Adultery, forgiveness and divorce

Many years ago, two of my friends stood at the altar and were married before God, friends and family. Like any newlyweds, they were madly in love and saw nothing but children, happiness and loyalty as far as their loving eyes could see.

It turns out their eyes couldn’t see as far as they thought. During a recent discussion with my wife, the woman confided that her husband had an affair.

Our friend had long ago acknowledged struggles in the marriage. They were often apart for days at a time on business. When they were home together, the husband’s temper was sometimes short, his language coarse and his mood swings unpredictable. But his wife never suspected infidelity.

The couple share the most lovely children, and they’ve raised them as well as parents can. They attend church regularly and the children are taught to love and follow the Lord. Both parents provide well for them and have been actively engaged in their upbringing.

When the wife approached her husband with suspicions, he took the always dangerous trickledown-lie approach. First, he admitted to online pornography, later to frequenting clubs-for-men, though he promised he’d never crossed any lines of physical intimacy. For several weeks she endured more drip-drip confessions until the final gush of truth.

He’d been with women in more than one city far from home. The lies and the financial tab were significant.

Completely humiliated, his wife had to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. That, she tells us, is one of the most emotionally painful avenues of her long trip to spiritual recovery.

The couple is now in counseling as they determine exactly what their eyes see next on the horizon. She says he has begged for forgiveness from her and God. She believes she can grant hers, but only heaven knows where he stands eternally.

During another recent phone call, she posed the question that haunts her day and night. Does truly forgiving him, the way Jesus Christ taught during his earlthy ministry, mean that she must stay in the marriage? Or can you truly forgive a spouse for adultery but still seek a divorce and a new life?

I’ve pondered this often. What does true forgiveness mean?

If I rob a bank, it might be easy to return the money, serve my time and be forgiven by those we wronged.

If one of my younger children tells a lie, it isn’t difficult for them to make it right and earn our complete and unconditional forgiveness.

If I’m inconsiderate to my wife and hurt her feelings, an apology — sometimes combined with flowers and/or chocolate, depending on the severity — will usually do the trick.

Adultery, quite obviously, is in a class by itself. I know other couples who’ve recovered and found happiness and forgiveness again. I’ve also known husbands and wives whose marriages have ended almost before the confessions had time to settle in the air around them.

If you’ve been a husband in a similarly unfortunate circumstance, can you relate? Have you confessed? Have you fallen to your knees?

If you’ve experienced the pain of the wife, how did you find your answers? Did you separate? Divorce? Should she forgive and forget or simply forgive and move on?

Despite ponderous days looking for solutions, there remain more questions than answers. So far, she’s discovered that even though her husband may have forgotten why he loved her in the first place, God hasn’t. He loves her and is more aware of her struggles and pain than any of us.

She’s also learned that no two struggling marriages are alike, despite how they appear on the surface. The circumstances may be similar, but the souls beneath the facts, the very sons and daughters of God, are utterly unique.

Perhaps after all the discussions and prayerful considerations, the lesson is this: in our darkest moments, when the slightest sliver of light would be a blessing, when we cannot see where to step next, our Father above waits with heavenly answers that can’t be found on earth.

And perhaps the only meaningful definition of “true forgiveness” isn’t ours to give.

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