Jesus was wronged more than anyone, enduring punishment to the point of death, for all the sins of the world! His words and ways reveal the secret of how to forgive. The first thing Jesus did, was sympathize with the offender.
When Offended by Your Spouse, SYMPATHIZE.
When you sympathize, you try to look beyond the offense to other factors that help explain why your spouse offended you. The better you understand your spouse, the more easily you can forgive. How does Jesus model this step? While He is suffering in horrible agony on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus prays for forgiveness of the Jews and the Roman soldiers who are taking part in crucifying Him. He forgives by looking beyond their heinous crime to see the ignorance, mindless fear, and blind hatred that have driven them to do this. On the cross, in terrible pain, Jesus sees the true condition of His enemies and feels compassion for them.
The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. For example, before he addresses the topic of marriage in Ephesians 5, Paul speaks about forgiveness in chapter 4, so husband and wife can extend it to one another: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Because we are Christ followers and forgiven by God, we can and should forgive one another. Because we need His forgiveness, we can and should understand someone else’s need for forgiveness from us. Because we are all in the same boat, we can and should sympathize with one another.
I am often asked, “What if my spouse has hurt me far more than I have hurt my spouse? How can I forgive when I have been treated so unfairly?” Suppose, for example, your husband hurts you with rage and angry harshness. But suppose you learn that, while he was growing up, your husband was wounded and, to a certain extent, shaped by his father’s anger and harshness. Consequently, your husband struggles with a volatile temper and doesn’t even realize how harsh he sounds most of the time. As you look beyond how he is treating you to his upbringing, it helps explain why he is so harsh and angry. This does not minimize your husband’s sin, nor does this “looking beyond” suggest you never confront his anger and harshness. But because you know his background, you see a bigger picture. You are more able to understand his heart and struggle.
My own mother was an incredible example of one who could look beyond the offense and see other factors. When I was around ten years old, I told my mother how hurt and angry I was because of my father’s neglect and cursing at me. She explained, “Well, your dad did not have a dad. His dad died when he was three months old. He doesn’t know how to be a daddy.”
At first I didn’t understand, but later I realized my mother was sympathizing with my father even though she hurt far worse for me. Mom was wise, and her attitude enabled her – and me – not to become bitter. Eventually I was able to see my father not as my enemy, but as the victim of an enemy – the death of his own father and the suffering he went through growing up without a dad to love and guide him. I was also able to accept certain things about my father that otherwise would have embarrassed and infuriated me. Because I was able to understand my father, I was able to forgive him.
Looking beyond my father’s offenses prevented me from reducing him to a one-sentence description such as “He was a miserable excuse for a father.” Years later, when I was in college, my father placed his faith in Jesus Christ. How sad it would have been for me if I had passed judgment on my father in a way the Lord Himself did not. Because the Lord called my dad to Himself, He clearly had not given up on my dad. Because my dad responded, his own heart was obviously tender and open to the Lord. So, what if I had refused to see the painful backdrop of my dad’s life? What if I had judged my father as despicable and hopeless, refusing to ever talk to him again? My lack of sympathy and forgiveness would have deprived me of many years of an enjoyable friendship with my dad before he died.
What about seeing your own spouse in light of certain factors that might help explain his or her behavior? Repeating his advice in Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes in Colossians 3:13 to “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (NIV). In the final analysis, your spouse is like you and you are like your spouse when it comes to forgiveness. You both have done and said things that need forgiving. So, why not start by sympathizing with each other?
As I have counseled people, I notice something about those who can forgive. They understand the well-known saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Excerpts taken from The Language of Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.