When Forgiveness Seems Impossible
I stared at the e-mail in disbelief. Tears surfaced as I read, "I am so very sorry for all the hurts that we have caused you… To this day I have no idea how we could have made such a mess of things. I ask your forgiveness, even though I would never expect to get it…"
I didn't think I would ever be able to forgive Debbie for the part she played in destroying my marriage. The memories of those hell-on-earth months remained open wounds for many years. For some reason, it was far more difficult for me to forgive Debbie than my ex-husband, Peter.
How could I forget that ominous phone call on my 41st birthday?
"I don't know how to tell you this, Barb, but something is going on between Peter and Debbie. I'm not sure it's sexual, but I have good reason to believe they're having an emotional affair."
My heart raced. Nancy, a friend and former member of my church, wouldn't be calling me long distance with this sort of news unless she had evidence.
I already knew my 19-year-old marriage was in trouble. The past year had been like a bad dream. Although my pastor-husband proclaimed from his pulpit that I was his best friend, we weren't communicating at home. His aloofness and anger baffled me.
I reasoned that at age 42, he could be having a midlife crisis or pastoral burnout. He only seemed happy when we were with our friends Debbie and Troy. Peter insisted they join us in almost everything. We skied, fished, roasted hot dogs, and ate every Sunday lunch together.
If Troy had to work, Debbie was still invited to tag along. Although she was my friend, her constant presence became a sore spot between Peter and me. He accused me of jealousy and overreacting.
One morning I received an inner warning that Peter was on his way home with bad news. We lived a distance from the church, and he seldom came home for lunch.
A few moments later Peter solemnly walked through the front door. "I need to talk with you, Barb," he almost whispered. I could feel my chest tighten, so I took a deep breath. What could be so horrible that he couldn't tell me on the phone?
"You know we've had problems in our marriage for a long time," he began."Well, I think we should get a divorce." I couldn't digest his words. Our marriage wasn't perfect, but divorce? What about the kids? What about his ministry? What about us?
"Is there another woman?" I looked straight into the dark eyes that had made me fall in love with him. I couldn't bring myself to say, "Is it Debbie?"
"No, there isn't," he assured me.
I never felt so alone in all my life. Whom does a pastor's wife confide in when her husband asks her for a divorce?
I decided to tell only my sister. We cried together over the phone, and made plans for me to stay with her for awhile. Nancy's call confirmed my deepest fears. I'd been suspicious of Peter and Debbie's "friendship" for some time. To make matters worse, the church women's executive team was treating me to lunch – and the "other woman" would be celebrating my birthday with me!
The Royal Regency could have been a hot dog stand for all I cared that afternoon. I can't even recall eating or opening my gifts. But I do vividly remember the look of dismay on Debbie's face when I confronted her after the luncheon.
She flatly denied the accusations. I apologized and retreated back into my confused state of mind.
Peter and I planned to meet at a ministers' conference at the end of our separation, but that never happened. He phoned to inform me that Debbie had asked Troy for a divorce. He also told me he had resigned from the church. I knew at that point that our marriage was over.
The next few weeks were painful beyond words. Everyone was hurting. Our three teenagers. The church members. Our parents, friends, and relatives. It was incomprehensible the damage one decision could make.
Since I knew my kids desperately needed their friends, I decided we would remain in the same town, house, and even church. It was the best decision I could have made. The love and warmth I felt from my church family was the beginning of my healing.
For the next few years I tried to put my life back together. I got a job working in a medical clinic. My kids finished high school and moved on to jobs or college. I eventually married a wonderful man and moved to a bigger city. I followed my dream to become a writer and speaker.
But one issue remained unresolved through all the changes. I had never forgiven Debbie. Peter, yes. How could I not forgive him when I was also at fault for our failed marriage? But Debbie was a different matter. Unlike Peter, she had no reason to hurt me. Not only had she taken my husband, but she had robbed me of my self-worth for a long time. Those wounds still festered.
As the years passed, I convinced myself that everything was okay. Since I never had contact with Debbie, I seldom thought about her although as my children's stepmother, she remained in my life from a distance. That was until I encountered the "Forgiveness Prayer."
My husband and I were helping with an evangelism program in our church. The leader asked everyone to bow their heads while he read this prayer asking forgiveness from just about every person they knew. I was praying along fine until he came to the part that read, "I forgive the one person who has hurt me the most…" My mind instantly went to Debbie. I could see her standing there. Young. Long hair. Classy clothes. Smart. And the old wound began to hurt.
Tears streamed down my face. "I can't forgive her, God," I prayed silently. "You know I can't do this."
Somewhere during those few moments of honesty, God let me know that I would never be able to forgive Debbie without the power of His Spirit. It was simply impossible. And the only way I would have peace was to give it all to Him. All.
"Okay, Lord," I finally prayed. "I'm giving this to you, but you are going to have to give me the ability to forgive her." I knew a weight had been lifted. I felt a peace. But was it for real? How would I ever know if I never encountered her?
The opportunity came when my oldest son married. For the first time since the divorce, Debbie would be attending a family function. Although I felt I had forgiven her, I knew I really wouldn't know until we met face to face. And we did. Right between the ceremony and the reception. I turned around from talking to someone, and there she was. What happened next was truly a miracle.
Without thinking, I hugged "the other woman" and told her it was good to see her after such a long time. And I meant it. You see, when I looked at my old friend, it was like nothing had ever happened. What I didn't know was that she had sent me an e-mail before the wedding asking for my forgiveness!
I now know what the forgiveness of Jesus Christ looks like. Not only does He forgive us for all our sins, but He erases them as if they never happened. He loves us just as we are. The lesson was hard, but I've learned it.