In an effort to protect myself from hurt, I was walling myself in.
Endless salty tears rolled down my cheeks as I replayed the evening’s events over and over in my mind as if on a loop. After providing just enough detail for me to feel as though I’d been hit by a freight train, my husband apologized for his behavior and asked for my forgiveness. And I couldn’t — wouldn’t — forgive him. No one in their right mind would expect me to forgive what my husband has done, I reasoned. No one.
Time marched on, with babies to tend and bills to pay. My husband and I grew increasingly distant. Although he was sorry for how he’d hurt me, I continued to blame him for our many other difficulties. Surely I was justified in my feelings of anger, grief, and resentment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in an effort to protect myself from being hurt, I was actually constructing a Fort Knox-like prison for myself with unforgiveness as the cornerstone.
One morning, as I was getting ready for work, I glanced up at the mirror. What I saw both alarmed and unnerved me. Gazing at my reflection, I saw an embittered, haggard-looking woman whose face I barely recognized. The light in my eyes had faded, and my skin was ashen and pale. Deep creases from frowning and crying claimed territory where laugh lines should have been. I didn’t like what I saw, but even more, I didn’t like how I felt — weary, miserable, and alone. In that brief moment, I finally realized that the walls I’d built around my heart weren’t doing anything but preventing me from experiencing the deep healing and love I so desperately needed.
I couldn’t move on; it was as if I was trapped in a never-ending nightmare of pain and suffering. After a lot more talking and arguing and crying, my husband and I agreed to seek help from a licensed counselor. It was in this space that I began to develop a more mature and comprehensive understanding of what forgiveness is and is not. First of all, forgiveness was not a one-time event whereby I would tell my husband I forgave him and — poof! — all the hurt and damage to our relationship would be magically erased. Rather, forgiveness is a process, the first step of which was to recognize that I had been hurt. That step was easy enough — I had been hurt deeply enough to span three lifetimes. But then what? Change, but how?
Over the next several months, it became clear that extending forgiveness didn’t mean that everything with my marriage was okay, nor did it mean that what my husband did was acceptable. Forgiveness didn’t mean that I was my spouse’s doormat. Offering forgiveness wasn’t a prize, or a gift, or a free pass for his poor behavior; rather, forgiving my husband was a gift I could choose to give to myself.
I’ll never forget the moment when I finally decided to accept my husband’s apology — and it was definitely a decision — not an easy one, and an intentional act of my stubborn free will. I didn’t have warm feelings of happiness flowing through my veins in the moments leading up to forgiving him that first time. Afterward, however, I felt like someone had opened up a window and allowed fresh air to waft through my life. After months and months cooped up in a lonely, dark prison cell, I felt like I could live and move and breathe again. In choosing to forgive, I was choosing to heal and be free at last from the chains that had held me captive.
I’d always puzzled over the Scripture passage when one of Jesus’ disciples asks, “How many times are we to forgive, Lord? Seven times?” to which Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” It wasn’t until I was in the throes of a messy, beautiful, imperfect life and decided to intentionally forgive my husband that I finally began to understand those words.
In marriage, more than any other relationship I’ve had, there are seemingly constant opportunities to seek and extend forgiveness. Specifically, the memory of my husband’s original offense rears its ugly head from time to time, and waves of sadness threaten to throw off my sense of peace and well-being yet again. In those moments, I have a choice: either I can lock myself back in the prison of unforgiveness where I was held captive for so long, or I can breathe out resentment, sorrow, and anger and breathe in some of the fresh air I experienced the very first time I chose to say, “I forgive you.” And once again, despite my feelings, I choose to forgive and be free. Seventy times seven. I hold the key.
Jesus’ most powerful words on forgiveness