A few weeks ago, I posted an article entitled The Harvest of Unforgiveness. It was a bleak picture of what happens in a relationship when forgiveness is not applied.
If a lack of forgiveness is so damaging to a relationship, why don’t people just forgive? Why do spouses refuse to forgive each other, even though forgiveness can be profoundly beneficial to their marriage? The answer is not pretty. The unfortunate fact is that there appears to be “benefits” to not forgiving. As Paul David Tripp explains in What Did You Expect?, these “benefits” are dark and ugly, but for some provide just enough reason to keep them from forgiving their spouse.
Debt is Power: The first “benefit” to unforgiveness is that putting someone in debt means we have power over that person. As one Christian financial counselor has repeatedly noted, the debtor is a slave to the lender. In a similar way, when we choose not to forgive our spouse, we have something to hold over their head, some weakness or failure to use against them if we need it. And in those times when things in our marriage are not going our way, it appears to be useful to one of our spouse’s past wrongs or failures to use as a trump card to get our way.
Debt is Identity: People can get their identity and bolster their self-worth through unforgiveness. After all, if we have a spouse that has failed us, perhaps repeatedly, holding onto those failures makes us feel superior. By dwelling on the times our spouse has failed, we can convince ourselves that we are really the righteous one or the mature one in the marriage. The result is that we get our sense of self-worth from comparing ourselves to our spouse, rather than from what has God called us to be.
Debt is Entitlement: When our spouse wrongs us and we hold onto those wrongs, we can convince ourselves that they owe us. Entitlement makes us feel deserving and comfortable with being self-focused and demanding. We start to think – “if I have to put up with you, don’t I deserve…..” Personally I have seen this type of thinking played out in how money or time is handled in a marriage. When a spouse is wronged and refuses to forgive, entitlement seems to give them justification to spend money on themselves or frequent the trout stream or the golf course more often because, as the one who is “owed,” they “deserve” it.
Debt is a Weapon: When we choose not to forgive, the wrongs of our spouse are like a weapon we can carry around with us everywhere. As time goes on and the unresolved wrongs mount in a marriage, that loaded gun becomes easier and easier to put out and use against our spouse. After all, when we are hurt, it is easy to hurt them back with some past evidence of selfishness or immaturity.
Debt Puts us in God’s Position: Out of all of these “benefits”, this is the scariest one. When we choose not to forgive, we set ourselves out to be God, to be judge over the sin of our spouse. In fact, we set ourselves up as being more righteous than God, because when we do not forgive, we apply a standard of forgiveness to our spouse that is even higher than God’s own standard. As human beings, it is not our job to dispense consequences for our spouse’s sin or to make sure that they feel the appropriate amount of guilt. It is always tempting for us to ascend to God’s throne, the very place we should never be.
This is a nasty list. These so-called “benefits” of not forgiving are selfish, they are ugly, they are unloving, and they are all about pleasing ourselves and not God. They also make us blind to our own situation. We become so focused on our spouse and their failures that those things blind us to our own failures, our own struggles, and those times when we wronged our spouse. They blind us to the fact that we desperately need God’s grace continually applied to our lives and that we should offer the same kind of grace to our spouse.