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Forgiveness: The Journey
By Karen Holford, MA, MSc

Rachel sat at the edge of her bed, sad and angry. Today was her birthday, and she’d taken the day off work. She and John had planned to hike around a mountain lake and stop for dinner at a favorite restaurant.

Then John received a call from Jason. “Hey, Pastor John! My truck’s broken down, and I need help getting to a roofing job. I promised to finish it this afternoon. I’m already late. I’ll lose my contracts if I can’t complete this one in time!”

“Don’t worry, Jason. I’ll bring my truck over right away, and I’ll stay to give you a hand so you get it done today.”

This was not the first time it happened. How was she going to forgive him? She was tired of feeling less important than everyone else in his congregation.
Exploring forgiveness
Along with Jesus’ disciples, we cannot resist asking, “Master, how many times can my brother wrong me and I must forgive him? Would seven times be enough?” (Matthew 18:21, Phillips). For that matter, just how often should we forgive our family members and church members?  We know Christ forgives our debts—but how do we forgive our debtors?

In many subtle ways, ministry experiences can unintentionally hurt the members of a ministerial family and, at times, inflict emotional wounds when priorities are out of order.
Conversation Starter:
Why should a parent have to ask for forgiveness?

The unrecognized hurts of ministerial families
A challenge common to many ministerial families is that of the “two drained wells.” The pastor who has unselfishly poured himself out in ministry throughout the day longs to come home to be replenished.

At the same time the spouse has also been working hard at his or her job —along with caring for children, making meals, helping with homework, ferrying children to classes and events, looking after the needs of church members, and in some situations, functioning very much as a single parent. The pastor may not arrive home until late in the evening, by which time the spouse may feel tired and resentful.

At that point both spouses are running on empty and when they finally come together, both may be too hungry and drained to help the other. In that situation, whose needs are considered most important? Who gets hurt? And who goes “hungry”?

Some spouses express that their pastor-spouses view their practical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs—and those of their children—as ranking below the needs of other church members.

Other spouses have expressed that they are overworked and need to say “no” but can’t because it would be like saying “no” to God. Some wives have felt very alone but are afraid of being judged as selfish and criticized if they talk about their painful experiences with others, or even with their spouses.

These challenging beliefs and experiences can be very painful for members of the pastoral family – each striving to be valued, respected and cherished.   

Forgiveness requires understanding
If we hurriedly say “I forgive you” every time someone hurts us or “I’m sorry” every time we hurt someone else, then we are missing some ingredients of effective forgiveness. We can say the words quickly, like sticking a bandage on a cut. But this does not improve our understanding of each other, nor does it help us learn to do better next time.

One of the obstacles to working through our hurt and forgiveness is that we often limit our view of the situation to our own perspective. If we have hurt someone we can become self-defensive. And if we have been hurt we can become absorbed in our own pain. What we need is to understand God’s perspective on the situation.
The four places of forgiveness
There are four places we need to go and reflect before we can thoughtfully ask for forgiveness or offer it to others:
Forgiveness place #1: The heart of God
Before we can understand how to respond to a painful situation, we need to spend time alone with God. We need to be still and listen to His love for us and our spouse.

If you are the “hurter,” you need to remember how much God loves you and is willing to forgive you. You also need to understand that God hurts because your spouse hurts, and you caused that hurt. This is a vital part of the process because it helps you understand the spiritual significance of your actions. Jesus died so that you could be forgiven for the hurt you caused your loved one. Don’t rush through this place on the forgiveness journey. It’s the most important one because this is where you face the truth about your actions.
If you have been hurt, you need to remember how much God loves you and how sad He is that you are hurting. You also need to see that God loves your spouse too, and He wants to use this experience to help you both understand more about His love and forgiveness.[i]

Forgiveness place #2: The other person’s shoes
It’s important for each of you to understand what the other person is experiencing.

If you are the “hurter,” you need to understand how much your actions have affected your spouse so you can fathom the depth of the forgiveness you need. This will help you avoid repeating the same mistake.

