I recently heard from a man struggling with the sexual past of a new love in his life. As a widower, his only sexual partner had been his wife. But his new friend had many, including a couple husbands and several boyfriends. According to him everything about her was perfect except this one thing. He wanted to move the relationship forward, but didn’t know how he could live tormented by the images of her with other men. “My own problem,” he said “which breaks my heart because I genuinely like her and care for her, is that unless I can get past this aspect of her life, we are destined to remain ‘just friends’.”

Before you start judging him for his unforgiving attitude, let me tell you that he’s not alone.  I hear frequently from men and women whose sexual pasts don’t mirror their partner’s and they are filled with pain not only for them, but because of the mental images of them with another.  And they ask the same question. “I want to forgive, I want to forget, but how? I don’t know how. Please help me forgive.”

Forgiveness is not our gift to offer

I understand how difficult it is to work through the sexual past of someone we love. I can assure you that when your partner has a more extensive sexual history than you do, he or she feels the weight of this guilt and shame even more than you do.  Men and women in this position often struggle with feelings of unworthiness as well.

Forgiveness is not our gift to offer.  It’s God’s gift to us and through us. If you’ve been a Christian for a while, then you already know all the verses on forgiveness, and Jesus’ command that we forgive each other. In other words, you know you should, but knowing it and doing it are two very different things.

I believe forgiveness is so hard because we’re really not capable of it, at least, not on our own. In fact, the only reason we can forgive is because God first forgives us. In Isaiah 43:25 He says, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” This is really amazing when you think of it. The one the bible says we actually sin against, the only one who has the right to hold our sins against us says He blots them out, eliminates them, and then going a step further says, He forgets them forever. You can choose not to forgive your friend, but in reality he or she didn’t sin against you, but rather against God. God has chosen to forgive them and forget their sins. So it leaves you with no other choice.

On your own, you can’t forgive, but through you, God can and does. Every day we choose to forgive, God uses us to be His forgiveness to others on earth. Married couples have the privilege of being the one God uses to offer love and forgiveness to each other every day for the rest of their lives. So how can you forgive and be God’s vessel of forgiveness to this one He’s brought into your life?

Here are six steps in the forgiveness process

  1. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. We make the choice to forgive and trust God with the feelings. Whenever those thoughts come, simply say (out loud if that helps), Lord I choose to forgive_____ for _____. I’ll trust you with the feelings of forgiveness.God is faithful, before long, you’ll find the thoughts don’t come as often, and your feelings will be grace-filled and no longer painful. Eventually, you’ll find you’re not having those images of her with others so much, and even if you do, it won’t be associated with the same emotions as before.
  2. God is really serious about forgiveness. In fact He says that if we want forgiveness from Him for our sins, we must forgive others their sins. Scary, right? The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 links receiving and offering forgiveness together: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Then just two verses down Jesus says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” In other words, when we come to God for forgiveness, He’ll say, “First things first…forgive __________ for _________, and then I will forgive you.”
  3. Ask God to help you see your friend as He does. I can assure you that God does not see her as a sinner. If she’s accepted Jesus as her Savior, then all God sees is someone righteous, holy, without blame or stain. The bible says God clothes us in righteousness because of Jesus. When He looks at us, He doesn’t see us as we see ourselves, sinful, dirty, and stained. He sees what Jesus’ blood has done for us…made us righteous and pure, acceptable to Him. If you can’t see her that way, ask God to give you His eyes to see here this way.
  4. God is more concerned about what’s going on now with your friend than what happened in the past. Is she in a growing, loving relationship with Jesus now? Is she walking with God in obedience in her life now? God cares about where her heart is now, He’s already forgotten the past.
  5. Healing is different than forgiveness. Although God forgives us for past sin, when it comes to sexual sin we still need healing. We still live with the pain, shame and wounds of the past that God wants to heal so that we can be free. I would encourage your friend to find healing for her past and to break the sexual bonds she created with past husbands and boyfriends, not only for herself, but for every present and future relationship she has.

God will help you forgive her because He’s already forgiven her. Unconditional love and forgiveness are the very definition of who God is. It’s something He’s asked us to do for each other. Now it’s your CHOICE. You just need to say “Yes, God I’ll forgive,” and let God take care of the rest. I know it sounds too simple. “There’s got to be something more,” you may protest. But that’s the best part of trusting God. He does make it simple. His power is real. It’s us who try to complicate things by doing it our own way.   

We can’t forgive in our own strength. It truly is a supernatural, divine action that requires God’s strength in and through us. That’s why choosing to forgive is the first step, because then God can take over and make it real in our lives. Before long you will discover for yourself that your negative feelings are gone, that you have grace today where yesterday you had anger and resentment. That’s not to say that something won’t happen that will bring it up again, but that’s when you pick up your weapon again and say, “Lord I choose to forgive___ for ___. “

Remember this is a process and it takes time for the emotions to catch up with the decision.  When Jesus talked about forgiving seventy-times-seven I think this is what He meant.  Every time that old emotion of anger/un-forgiveness crops up, we just forgive again. This way we don’t actually dwell on the un-forgiveness or negative emotion, rather we focus on the forgiveness part instead.  That will lead to freedom for you and in your relationship.  In the beginning it may need to happen daily or multiple times a day, but will eventually take hold and be permanent.

I promise, you can trust Him with this. Once you choose to forgive and say the words, God will take over and pour His forgiveness through you to her. It’s really that simple. Forgiveness is not our gift to offer.  It’s God’s gift to us and through us.

Photo Credit: (Flickr CC – Lauren Rushing)

Written by Barbara Wilson Psy.D.

Barbara Wilson Psy.D.

Dr. Barbara Wilson is an author, Dr. of Clinical Psychology, licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is also the founder of Freedom Bound Communications, an organization that brings healing and hope to those with a painful sexual past. She speaks internationally to youth and adults with her message of sexual bonding and healing. Released from a past of her own, Barbara combines neuroscience and Scripture, with her own story of healing to explain what sexual bonding is and how to move freely into your future in her books, The Invisible Bond: How to Break Free From Your Sexual Past and Kiss Me Again; Restoring Lost Intimacy In Marriage. Dr. Wilson’s study guide, Free, Finding Freedom and Healing from your Past, available in women’s, men’s and young women versions, is being used locally and nationally to walk men and women through an empirically-based, trauma-focused approach for healing from past abuse, sexual trauma and destructive relationships. You can view or purchase any of her books here. Barbara and her husband have been married over 30 years.