Three Steps to Forgiveness

Q: How does one forgive a spouse, especially when you have been hurt and don’t feel at all like forgiving?

Dr. E says: Through the years I have heard many people ask that question and I have read and listened to many excellent thinkers attempt to answer it. For me, the best insights continue to reinforce what I have learned from the Person and teachings of Jesus.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus was wronged more than anyone. All the sins of the world were placed unjustly on Him!

So let’s begin by asking this question: What did He, the Perfect One, demonstrate about how to forgive?

Three Steps to Forgiveness

Three Steps Reveal the Secret

Jesus’ words and ways reveal the secret to forgiveness, which includes three steps:

  • Jesus sympathized with the offender.
  • He relinquished the offense to His heavenly Father.
  • He anticipated the Father’s help.

These three steps may sound unfamiliar, even impossible. But stay with me. They offer a pathway out of bitterness and a way to avoid becoming bitter in the first place.

You’re thinking, “Sounds great if you’re Jesus. You just said He was the Perfect One. That puts Him out of my league. I can’t do what Jesus did. Besides, you don’t know what my spouse did to me!”

Oh, I know there are plenty of reasons not to forgive. I’ve heard every excuse and have even invented some of them myself!

The Example for Husbands and Wives

Peter clearly indicates that Jesus is the example for husbands and wives. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle continues to explain the meaning of grace in a believer’s life, a discussion he began in chapter one. He spells out how Christians are to be holy, God-fearing, loving, honoring, mature, and submissive to authorities even when subjected to unfair treatment.

And why should Christians do all this? “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

After taking several more verses to describe how Jesus responded when He was mistreated, Peter goes on to say, “In the same way, you wives…You husbands likewise…” (1 Peter 3:1, 7). In the same way as what? Like what? You are to respond to your spouse and to any mistreatment or misunderstandings in your marriage in the same way that Jesus responded to the mistreatment He received.

Peter is saying Jesus is not out of our league at all. By becoming a man and dwelling among us, He put on our uniform, so to speak. He is not a model “who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” Instead He “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Step One: Sympathize

When counseling people, I have noticed something about those who can forgive. They understand the well-known saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Look Beyond the Offense

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.

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 anger and 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 rage. 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. Again, this does not mean you excuse his sin! Please read what I have written on respectful confrontation to fully understand what I teach about this.

Forgive as the Lord Has Forgiven You

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).

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? There but for the grace of God go I.

Step Two: Relinquish – Let Go

But even though you have sympathized with your spouse, resentment can fester inside of you. So you must let go of your unforgiving spirit by giving it to God.

Let Go of Bitterness

For many people this sounds good in theory, but not at all within the realm of reality. Their bitterness feels like a tumor that cannot be removed. And for some people, the bitterness has even become a good friend, and they simply don’t wish to say good-bye.

Still other people have become the resentment: it is who they are. In these cases and others, the act of relinquishing the hurt and hate to God seems an insurmountable hurdle on the path of forgiveness.

Furthermore, when we refuse to forgive, and live with bitterness in our hearts, we lose fellowship with God!

But what did Jesus do when He faced the insurmountable?

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus looked ahead to His crucifixion – to the shameful treatment, the agonizing pain, and, worst of all, humanity’s sins being placed squarely on Him. Facing the unimaginable, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV).

Clearly, Jesus let go of His own will, which shrank from what lay ahead, and surrendered to His Father’s will.

Not My Will Be Done

Just as He relinquished the right to retaliate and trusted His Father for the outcome, so should we. When you relinquish an offense, you need to send that offense somewhere. So follow Jesus’ example and release it to your heavenly Father. You must pray, “Not my will be done.”

Over the years I have seen that people have far more control over their emotions than I was willing to admit. God does help you forgive when you feel helpless to forgive, but other times He reveals to you the need to put away bitterness.

You may not want to admit it, but the reason you have to work toward forgiving your spouse is because you have bitterness in your heart. Remember Paul’s words from Ephesians 4:31? He tells all believers to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

We Have a Choice

We can get rid of bitterness – if we want to.  I have seen that the ultimate reason a lot of people are bitter is that they want to be bitter. However, when they finally realize bitterness is contrary to God’s will, that it is self-destructive and ineffective in changing the other person, they can choose to stop.

We all have a choice: keep manufacturing your bitterness, or choose to relinquish it to your Heavenly Father.

Are you ready to give up the bitterness in your heart?

Step Three: Anticipate

When Jesus prayed, “Thy will be done,” He believed the will of His Father would be accomplished. This is why “He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV). In other words, after you relinquish, anticipate! You need to foresee God entering your world. As you entrust yourself to God, anticipate His working on your behalf.

