How can I forgive betrayal?

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My wife had an affair. It was over quickly, and she let me know about it right away. I forgave her. But I can’t seem to let go of the hurt. How do I truly forgive her?

The Bible tells us that when two people marry, they become “one flesh.” We may speculate endlessly regarding all that the phrase entails, but we must at least understand the marriage bond to be a sacred union. In less lofty terms, we come to count on the fact that our spouses know how we look and act first thing in the morning — and they still love us. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health: this is the person I trust above all others to be there with me and for me.

That’s why it’s so devastating when that trust is broken.

Reading between the lines, I’m left to wonder what the person who asked the question above assumes about forgiveness: I said the words — “I forgive you” — and I meant them. But then the feelings of hurt and betrayal keep coming back. Does that mean that I never really forgave her?  How do I forgive in a way that sticks?

It’s important to distinguish the matter of forgiveness from the reality of trauma. Like it or not, we are highly emotional creatures. Those emotions are there for a reason: they help us learn and survive. Get burned by a hot stove just once, and you’ll probably be more careful next time. That makes sense.

But sometimes, the protective function of negative emotions can go a bit overboard. Get attacked by a ferocious dog and you may end up wanting to avoid even the non-ferocious ones. Even if we consciously believe that there’s no threat, our emotions may push us to play it safe, just in case. That’s how we’re wired, whether we’re talking about physical or emotional trauma. (I’ve written about this in more general terms here).

That reality doesn’t change just because we’ve said the words, “I forgive you.” It’s possible, of course, to say the words and not mean them or know what we’re saying, as when we just want to move on quickly without dwelling on the pain. “It’s okay,” we might say without much conviction, when inside we know it is definitely not okay. But even when we do mean the words, as wholeheartedly as we can at the time, the protective emotions don’t vanish in and of themselves.

Yes, through the Holy Spirit, God can work a miracle of forgiveness in our hearts. You may know the story of evangelist Corrie Ten Boom, who survived the Nazi prison camp where her beloved sister died. After the war, she had a robust ministry of preaching the gospel. At the end of one service, a man approached her to thank her for her message. He didn’t remember her, but she recognized him as one of the SS guards who had been so brutal to her and her sister. Corrie didn’t want to shake the hand he offered in friendship. But miraculously, the Spirit empowered her to do so, and she felt free.

Happy story, happy ending. I’ve heard it used more than once in sermons on forgiveness.

But there’s more.

Corrie writes that after that event, she expected that forgiveness would no longer be a problem for her. After all, for what greater offense could she ever have to forgive someone else? You and me, God. We’ve got this. But she was wrong. When she felt betrayed by a friend, she tried to forgive, to let go. She prayed. She endured sleepless nights, fretting over the hurt, riding a roller coaster of emotions. A friend eventually helped her understand: you can make the decision to forgive, but you may still have to suffer the ongoing emotional echoes, until they begin to subside over time.

When we feel traumatized, forgiveness is not a once-and-done event. Today, we may decide in faith to forgive the person who hurt us. And tomorrow, we may have to make the same decision all over again. Maybe even ten minutes from now. With time and prayer, the wound can heal, though perhaps not without a scar. Love and trust can be reestablished, and the relationship may even be stronger than it was before.

Just don’t expect it to happen right away. If it does, congratulations. But plan to be in it for the long haul.