If you have been hurt, it’s helpful to wonder why your spouse made the mistake so you can pray for them in a focused way. Does John need help exploring his priorities? Does he help others because he needs to feel valued? Does he need to understand that he may be hiding in his work to avoid closeness in his marriage?[ii]

Forgiveness place #3: The relationship
Each of you needs to ask yourself what your relationship most needs from you to help it heal. If you are not sure what to do or say, pray for wisdom and ask, “Will this help our relationship, or will it cause more pain?”[iii]

Forgiveness place #4: The future
This is often a place we forget to explore when we are working out how to help our hurting relationship. Think about your hopes for your marriage and the commitment you have made to cherish each other. What do you both need to do now to protect your relationship from future hurts? What plans can you make to help your marriage grow stronger and closer?

If you are the “hurter,” what decisions can you make to ensure you do not hurt your loved one in the same way again?

If you are the hurt person, how can you respond to your spouse in a way that will help you grow closer and not damage your future relationship?[iv]
Conversation Starters:
1.    Describe, from your perspective, what you just witnessed?
2.   How can family members be there for each other?

Care-filled conversations      
Care-filled conversations are calm, kind, clear, and hopeful.

After spending prayerful time in the four places of forgiveness, Rachel could say, “When you chose to help Jason rather than spend my birthday with me, I was very sad and hurt because it felt as if I wasn’t very important to you. I felt lonely, abandoned, and disappointed. I need to know you value our relationship. Next time, could you please stop and ask me first before making choices that affect me? I am also wondering how we can take care of our relationship by making it more of a priority in our lives.”

John could say, “I am so sorry, Rachel. I realize that I hurt you when I chose to help Jason rather than spend the day with you. I need to understand just how much my ministry choices hurt you at times. I was wrong. Please forgive me. What can I do differently in the future to show you how special you are to me?”
The journey
Some things are very hard to forgive, such as adultery, domestic violence, abuse, continuous neglect, betrayal, or being seriously shamed, bullied, or ridiculed. When we cause such deep wounds, we can expect healing to take a long time. If someone tripped you and broke your leg, you might forgive the person immediately, but the fracture will still need six weeks to mend.
Conversation Starter:
How long should broken trust take to heal?

Hurts, resentments, and grudges fracture the oneness that God wants us to experience in marriage. Forgiveness binds the relationship together again, like a plaster cast, so that our hurting hearts can be healed and become stronger than ever before.

Once you fully understand the pain you have caused your spouse, it’s important to apologize. Pray that you will be able to do this well. It's not an easy thing to do, but it helps put things right again.

One example of a simple apology: “I am very sorry that I hurt you by [be specific]. I know that I caused you to feel [be specific]. It was very wrong of me, and I never want to do that again.”

Other actions that might enhance the apology:
  • Giving the person a warm hug or other physical sign of apology if they are receptive to it.
  • Doing something thoughtful for the other person, such as buying flowers, sending a card, or giving a gift.
  • Fixing what you did wrong. It helps us feel better about ourselves when we are involved in mending what we have damaged.
Ask yourself what else you can do to make sure you have offered a thoughtful apology to someone you have hurt.
Accepting an apology
When others have listened to your experience and understood your pain, pray that you will be able to accept their apology warmly. This will help mend the hurting relationship.

Some ways to accept an apology:
  • Simply say, “Thank you for saying you’re sorry,” or, “What you did really hurt me because. . . . But I choose to forgive you because I want us to be friends again.”
  • Give the other person a warm hug or other physical sign of affectionate acceptance.
  • Invite the other person to help make things better, possibly by fixing the mess, mending the broken object, or doing something kind and helpful.
Click on Forgiveness Activity Resources for more info on the topic of forgiveness.
[i] See Psalm 103; 1 John 1:9; and 1 John 3:1-4:21.
[ii] See Matthew 21:12; Luke 6:37; Philippians 2:3-4; and 1 Peter 3:7-this could be about either spouse.
[iii] See 2 Corinthians 2:7, 8; Luke 6:27; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:31, 32;
Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:12-15; James 5:16.
[iv] See Romans 12:14, 17-20; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3, 4; Isaiah 55:7

 Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is a family therapist and freelance writer residing in Perthshire, Scotland with her husband, Pastor Bernie Holford.