Marriage, when based on God’s Word, serves so many wonderful functions. It is is the foundation of the familial unit, which is the foundation of our society. It is also a reflection of Christ’s relationship with His bride, the church.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”
Since we are commanded to see marriage as a reflection of Christ and the church, marriage also offers the wonderful opportunity to lavish the love of Christ on another person and practice all that comes with this: easier said than done. The phrase “Marriage is hard,” though repeated countless times, is a huge understatement. Modern divorce rates are proof. Maybe even more telling is the number of millennials who say they plan on avoiding marriage all together. Of course, Scripture shows us that marriage isn’t for everyone, and like St. Paul, there are those for whom celibacy is the best option. But perhaps never in our history have humans fled the institution with such passion. No matter the reasons we give, I believe this is because we are afraid of this very truth: marriage is beyond difficult.
Indeed, in perhaps no other earthly relationship are we so intimately linked to another human and all their faults, failures, and sin. For any two people to enter into marriage, this must be the starting point: the acknowledgement that both husband and wife are sinners. We say this and think we understand, but I believe part of us holds onto those romantic notions from books and movies that if two people are “meant to be” they won’t hurt each other. If they do, it’s always portrayed as one big screw up followed by a glorious airport make up, and they live happily ever after, swearing to never make that mistake again. Unfortunately, in real life we aren’t one-time sinners. We sin habitually. We make the same mistake maybe hundreds of times. Additionally, “happily ever after” places all the emphasis on the happy and not on the not so happy moments it takes to be together “ever after.”
We acknowledge that we’re both sinners, that we WILL hurt each other and that it’s simply a question of when and how. Now what? Well if we’re to operate as Christ and the church we must also prioritize the hallmark of that relationship: forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of those things we could hear about every single day and nod our heads in agreement, but the execution is so darn difficult. Perhaps even more so in marriage because this is the person we’ve let in the most, the one we’ve told all our secrets to, the one we’ve trusted with our heart, body, and future. When you love someone so deeply, I believe it’s all the more difficult when they inevitably hurt you in ways big and small. And this is where it gets tricky. As a baptized Saint, you know you have to forgive your husband/wife but as a sinful human you don’t really want to face the reality of what they did or the pain that it caused.
See if this conversation sounds familiar:
“I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean it. I’m just really tired from work is all. . . Are we good?”
“Yeah, I mean. . .it’s okay, I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now.”
Conversations like these are extremely common after marital fights. But are they how Christians are to approach the issue? They forgave right? Or did they really? As I’ve been both the transgressor and the forgiver in my own marriage, I try to remind myself that whatever the sin, small or big, IT IS NOT OKAY. This is where a Christian’s idea of forgiveness and a non-believer’s differ a lot. Looking at God’s example, does He say our sins are “okay”? Does He accept our excuses with a shrug?
“Eh, it’s okay Israelites, I know you’re really tired from all that wandering in the desert. I can see why you’d be frustrated and want to let loose a little.”
You see, God perfectly balances justice and mercy, an impossible juggling act for us humans. God despises sin. He makes no excuse for it but deals justice for it. However, in His mercy, He placed that justice on His own Son. The price still had to be paid in all its gruesome agony, and no excuse could be made to change that. The Law doesn’t provide any wriggle room, we’re all guilty. Period. So when I look at my husband and “apologize,” my attempts to qualify and excuse my sin aren’t acceptable. Sure I had a long day but does that make it alright to say or do things that hurt him? Not at all. Of course it’s extremely difficult to face my own sin and selfishness in its fullness and ask for forgiveness. Every time I’ve had to do so, I’ve felt as naked as Adam and Eve after they ate that tainted fruit. Like them, I’ve often given into the urge to remove myself from some of the blame.
