The Bible’s Viewpoint
Adultery—To Forgive or Not to Forgive?
“FORGIVE whatever you have against anyone; in order that your Father who is in the heavens may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25) Those words of Jesus raise some challenging questions in the case of a marriage shaken by adultery: Must the innocent Christian forgive her mate and keep the marriage intact?* If she decides to divorce, is she jeopardizing her own standing with God? Let us see how the Bible helps to answer these questions.
Must You Always Forgive?
Do Jesus’ words, “forgive whatever you have against anyone,” mean that in all cases—including when a mate commits adultery—a Christian is obligated to forgive? Jesus’ statement must be understood in the light of other comments he made about forgiveness.
For example, we learn an important principle about forgiveness from Jesus’ words recorded at Luke 17:3, 4: “If your brother commits a sin give him a rebuke, and if he repents forgive him. Even if he sins seven times a day against you and he comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Certainly in cases of serious sin, the offended one is encouraged to try to forgive if there is sincere repentance. Jehovah himself views matters this way; to receive divine forgiveness, we must be sincerely repentant.—Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38; 8:22.
This also shows, however, that if an adulterous mate is unrepentant, refusing to accept responsibility for his sin, it is understandable that the innocent spouse may choose not to forgive.—Compare 1 John 1:8, 9.
Forgiveness—What About the Consequences?
What, though, if the adulterer is repentant? When there is repentance, there is a basis for forgiveness. But does forgiveness mean that the wrongdoer is exempted from all consequences of his wrong course? Consider some examples of Jehovah’s forgiveness.
When the Israelites rebelled after listening to the ten spies who gave a bad report about the land of Canaan, Moses pleaded with Jehovah: “Forgive, please, the error of this people.” Jehovah responded: “I do forgive according to your word.” Did this mean that the offenders were exempted from any consequences of their actions? Jehovah continued: “But all the men who . . . have not listened to my voice, will never see the land about which I swore to their fathers.” (Numbers 14:19-23) Jehovah proved true to his word; that older generation—with the exception of Joshua and Caleb—did not see the Promised Land.—Numbers 26:64, 65.
Similarly, when the prophet Nathan rebuked King David for his sin with Bath-sheba, a repentant David acknowledged: “I have sinned against Jehovah.” Nathan then told David: “Jehovah, in turn, does let your sin pass by.” (2 Samuel 12:13) Yet, although Jehovah forgave David, for the rest of his life David suffered from consequences of his sin.—2 Samuel 12:9-14; see also 2 Samuel, chapter 24.
These examples of divine forgiveness highlight an important lesson: We cannot sin with impunity. (Galatians 6:7, 8) A repentant sinner, though he may receive forgiveness, is not necessarily spared the consequences of his wrong course. Does this mean that the innocent mate may forgive the adulterer—at least in the sense of letting go of bitter resentment—and yet still decide to divorce him?
Forgiveness and Divorce
During his ministry, on three occasions Jesus spoke about divorce. (Matthew 5:32; 19:3-9; Luke 16:18) Interestingly, not once in any of these discussions did Jesus mention forgiveness. For example, as found at Matthew 19:9, he said: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” By saying “except on the ground of fornication,” Jesus acknowledged that sexual immorality would give the innocent mate the right, or Scriptural “ground,” to divorce. Yet, Jesus did not say that the innocent one should divorce. Nevertheless, he clearly implied that she can do so.
Marriage is a tie that binds two people together. (Romans 7:2) But when one of them is unfaithful, the bond can be severed. In such cases the innocent spouse is really faced with two decisions. First, should she forgive? As we have seen, a significant factor here is whether the adulterer is sincerely repentant or not. When there is repentance, the innocent mate in time may forgive—at least in the sense of letting go of resentment.
The second decision is, should she seek a divorce? Why would this question come up if she has forgiven him?* Well, what if she has valid concerns about the safety of herself and her children, especially if her husband has been abusive in the past? Or what if there are fears of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease? Or what if she feels deeply that because of his betrayal, she can no longer trust him in a husband-wife relationship? In such situations it is quite conceivable that the innocent mate could forgive her erring mate (in the sense of letting go of resentment) and yet still decide to divorce him because she does not desire to continue living with him. Letting go of resentment may help her to get on with her life. It may also help keep any necessary future dealings with the adulterer more civil.
Whether to obtain a divorce from an unfaithful mate is a personal decision, one that the innocent mate should make after carefully and prayerfully weighing all the factors involved. (Psalm 55:22) Others do not have the right to try to dictate or to pressure the innocent mate into deciding one way or another. (Compare Galatians 6:5.) Remember, Jesus did not say what the innocent mate should do. Clearly, then, Jehovah is not displeased with those who choose to divorce on proper Scriptural grounds.
Although we will herein refer to the innocent mate as “she,” the principles discussed apply equally when the innocent spouse is the Christian man.
By resuming sexual relations, the innocent mate would be indicating that she has decided to be reconciled with her erring mate. She would thereby nullify any Scriptural ground for divorce.
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