanged. Jen was angry at my dishonesty and questioned how I could keep this from her. I told her how sorry I was for hurting her. To be honest, I was scared that this meant the end of our relationship.
I needed her forgiveness.
Perhaps not pornography, but we all do things that hurt our loved ones. Even with the best will in the world, we’re human. We’re faulty. We make mistakes. Some of them wilful (i.e. we know they’re wrong and we do them anyway), some of them not. We have the capacity to hurt others even without realising we’re doing it.
When we do hurt each other, it damages our relationships and can ultimately lead to relational breakdown. After all, 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce .
So what’s the solution to this seemingly universal problem? How do we deal with the (sometimes very real) hurt that is caused by someone else, whilst maintaining our relationships? Is it possible to forgive? If we do forgive someone, does it really change anything?
For some of us, forgiveness feels ineffective. Perhaps we’ve heard people say ‘It’s fine’, but they haven’t actually forgiven you; they’re just choosing to ignore or ‘forget’ about what you’ve done, until the next argument comes around.
Perhaps we haven’t really understood the nature of forgiveness, or even why we need forgiveness in the first place. When you do something bad to someone, you incur a debt to them — you owe them for what you’ve done. How many romantic meals have been bought as recompense for our wrongdoing? How many bunches of flowers have been sent to a loved one to say ‘sorry’ for some indiscretion? This doesn’t exclusively apply to romantic relationships; have you ever felt the need to make amends after hurting a friend?
Forgiveness is about cancelling that debt. When you forgive the debt someone owes you, you pay the debt yourself. You aren’t ignoring what they’ve done; you are destroying both the record of their wrongdoing and your claim for recompense. They don’t owe you anything anymore. True forgiveness is costly and this is why it often feels so hard. If you’ve ever found yourself ruminating on a hurt that someone has caused you, you’ll know it’s far easier to continue to hold your grudge, even to become bitter, than to forgive that person.
But if it’s so difficult, how then can we forgive?
Jen forgave me that day and has done so many times since. If forgiving something like viewing porn feels possible to us, what about truly horrific wrongdoing? What about the mother of Anthony Walker, who was brutally murdered in a racially-motivated attack in Liverpool in 2005? She chose to forgive her son’s killers. Outside the court she told reporters, ‘I’ve got to forgive them. I still forgive them. My family and I still stand by what we believe: forgiveness.’
How was Anthony’s mother able to forgive? How was Jen able to forgive me? They share the same faith — both are Christians. Forgiveness is at the centre of their worldview.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that God became a man and that, by dying in our place and paying our debt, Jesus brought the offer of lasting forgiveness from God for each of us. Christians don’t claim to be better people because they follow Jesus, rather simply people who’ve said yes to this offer of forgiveness; they are forgiven people. This status has a huge impact on their lives and relationships.
Jen and I have been able to work through countless issues like this, where one of us has hurt the other. We’ve learnt to forgive the wrongdoing and deal with anything that comes between us. In our first year of marriage, we’ve been using this quite a lot!
If we’ve been forgiven by God, we can’t sit in judgement over others. We know we aren’t the people we would like to be. Instead, we can forgive our loved ones (and anyone who wrongs us), safe in the knowledge that we need that forgiveness too, both from the other person and from God.