“[. . . ] ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’”
The woman you gave me. . . the people at my work. . . the traffic . . . my headache. The excuses are endless as we scramble for something to cover our nakedness. And as the forgiver, it’s tempting to accept them. We convince ourselves that forgiveness means simply excusing them hurting us and setting aside our pain right away. This is not actually what forgiveness is. It’s not as simple as “it’s okay” because it is not okay. Sin is not okay. Sure we can be empathetic to what our spouse is going through. And there is a time for discussing those factors to try and minimize their effect in the future. But we are not called to expedite the process by setting aside the reality of the pain they caused and moving on without actually acknowledging what happened. Part of forgiveness is addressing pain, confronting it head on. This is why Christ’s death had to be so violent. Because sin causes pain, and the sins of the world are excruciating.
In marriage, it’s helpful not to avoid the pain associated with forgiveness. Sometimes this means sitting down and digging in for a lengthy conversation. Others, it takes only a couple moments, but no matter what, the words we use are important. In my own marriage we’ve made three main rules.
1.) Don’t say it’s okay when it’s not.
2.) Say the words “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” and “I forgive you.” and mean it.
3.) Once forgiveness is pronounced, that’s that. It’s finished.
See, the phrase “it’s okay” is dismissive and usually said with a shrug. I can say it and not really forgive him. Or I can hear it and not really know that I’m forgiven. Is he still angry? Will he bring it up again later? But saying “I forgive you” forces us to look back at Christ and the forgiveness He offers us. These words can indeed be said without meaning too but we must remove the option of making them empty words. We must intentionally think about what forgiveness is and what it costs. Because once we say something is forgiven, like Christ, we shouldn’t make it an issue anymore. Perhaps, there’s more discussion to be had about what started it all and how to prevent it in the future. And perhaps it’s an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed. But as far as that particular incident goes, we will not harbor any anger or resentment. We aren’t allowed to bring it up later and throw it in the other’s face.
I use my own marriage as an example, and it may seem like I’m saying we do this easily. Don’t be mistaken. It is not easy. It’s actually insanely hard. There have been tears. There have been moments we’ve both had to bite our tongues so hard they almost bleed to prevent ourselves from saying something we’ll regret. Because we aren’t God. God is able to forgive perfectly. When He says we’re forgiven, He always means it. And when He says He sees our sins no more, He does not see them, at all, period. All He sees is His perfect Son clothing us with robes of His righteousness. Hebrews 10 describes how the forgiveness Christ offers is different from anything humans can do:
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
There’s no more offering to be made because God no longer sees the sins in question. Christ already made the offering for us. He removes our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” Psalm 103:12 and “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Romans 8:1.
This is strikingly different than the forgiveness we often find in our marriages and other earthly relationships. And this is where we should find our joy and peace when those relationships don’t offer us perfect forgiveness. God has forgiven us. That is all that matters. This truth empowers us to look at our spouses and ourselves with grace.
Often, either myself or my husband will catch ourselves about to to excuse the other’s sin.
“It’s okay. . .Wait. I mean, it’s NOT okay, BUT I forgive you.”
This is the Law and Gospel. We must first face our sinfulness and acknowledge that it’s without excuse. This knowledge makes the “but” all the more meaningful and full of grace. To be forgiven is sometimes beyond comprehension. How could you forgive me? I’m awful. . . I’m not worth forgiving. Technically that’s true. None of us are worth forgiving in and of ourselves. It’s hard enough when our spouses see the visible sins we commit but God sees our hearts and how utterly diseased by sin they are. He sees all the thoughts we haven’t acted upon and even deeper, the sinfulness we aren’t even conscious of. BUT God in His mercy forgives us for the sake of His Son.
Owning up to our mistakes and apologizing sincerely is difficult. Facing the pain someone you love caused you and mustering up the words “I forgive you” is beyond hard. These conversations are usually uncomfortable for everyone. It’s something we have to practice and work at continually, and we will still inevitably fail more than once. This is where we must remember that it is the Holy Spirit that moves us to do these things. We’re strengthened in the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. This is also where we can set our eyes on the forgiveness Christ won for us on the cross. The law preached to us, confession of our sins, and the visualization of Christ’s body and blood being shed for us all reminds us that our sins are not okay. . . BUT hearing the Gospel, being absolved of our sins and receiving that body and blood for the forgiveness of sins brings us a peace that passes all understanding. Let us try to extend that peace and grace into our marriages and remember each other’s sins no more.