A divorced friend once told me, “Some people say, ‘Marriage is only a piece of paper,’ but the same is true of divorce and even more so. Even after you are divorced, you are still tied to your ex, especially if you have kids. No matter what the piece of paper says, your ex will still find some way to hurt and aggravate you.”
Like Brett Butler we may long for vengeance and retribution, but vengeance is never satisfying; it only deepens our own wounds. To move past a failed marriage you must find a way to emotionally release your partner. Strange as it may seem, one of the best ways to move on is to forgive your ex.
Now before you say, “No way! I’ll never forgive my ex!”, let me tell you Carolyn’s story.
Carolyn was a member of the church I served in Cleveland, Ohio. She and her husband Gary were high school sweethearts who married and had three children. Because Gary was a skilled machinist, they lived in relative comfort. Unfortunately, Gary liked to gamble so when he got his paycheck on Fridays, he was often in debt to his bookies who demanded immediate payment.
When their oldest child reached his teens, Gary began to run around. One night at 2 a.m. Gary’s new girlfriend showed up drunk at Carolyn’s house. When Carolyn answered the front door, the girl friend began to slap and punch her while screaming, “Bitch, you’d better stop hassling my boyfriend!”
After they divorced, Carolyn’s problems did not get any easier. For one thing, the kids were always angry. Gary spent very little time with them and often broke his promises. Since they felt powerless to express the anger to their father, they took it out on their mother.
Life was miserable for Carolyn. She spent much of her time rehashing all the things that Gary had done and adding his most recent failing to her bitter litany of hurt and resentment.
Eventually, she realized that holding a grudge didn’t hurt Gary at all but that is was making her life intolerable. As she spent time complaining to God, an idea began to form in her head. “Perhaps I should forgive Gary and release these hurts into God’s hands . If God could forgive me, then perhaps I can forgive Gary.” And so she set out to discover how she could forgive and be set free.
The first thing she noticed about herself was how angry she was. She was so angry she couldn’t say, “I forgive him,” nor could she pray, “God help me to to forgive him.” Instead she prayed “God, help me to be willing to forgive him.” Taking baby steps, God gradually honored her prayers and softened her heart. She found there was a growing desire in her heart to forgive.
The second thing, Carolyn did was make a list of all the ways that Gary had hurt her. She realized that Gary had wounded her in so many different ways that she would be never able to forgive him in one fell swoop. She would have to forgive him one wound at a time. She had been stabbed so many times, so to speak, that each wound needed it’s own cleansing and its own set of stitches. Whenever she found herself obsessing over something Gary had done, she wrote it down in a notebook, and then asked God to help her release this pain into his hands. These were very hard prayers to pray, and some wounds required more prayer than others. As she prayed, it seemed to her that Jesus reached out to touch her with his own wounded hands. With the passing of time she began to heal and her list became shorter.
After several months she realized that she was in a better place, emotionally and spiritually. She was no longer angry all the time and there even some days filled with peace and glimpses of joy. On bad days, or when Gary did something to hurt her afresh, the anger and resentment came back. Now, however, she tried to put these feelings in God’s hands and asked him to give her the grace to forgive again.
Forgiving Gary did not mean that Carolyn allowed him to walk all over her. When you forgive someone, it does not mean you give them permission to hurt you again; nor does it mean that you must let them back into your life. It’s okay and even necessary to set boundaries.
And that’s what Carolyn did—she set healthy and assertive boundaries that protected her from Gary’s manipulations. Whenever Gary refused to pay child support, for example, Carolyn took him to court and had his wages garnished. However, her motive was not to get vengeance, but to hold him responsible for the support of his children.
As Carolyn grew closer to the Lord she was surprised to find herself praying for God to bless Gary. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount took on new meaning for her.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;Mathew 5:43-45
When Gary and his new wife were having marital problems, Carolyn prayed that God would help them work it out. She also prayed that the two of them would discover the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
God didn’t change Gary very much; most of the time he was still selfish and manipulative. However, through forgiveness, God changed Carolyn and gave her a new freedom to get on with her life.
Now I realize that I’ve had to greatly simplify this story and that it wasn’t as easy as I may have made it sound. However, this story it is at least suggestive of a different way of dealing with our undeserved wounds. Throughout the process of personal reflection, prayer and active forgiveness offered to Gary, God worked a transformation in Carolyn that matured and deepened her. She is now one of my heroes in the faith. She sets a good example of what it means to live a Christ-like life, an example that I want to emulate.
Perhaps the same can happen for you.
Rev. Michael A. Weber,
April 27, 2020
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Want to learn more?
Here are two books I highly recommend:
Richard P. Walters,.
Let Go and Be Free: How Forgiving Calms Anger and Heals Broken Hearts, Oxford Graduate School (August 15, 2002)
Lewis B. Smedes,
Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve
HarperOne; 2nd edition (September 25, 2007),