Yes, perhaps your spouse should make the first move and ask for your forgiveness. But what if your spouse is not as mature as you are or is more rebellious than you are? Will you remain an unforgiving soul?

Is it worth forfeiting the peace and power of God in your heart?

If you have been angry and unforgiving but have slowly moved through
the steps of sympathizing and relinquishing, I pray that you will move forward, anticipating God’s touch on your marriage.

Let me emphasize that these three steps offer guidance on a path toward forgiveness. Anytime something is described in terms of three steps, it can sound like a formula to be followed to the letter. But the point is, all three of these steps put you in a more open frame of mind to allow the Holy Spirit to work within you.

Will you allow God’s healing power to free you from the bondage of unforgiveness? Step out in faith and ANTICIPATE what God can do!


Excerpts taken from The Language of Love & Respect, chapter 7, Forgiveness: The Ultimate Strategy for Halting the Crazy Cycle by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.

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28 thoughts on “Three Steps to Forgiveness

  1. Ok, what if you’ve worked things out and forgave and started over but your husband goes back by doing the exact same thing. The thing you both agreed on for him to stop? How many times should we go through the same thing, the very thing that hurt me and he knows and also promised not to do it again?

    • I am dealing with the same type of issue. It is hard to forget that promise that was made. I am constantly in prayer because I am so bitter that he promised and once again failed. When will my life not be a lie? I am needing the same kind of answers and Cynthia I am praying for you and your husband.

    • Matthew 18:21-22 NASB

      Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

      Have you ever tried to do something 490 times? Jesus taught that we should forgive so often that we lose count.

      Unreasonable? Absolutely! But that’s the point. Only if we follow Jesus’ example as outlined above, can we begin to hope to have that kind of attitude and forbearance. Mind you, I’m no paragon of the virtue of forgiveness, but I’m learning how to be better. And I’m anticipating that following this pattern will take me a long way.

      • Jesus also said “go and sin no more”! Sinful behavior has to be dealt with. The offending partner must be held accountable for their continued way, and seek help.

  2. I have always wanted to attend a live event with my now deceased husband who is no longer by my side or our young children’s lives. It has been nearly a month since he was shot. This article speaks volumes as I was meditating on forgiveness two days ago. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Cynthia, as hard as it is, forgive him again. I think it’s important to realise that our husband’s are imperfect people and from time to time will stuff up and hurt us. Trust that while you’re doing your part in being obedient to God, that He is working within your husband and within your marriage.

  4. My fiancé said he couldn’t forgive me for being hurtful and disrespectful. He left me and broke off our engagement. I don’t think he truly wants that but he is unwilling to go forward with love and trust. What do I do now? He won’t read love and respect. I have been.

  5. My wife has hurt me so many times that i lost count and whenever I am asked i do not remember. I know she has hurt me different times that she herself does not even see or remember, but she remembers mine very well and even withdraws from me… Often times i wonder how i forget her wrongs when am asked, sometimes it crosses my mind but when it does, i realise that i have built inside me my marital goal… I know i do wrongs too and whenever she raises them i remember and all i can say is AM SORRY and try all i can to deal with it even though one is not perfect. I forgive her for same reasons she finds so hard to forgive me but I have realised that i tend to make excuses for her faults…Forgiveness can be tough but remembering the GOLD you want to earn at the end of life is what can help you move pass it… You can forgive your spouse if you see your marriage as a race that is heading to win a GOLD Medal at the end.

    • My wife lied to me about things she knew that would kill me and she never told me but I could tell something was up she was acting strange and I asked her if something was wrong and she said no as a week goes by I used her phone and I looked at her messages and I seen she had been deleting messages from people and I didn’t get mad or raise my voice I asked her if she was deleting messages and she said no why and I showed her where she did and she gets mad at me and after we fight I asked her is there anything else that you want to tell me long story short there was more and I forgave her but she lied and broke our trust we built and she said she was going to tell me I don’t think she was but I only get mad at her when she gets mad and smart when I tell her I don’t trust her 100% and I tell her it’s not all on you I’m here to help you help me I don’t know what else to do I’m saying one thing and acting another and it’s hurting me to know I’m hurting my wife with words I said I wouldn’t say and she won’t try anything I have suggested to her I even send her post off of here but it’s like she don’t want to fix what we broke I’m a good husband and I’m not perfect but I never lied or hide anything from my wife it’s not a race or who’s the best I’m a man of God and I do sin everyone sins but I can’t lie I just can’t I need some help from yall me and my wife are so close to divorce and I don’t want it nor does she please pray with me and any advice would be appreciated thanks and God bless

  6. Thank you for the great, helpful advice and teachings of God! My problem isn’t so much in forgiving is that I have the need to understand a thing, and if I don’t I can’t get full resolution. My husband doesn’t always explain much, communicate much, or practice patience in allowing me the time I need to get something very hurtful resolved. So I quit talking about it but it just never really goes away.

  7. I attend Celebrate Recovery at my new church…I am taking baby steps in my co-dependency class. I have healthy relationships with many people in my life whom I laugh with, cry, share, enjoy, love…I want the same between myself and family members whom I’ve been so deeply hurt by. I look forward and wait with anticipation for what God has in store for me in the year 2015!

  8. I’ve already forgiven my husband after he cheated on me… but the problem now is that i want to forget what he did for me to keep my life goin’… it seemed i can’t go on because i’m stucked with the pain he made… he admitted his mistake and asked forgiveness… all i want now is to get rid of this pain inside… what should i do?

    • Mine keeps doing it over and over. I keep forgiving…after 20 years of marriage. How do you keep forgiving an adulterous husband?

  9. Mark is so right! This is exactly the verse I read and committed to while currently dealing with issues in my marraige. @Susan and Cynthia
    As a child I was raised in the church, but as an adult did not continue to nurture my faith so I have lots to learn. However, in dealing with the current issues in my 10+ year marraige, I am learning that relinquishing things to God is not just one time then sit back and see what happens but there’s more to it. Its having faith and trusting whatever God’s outcome is or will be no matter when he does it and in the meantime we are to just stay engaged in his word and concentrate our attention on God’s promises (not our spouses promises but God’s) rather than concentrating on the circumstances.

    Once you learn to do this you will find yourself learning to trust your spouse again and forgiving him or her through you focusing on trusting God and his promises. Believe me when I say its been an amazing journey thus far. Its been a huge learning curve for the both of us and we are still learning new things everyday.

    Because when you really think about it you couldn’t have “truly” relinquished it to God and trusted God if you keep checking to see if it worked and keep tracking how many times you try to forgive?? You truly have to Let Go- Relinquish in order to forgive.

  10. Another thing I tend to keep in mind is a great piece from my devotional journal Encouraging Words for Women by Sala which I am paraphrasing: “Christians base life and things in life on truth; not feelings…choosing to trust ”truth” rather than your feelings may require ALOT of faith. Trusting what God says rather than your feelings is certainly a more realistic approach to life.” It helps me at times when I try to STAY wrapped up in my feelings and not on what I know to be true about God and his promises.

  11. we all know that Jesus is the perfect Savior and we are not. Praying and more prayers…we are still humans that pray for all of our sins….failing daily. ……………….. God is the only one that knows our heart and who can change us. Nothing we do will be more powerful than what God is doing in us.

  12. My husband is having a hard time forgiving himself for his a sin, even though I have forgiven him he can’t forgive himself, so we are having a hard time moving forward to save our marriage.

  13. My wife is done with me after years of vad treatment by me because of unforgiveness, anger, resenment by me. She wants to get seperated and then probable divorced. She does not want to do anymore counseling. I pray to god evrryday to save my family, I ask him for forgiveness for the treatment of my wife, I woke up to God to late to save our marriage. Should we seperate? I can’t do anymore its all in gods hands or can I? I have asked my wife for forgiveness and she says there isnt anything to forgive but if we have a fight she brings up stuff from years ago, I know shes angry and hurt what can I do?

  14. I have the same question as Cynthia, too! And also, I agree with Robin and I feel the same way about my continuing issues that I’ve dealt with for years now with my husband that has taken my grace, forgiveness, love and helpfulness for granted so much for so long until it’s killing me trying to save him and our marriage!

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading this and sincerely appreciate the message. I’m grateful to God for what He’s doing in my heart, soul, spirit and life and preparing me to forgive my partner and be a good example of the love of God. I thank God that I was able to see the hurt and brokenness in my partner when he unleashed unbelievable anger unto me and have been praying for him and our relationship from that terrible day. I’ve started extending an olive leaf towards him expressing my undying love through it all and I’m trusting God to heal and restore his mind, heart, soul and spirit as well as mine and our relationship. For the Glory of God! Amen and Amen!!!!

  16. i have really enjoyed reading this, tnks , i want to say that: forgive is to thinking about GOD forgive it’s the one and the first great feeling in this life 😉 <3

  17. I’m stuck on sympathizing with my husband’s infidelity. There is no sign of it before our marriage, he didn’t cheat on any former girlfriend. His parents are still married and there is no infideltiy there. If anyone has a family history of it its me, I personally have no issues, but my mother was unfaithful the entire time she was married to my father. I’ve also found that just when you think you might have gotten to forgiveness you tend to backslide a bit. It’s not a quick and done process.