We’ve all experienced betrayal in some form or other. Maybe an older sibling said, “Mom and Dad got you a new bike, I swear!” and we rushed home to find out it was just not true. We’ve been pranked, tricked, and betrayed. Or more deeply, maybe our best friend told the whole school our deepest secret. Betrayed. A spouse fell out of love and wants to leave the marriage for someone else. Betrayed. The pain of these betrayals, both small and great, can linger for years, even a lifetime. Betrayal breaks trust, produces emotional and spiritual injury, and can be very hard to forgive. Yet, that’s what God calls us to do. It’s through forgiveness that God heals our deepest wounds, and frees us from the pain of our anger, hate, self-pity, and self-contempt. When we’ve been betrayed, what does it look like to forgive?
The most painful betrayal of my life occurred when my wife of seven years decided to leave me and our two very small children. Angry about her abandonment of the children, I did little to process the pain caused by the breaking of her vows to spend her life with me. To this day, I can get very upset when I think about how it affected my kids. In those dark days, I could not even acknowledge the terrible damage done to me personally, let alone imagine forgiving her for it.
But God used the fallout of this betrayal to kick the legs out from under my pride. For years, I had been almost completely ignoring God. Like the prodigal son, I eventually realized I had to return to my Father. As I recommitted my life to Jesus, he showed me that it was pride that kept me from admitting my pain. After all, I was the stalwart single father standing in the gap for my children. To begin to heal and begin to forgive, I had to admit that I had been hurt.
I have a confession: I was the older sibling who told his little brother that Mom and Dad had gotten him a new bike. My prank really hurt my brother, who was about six at the time. He cried (and so did I when my mother disciplined me). We joke about it now. He brings it up almost every time we see each other. But it wouldn’t be funny if I never admitted to that betrayal.
As I worked through the wreckage of my divorce, God confronted me with my own acts of betrayal in the marriage. Throughout the relationship I had been using pornography, saying in a not so subtle way, “You’re not enough for me.” By all external indicators I was a loving and thoughtful husband, but in the last year or so I was asleep at the wheel. Absorbed with parenting and work, I wasn’t really listening and couldn’t be bothered. Until it was too late. None of this excuses her betrayal or means that I somehow had it coming. She was responsible for her sin. I was responsible for mine. I had to give up my claim to victimhood and retribution. I had to accept my own responsibility for the divorce and my need for forgiveness.
Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-47, Matthew 26:28). Forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith. In turn, God commands that we forgive those who sin against us: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive'' (Colossians 3:13c ESV). But in our day-to-day lives, what does it mean to forgive?
By showing me that I needed to be forgiven, God made a way for me to forgive. Throughout the processes of separation and divorce, all my attempts at reconciliation had failed. Months after the divorce had been final, the Lord put it on my heart to reach out one more time. I wrestled with God about this through a long, sleepless night. I did not want to do it. Yet the next day, I called her up and asked her to forgive me for my betrayals, the porn (by now completely expunged from my life) and the apathy. I offered her a fresh start—not without condition, but with genuine willingness to rebuild what had been broken. She did not accept the offer.
Why did God have me lay it all on the line again? I wouldn’t understand for a long time after, but he was laying a foundation for forgiveness, for my sake as much as hers. In making that call, I acknowledged that terrible damage had been done to me, as well as my children. I admitted my own responsibility for the divorce and my need for forgiveness. Through that incredibly uncomfortable encounter, God showed me my ex-wife’s brokenness in light of my own; that she too was made in his image and in need of grace.
I did not forgive all in a day. Years later, I have to forgive my ex-wife all over again each time my family experiences some lingering consequence of her betrayal. Every person’s story is different; how God leads you through healing from betrayal and forgiving your betrayer will be entirely different. As children of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven so much. How then can we bear good fruit in Christ if we are unwilling to forgive those who betray us? Thank God for his grace through Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster