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Rebuilding a Marriage After Betrayal

Gain insight into how to rebuild a marriage after betrayal by addressing both the offended and the offender.

Aug 19, 2020

Our session is on rebuilding a marriage after betrayal. Our focus in terms of a case topic will be adultery, but I want to be able to say that the principles we’re going to talk about apply to all sorts of betrayal. We’ll try to give a couple of applications along the way as well. In fact, let me say right up front that I’ve listed in Appendix 3 of your notes some passages about violence that I think we need to take to heart very seriously and apply to domestic violence as counselors.

There are at least two ways to respond to betrayal.

Here’s one possible way:

I dug my key into the side

Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive

Carved my name into his leather seats

I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights

I slashed a hole in all four tires

Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats

That’s one way. Not our way in the ACBC world. Here’s another way. I’ll call her Tanya, the wife of a pastor, who said, “If you had told me one year earlier when my husband’s affair was uncovered that we would be together today, I would have laughed at you. If you told me our marriage would be strong, I would have called you cruel. But that’s exactly what God has brought out. All is not ideal. He is far from a perfect husband, and doubts and memory still invade me, but what we have learned about ourselves and about our Lord is priceless. Praise God who really does redeem dirty things and makes them shine.”

What do we mean by betrayal? I don’t propose that I have some super dictionary term here, but this is what I mean: A serious, one-sided act of sin, or sins, or a nexus complex of sins that severely compromise marital trust, that violate marital vows, and that threaten the marriage covenant.

If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, in the section on Christian marriage he says something that I found startling when he talks about infidelity and adultery. He says that the chief sin involved in this kind of betrayal is not chiefly sexual. It’s not even chiefly a horizontal betrayal—though that’s a key part of it of course. He uses another word that we don’t typically use. He says it’s perjury. Isn’t that fascinating? What is perjury? It’s when we lie under oath. It’s when we violate a vow. It’s a very powerful point.

In one of the out-of-print books by Elisabeth Elliott, she makes a very similar point that it’s breaking your word, when you in your marital commitment swore to be faithful to your spouse until death do you part. Whatever the exact language of the vows, I’m sure that whatever vows that you underwent, they surely included exclusivity, that “you and you alone, O spouse, are the one.” In many ways that’s what betrayal is.

As I mentioned, we’re going to use adultery as a case. I’ve mentioned a little booklet there in my footnotes for you that I’ve done on this topic, but I do see application and I have used the same truths—even the same outline that you have in your notes—for cases other than adultery. Appendix 1 gives you an overview of all that I’m doing today, because that’s actually a sheet that I will give out to the people I’m counseling at the proper time.

In betrayal, I’m including what we might call an emotional affair. I’m including financial mismanagement—theft from your partner. Child mistreatments and things like that, which may or may not rise to a legal situation, but certainly would be an act of betrayal.

What do we think about this? It’s a nightmare, right? A tragedy, a crisis. Yes. Yes. Yes. I don’t deny any of those words, but I want to add a “but” to that. But also an opportunity.

As I think about all sorts of Scriptures—we’ll mention a few as we go here today—this is a life-transforming event, but it’s also a life-transforming opportunity for both spouses.

As every biblical counselor must emphasize, there really is hope—and not only a possibility, but the gospel guarantees restoration if both partners will seek to follow Christ. Click To Tweet

I served for about 19 years as a lead pastor in West Virginia, and near the end of that time I had a rash of betrayal cases. I had eight—none within my own church, but in the community. If you’re biblical counselors, you know that people will travel hours to get Christ-centered counseling, which is why we’re all about training, equipping, and certifying so we get more people to do this. Of those eight cases during that 2 and a half year span, I saw God restore six of those. I really do believe that these truths can change lives. As every biblical counselor must emphasize, there really is hope—and not only a possibility, but the gospel guarantees restoration if both partners will seek to follow Christ.

Many of us in our ministries may find that we don’t get the opportunity to work with both spouses. We may only work with one. A wise caution for all of us in that case: Remember that there are two sides, and there’s some missing information you have. I tell people that when I counsel a couple, there are not two sides in a marriage case. There’s not even three sides. There’s four sides: Husband, wife, me, and God. I have a perspective, and God has a perspective. Really we want to try to line up with God and get everyone to line up with the Lord. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

Determine in advance your biblical convictions and procedures about handling conflict and about betrayal, divorce, and remarriage.

Determine in advance—now, some of you are already in the thick of doing this kind of ministry, but if you’re not, determine now some biblical convictions you have. Convictions about how to handle conflict. A person who’s been victimized by a betrayal may be too quickly thinking about divorce and separation. Let’s make sure we think about what the Scriptures tell us about what conflict resolution can look like.

We also have to be understanding of what are the forms of betrayal. What do we mean by betrayal? I gave a working definition, but there’s some subjectivity. As one writer well states, a breach of trust depends on what you thought you agreed to.

And so what was meant? I think that’s where our premarital counseling is important for us as we minister to couples as they’re considering marriage. Let’s define what marriage looks like. Then, of course, the marriage divorce, and remarriage discussion. Start with your study of Scripture, start with your convictions, but then if this is a couple within your own church, you definitely need to make sure you’re on board with your pastors and find out where they’re at. If it’s someone from another church, their church might have a different view of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. You want to work with them whatever their view is.

I do believe in and follow the approach that both Jay Adams and Jim Newheiser wrote—their books are very similar in terms of the views there. That’s the approach that I—and I think most in the biblical counseling world take—but I realize some of you may have different views on that.

What constitutes pornea? Does betrayal involve a mental lust or some touch? Is it full sexual involvement? You’re going to have to define what that means for you, and in part how the offended partner views it as well. I’m going to skip biblical discussion on that and recommend again both Adam’s and Newheiser’s book.

Let’s move now into the ministry of working with this couple. I tend to think of this in three phases. There is an immediate crisis phase, where we have to shore up a commitment to work on the infidelity issues. Then we’ll walk through the actual phase of recommitment to the marriage. Then we’ll have a third phase of walking through what it looks like to actually rebuild the marriage once there is a recommitment by both partners.

Crisis Intervention Stage

For the first phase, what do we need to do in terms of understanding how to have crisis intervention? First, understand how the betrayal was discovered and what immediate impact it’s had. What type of betrayal are we talking about? Is it sexual? Is it physical violence? Is it financial mismanagement? If it’s a physical violence, are the policemen involved at all? If the recipient is a child, that’s an automatic yes—we need to get the police involved. But where do you make those decisions?

If it’s a sexual betrayal, was this a one night fall? A one time slip? Or was it more of an emotional attachment and what we call an affair? Is it more of a serial predator or person who has what the culture would call a “sexual addiction”? These are helpful categories. There are some secondary differences in how we would treat each of the different situations, but the primary approach that we’re talking about today will work for all of those, by making adjustments.

Who are these people? I’m going to call them the offender and offended. I think that’s probably one easy way to talk about this. There are other terms we could use, like betrayer/victim, but I’m just going to stick with that for today. I’m also going to focus on sexual infidelity, but I’m going to talk about the man as the offender, just for the sake of discussion and the woman as the offended. It takes two, but my experience has tended to have more of those cases at least come to me. Your experience might be different, but I’ve had both/and with that.

When did it occur? How often? For how long? We want to understand: Are we talking about once or are we talking about a pattern? If it’s recent, then we’ve got all sorts of crisis things we need to bring into play too if this is not something that’s months ago or years ago, this is something that’s very fresh. That’s where some of your crisis oriented skills come in of listening, some immediate separating the couple, and making sure you give intense help for each of them. Most of the cases I’ve done do have that kind of intensity and crisis-orientation. If you’re in a pastoral ministry, of course, you’re going to learn that right away. If you’re working in a more parachurch counseling center, then perhaps you won’t have as many people calling you at 11 p.m. at night or 1 a.m.

I love the pastoral counseling ministry. I’m all for local church. I do train and encourage parachurch ministries. I hope they spring up with biblical counselors all over the planet, I really do, but my heart tends to be for equipping the church.

And of course, how is it discovered? That’s crucial. Was it voluntarily disclosed? Did the unfaithful partner voluntarily confess it? Even if it was seemingly voluntary, what were some of the motives for confession? If it was done under the threat of his buddy who was going to out him unless he told, that’s not quite as voluntary as you might want it to be. There might be other reasons that seem voluntary, but once you probe a little bit it might not be. But perhaps it was discovered, perhaps someone’s caught it. Someone may be caught with an immediate confession, or caught with an immediate denial and only later with more evidence or more pressure was it then admitted to.

We want to find out the respective attitudes, emotional states, intentions (what each partner plans to do now that it’s been brought to the surface).

Scott, age 33, and Kim, age 31, have been married eight years, have two young children, and are members of your church. They attend worship regularly but are not active in small group life or in ministry, although Kim does serve on the Sunday nursery rotation and she occasionally comes to women’s social activities. Last night Kim discovered that Scott was having an affair with a woman she knew. Kim called the church office to ask for a recommended counselor. So the secretary called you to see if you were willing and able. You agree to help.

Question: What is Kim experiencing?

Shock, anger, grief, inadequacy, confusion? Here’s the right answer: I don’t know. I don’t know what she’s experiencing yet. Can I take you back to a book that probably most of you have read called Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands? I was a student of Paul Tripp at Westminster and this got drilled into my head, a concept that he calls “entry gates.” An entry gate is not the situation. It’s not the event. It’s how the person is experiencing the event. I think even your answers illustrate the point, because you gave a range of answers—some of which might not fit together with each other.

I’ll go ahead and mention some of the kinds of things that I heard some of you say for Kim, as we’re calling her in this case.

Anger. “I hate my spouse for what he’s done. I despise the woman.” This could be anger against her husband, the woman, herself, God.

Despair, hopelessness, depression. I think of a guy I talked to, he was tremendously floored by this sort of situation and immediately went to his doctor because he couldn’t sleep and he was having all sorts of depression symptoms.

Fear. “What’s going to happen next?”

Jealousy. “I can’t believe he picked her over me.”

Regret, guilt. Sort of that distorted guilt, that twisted, confused guilt that says, “I’m responsible to have a pure husband. My husband is impure—somehow, somewhere I have failed.” You see those kinds of lies that the Scripture uncovers for us

Revenge. “I’ll get him. I’ll get the best attorney in the county, in the state, and take him all the way down.”

But I noticed that I didn’t hear any of you say relief. “He has denied this before and he’s told me I’m crazy. He said, ‘You need to go talk to a shrink.’ I’m not crazy. I suspected it. I’m glad it’s out. We’ve been living a sham, a lie of a marriage.”

Press that one a little further. What you don’t know is that he’s been abusive, or she has her eyes on another man. And she knows within a biblical church there’s no way unless if he is unfaithful then that might open the door for her to get out of the marriage.

I hope none of you are doubting the possible motives of any human heart. You know your own heart, you know your own motives, you know what the Scriptures teach us about the confusion and the depth of depravity, the deceitfulness of the heart. That’s not just the Old Covenant Jeremiah 17:9 folks—read on to Hebrews 3 and read into Ephesians 4 and you find the deceitfulness of sin continues even within the New Covenant heart—even within the believer.

The gospel comes to sinners who actively sin and sinners who were sinned against by others' active sin. Click To Tweet

What about the offending partner, the betrayer? What’s he feeling?

Here’s the beauty of the gospel. The gospel comes to sinners who actively sin and sinners who were sinned against by others’ active sin. We have a word from the gospel for both/and here and we ought to care. This is one of the challenges when you counsel, particularly if you know one party more than the other. There’s a temptation for you to side. Remember there’s God’s side of this discussion as well.

Guilt. We would hope for guilt—and hopefully guilt motivated by God’s Spirit convicting him.

Anger. “If she had been a better wife I wouldn’t have done this. That’s her fault.” Or, “If my buddy hadn’t told on me I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Fear. “What’s my wife going to do? What are the relatives going to do? My in-laws, my church, my own friends, her friends? What’s going to happen?”

Despair, hopelessness, depression. “I see no way out. My life is over.”

Relief. “I’ve been living a lie. This has been a sham. I have felt literally trapped and I’m glad it’s out because I can now move forward.”

Now if there’s any similarity between the two lists, I hope you see that. The exact same terms I’ve used—yes, different slant, different perspective, but it’s nevertheless similar kinds of heart themes that can be going on.

There’s probably other emotional responses that we haven’t even mentioned, but the broader your understanding of the possible emotional spectrum is, the wiser you’re going to be, because you will not be shocked if there is relief or happiness coming from someone who’s just was sinned against. It won’t shock you.

We need to understand what’s going on. We’re gathering information. We’re data gathering. Years ago, I went through all my notes and got rid of the word data. Now I say it’s “information gathering.” One thing is I’m very fond of telling all my students is that I don’t counsel alcoholics or drunkards (if you want to use different language). I don’t counsel adulterers. I counsel Kim, who committed adultery. I counsel Tony, who drinks too much and sins in that way. I want to make sure we keep it as personal as possible. I have a Personal Information Form, not a Personal Data Inventory. I’m being too picky maybe, but I want to make sure we keep that relational component very clearly before us.

We want to give hope to our counselees. And of course, I’ve never been to an ACBC workshop ever where some speaker hasn’t begun early on in saying that we need to give hope. I’m glad that we do because we do have hope that others don’t have. At this point perhaps I can only plant some seeds, particularly for the offended, for the woman here who is just bitter (or take whatever emotion we’ve talked about and make it explosive and in expansive degree at this point). We want least try to plant some seeds.

Here’s a couple ways I would approach this.

God is present, gracious, and powerful in this situation to deal with both parties. First of all, to comfort the offended, the sinned against spouse. I love Psalm 46 for this, because there’s an earthquake that’s happening. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.” The marriage is imploding; an earthquake is occurring. I find that’s one of my favorite go-to passages where there’s betrayal.

Isaiah 41:10 says, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” The hand of God strengthens.

There’s 1 Corinthians 10:13, which says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” There’s an assumption here that you’re going to bear the temptation God’s way. We’re going to follow God in all this matter. When you’re tempted, He will also provide a way out. A way out from what? From the marriage? No. From the situation? No, but a way out from the idolatry in the context that is implied. Keep on reading and look down to verse 14, and remember the context of the passage. Too many people I’ve talked to want a way out, a way of escape out of the marriage, but that’s not what God is talking about there.

I also want her to understand God is in the middle of the crisis. As I’m a male pastor, I always counsel women or couples with my wife or another godly woman that I trained or someone that I trust. This is where she will need to be getting a lot of attention by my female co-counselor, particularly in getting together perhaps daily, getting a support team together for the offended partner. That’s whoever the offended partner is—male or female, getting some support there.

Then there’s the offer of forgiveness that God gives to the repentant offender. We’ll see more about that as we go but Psalm 32, Psalm 51, Psalm 130 are helpful. In Psalm 32 and 51, probable sexual sin is going on. In Psalm 130, we don’t know what the context is, but the person is very down in Psalm 130. Forgiveness in the context of repentance is demonstrated in those passages.

Believing that God can restore and rebuild this marriage is crucial for us. Even if the marriage doesn't continue, the truths of the gospel do continue. Click To Tweet

That’s what we want to say to each of them individually. Together we want to say that there’s hope. God has a positive, redemptive purpose in this situation. Believing that God can restore and rebuild this marriage is crucial for us. Even if the marriage doesn’t continue, the truths of the gospel do continue. I’ve had some opportunities to minister to people who have been divorced, and sometimes there’s a repentance by the offender. Sometimes there isn’t, but the offended continues to grow in his or her faith. If the individual spouse follows Christ, God guarantees to make him more like Jesus through this whole thing, in the midst of that, even if the other spouse doesn’t follow Jesus.

We want to teach that, emphasize that, and show that from the Scripture. If both spouses follow the Lord, God not only will restore the marriage, but will make it even stronger.

I don’t want to ask you to give testimonies here. We don’t have the time for that anyway, but I suspect some of you who have been through this or have worked with couples can tell you what I’ve also seen. One of my joys of this kind of ministry is getting Christmas cards with pictures of the family reunited and the children are too. I’ve gotten some of those over the years and just want to thank you again for your work.

One of the illustrations that I would use at this point, having talked to a professional welder about this, is how the welded piece of metal—the joint—is stronger than the original one because of the application of the weld. The weld material and the skill of the welder, as they do their art of welding something together. This gospel process of restoration can make this marriage stronger than it ever was and I’m thankful that God does do that.

I want to give them that kind of hope that God wants to work in your life. I don’t know if we’ll get them together this quickly, maybe I’m only doing this with each of them individually, maybe only with one of them. Maybe the offended is so hurt that she doesn’t even want to meet and doesn’t want anything to do with the church. Maybe the offender is so hardened against God that led him to this path that we might not be able to talk to him. But to the extent I can, I want to do that individually, and I want to try to get them together to have a session together.

Recommitment Phase

Secure commitment by each spouse to please God, respond God’s way, and deal with the betrayal.

Second Corinthians 5:9 says we make it our goal to please God whatever happens. Whether I’m at home in this body, whether I’m still here, on this earth, or whether I’m away from it and I’m with the Lord is the context. Whether it’s this, whether it’s that. Whether it’s what I want, or what I don’t want. Whether there’s repentance or no repentance. Whether there’s forgiveness or no forgiveness. I have one goal: To please God. I live for the one who died and rose for me (2 Corinthians 5:15).

There are some things to be aware of at this point. Anger, bitterness, and revenge could prevent the person from participating. Rash decisions that may further the problem, such as going to an attorney, starting a process of divorce, draining the financial accounts, things like that. That can be a rash decision. Gossip—involving others.

One of the first things I want to know from each partner, whoever I talk to or if I have them together, is: Who knows about this? Who have you told? Who have you shared with?

Now, some of you are parents of adult children, and you might not like the counsel I tend to give the couple. I have adult children, they haven’t gone down this path thankfully. But I say, “Don’t involve your mom and dad.” Because even if we help you work through and you two reconcile, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to talk with any of the parents or the in-laws. You’re going to create a new problem here. You might be close to your mom if you’re the woman offended and have been sinned against in this way. I understand that, so I don’t come down on the person and say they shouldn’t have told their parent if they already have.

But if I can give advice, I’ll say, “Before you go share with your in-laws or some of your other relatives, remember those relatives are going to be around. Once we hopefully see this marriage rebuilt, they’ll still have Thanksgiving together with you and it’s going to be awkward. Why don’t we try to work on this within the confines of our local church?” That’s where I think it should be dealt with, and it becomes a beautiful thing if later down the road if there is a restoration, what a testimony that then could be given. That’s a different thing. We’re far from that point in our discussion today, though.

Competing counsel. Not only who have you told, but what are you hearing? What are people telling you to do? When a basically well-meaning Peter goes to Jesus and says, “This will never happen to you,” Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” I don’t know if the offended partner will have the guts to say to her girlfriends, “Don’t tell me to get rid of him at this point. Get behind me Satan.”

Despair and cynicism. “She’ll never forgive me.” Or, “He will never repent. He’ll never change.”

One of the things I love about Ed Welch’s book Running Scared, he talks about how fear worry is a form of prophecy. You’re being a prophet when you’re predicting this bad thing that’s going to happen. If you don’t do this, this is going to happen. Well, we’re not prophets. You don’t know. You’re removing God from the scene. People say, “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, or if we come to it.” I’ve always challenged people this point. I’ll say, “No, we don’t cross the bridge when we get to it. You and the Lord will cross that bridge if you ever do get to it.” That makes all the difference. You’re not approaching these things alone.

Lead each spouse through specific steps of biblical repentance, confession, and forgiveness, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is where we’ll have individual sessions with each of the spouses. I give a lot of energy initially more to the offender, making sure the offended is getting help as well from me or maybe from my co-counselor. I want to work with him because I want to see him come to repentance, which is going to make her ability to forgive and be gracious possible.

Path Forward for the Offender

Here’s the fivefold path for him.

1. Immediately and fully discontinue the betraying activity. If adultery, break the relationship immediately (Matthew 5:27-32; 2 Timothy 2:22).

Many years ago when President George HW Bush was involved with the Iraq crisis and believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what came out of the White House was this phraseology: President Bush wanted “immediate, unconditional, and verifiable dismantlement.”

You can understand how in the midst of me counseling all these couples, when I heard those words I wasn’t thinking about Iraq. Immediate, unconditional, and verifiable. That’s powerful language.

How are we going to work to do that? Well, I’m going to ask him to make the break immediately. I want to ask him to make the break in my hearing, ideally over a phone call. I don’t want him to go see the woman. I don’t want him to meet her in person. I don’t want it done by email or anything that’s written or electronic. I want him to orally, over the phone, in my hearing, break the relationship. We can put it on speaker, which adds a little more security. Of course, it’s possible that he could break the relationship over the phone and go out and continue the affair. I know that can happen. None of us are naive, but it adds a little more security to that, a little more assurance. It also gives me opportunity to say to his wife, “This is what he said.”

I may need to persuade him. I’m willing to go with him if we have to go in person. But again, I would rather this be over the phone. I’ll get on the phone with the other person. I’ll do whatever it takes to help this. We can even do a little role play. I’ll say, “Okay, you be the woman. I will be you.” Then we’ll reverse it, “You be you, I’ll be the woman. You tell me what you’re going to say to her.” I’ll throw up a few objections or something like that. We talk it through.

2. Initial confession: honestly disclose the needed facts to spouse, elders, and counselor. This is the first stage confession. We’re going to do this in two stages. This is the immediate disclosure that, “This has happened and I’m owning that I’ve done this.”

Now this second step could be the first. You can argue either way and I’ve done it both ways. What do I mean by that? There’s an advantage when he goes to confess to her, his wife, to say, “I’ve done this and I’ve broken it off.” There’s the advantage of the order that I put it in here. You could argue the other side, and I’m fine with either way, personally. You could argue that it would be better for him to immediately go to his wife and say, “Honey, I’ve done this and I’m going to go break it off right now and Pastor Bob [or whoever] is going to help me do that.” It can be either way. There’s probably some pros and cons of each.

Whenever he’s going to do this second step of confession, I want to be part of that. I want to go with him, or to have her come to my setting. You can call the wife and say, “Your husband wants to meet with you and I.” I’m sure she’s got some panic at a call like that, so hopefully it’s a short distance away. You try to minimize that panic there.

I like to be present as a counselor. Now again, if you’re in a parachurch, more professional setting this may not apply. But if you’re in a pastoral type counseling with a church base, this is what church ministry looks like, folks. We get onsite with that person. We’re there to help verify the story and clarify what he’s done and said and where he’s at. But we’re also there to help her to pick up the pieces. And again, I’m not doing this alone. My wife or another godly woman in our church will go with me when we meet with the wife. We want her to have a lot of support when this news breaks.

I want to say to him that, “You need to tell the truth.” We will talk in advance about how much detail he needs to share. She is going to want to ask for a lot of detail. I may want to pull her aside, have a private talk and say, “Your questions to me seemed very understandable. Some of the details you’re asking may be unwise for you to talk about today.” Sexual positions, things like that, will not help when the restoration occurs. We have to help her protect her from herself at that point. I want to say to him, “Let me be the referee on this one.” Don’t you say, “I don’t want to tell you.” He can look at me and say, “I don’t really want to say that, pastor.” Okay, and I make a judgment call. I want to assure her that we can get there, but just not yet. But he can’t withhold. Let’s assume that if the infidelity doesn’t break the marriage, holding back some of it and later discovering more is there—that probably will break the marriage. That’s another layer of mistrust now that’s been added and it’s going to get a lot harder if he lies. He needs to be able to tell the tell the story here.

3. Thoroughly confess both the betrayal and any deception/lies to God, your spouse, and appropriate others (e.g., church leaders, older children), and seek their forgiveness.

Notice that it’s not just the betrayal act that needs to be confessed, it’s also the deception and lies in cover-up if there was. Don’t think of just the act.

Years ago there was a TV show and I watched an episode. The woman was an attorney and her ex-husband and her had a conversation. She showed some anger becuase he had been unfaithful to her. She showed some anger toward him at that point. And he says to her, “It was just one night.” He emphasize the one. She said this, “It’s not the one night that hurts. What hurts is the lie that you told every night thereafter.” In other words the cover-up hurt.

A confession to God himself is obviously first. As a pastor, I would share this incident of confession of an event with a fellow pastor. Now as a pastor, I’ve been both a lead pastor and I’ve been an associate pastor and I just work this out with the staff. I don’t tell my staff or my senior above me about every marital case I do, but when it’s something of this severity that could lead to a divorce or separation, I do want to share that.

It needs to be shared with the counselor, spouse, appropriate others, but try to keep it small if possible. Do the children need to know? Hopefully not at this point. If they’re young, they don’t need to be brought in yet. If they’re older and they know what’s going on, then we do probably have to bring them in—although not at this meeting.

4. Develop and implement a godly, thorough action plan of change. I’m very dependent on the work of Ken Sande, one of my mentors and I’ve also reproduced some of his material in my Pursuing Peace book as well that I use. We’re going to deal with something kind of tentative at this point, the best we can, because we haven’t involved her yet.

Once we go to her, we might need to add some more things to the plan. But I want him to be very clear as to what a true confession looks like. Ken Sande’s 7 A’s of confession are just fabulous. I want to think not only in terms of sins of commission, but omission. The whole category of sins of omission.

The action plan includes concrete practical steps. What’s he going to do? Where’s the Scripture come involved? Where is accountability? What are the changes in lifestyle? Once there is a restoration, what does it look like to resuming of any kind of dating life with his wife? I don’t want to be the only pastor, if it’s in my church. I want another pastor to be involved. If it’s not part of my church, their church needs to really mobilize and step it up. I want a small group leader and a small group. The small group members may or may not need to know, but the leader does. A lot of work here to mobilize the body of Christ is necessary.

5. Believe the gospel and grow in faith and obedience. Move forward. Don’t let guilt cripple you. If there’s true confession and true repentance before God, the spouse might not forgive. We don’t know her heart. But he cannot let her inability or unwillingness to forgive stop him from believing God has forgiven him.

Hear the words at this point of Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 12:13, “The Lord also has put away your sin.” This man, if he’s repentant, needs to hear that from the Scripture, through your voice, with your Bible open, where you’re going to read a text like that or Psalm 32, Psalm 51, or Psalm 130.

He needs to hear it with his ears, see it with his eyes. He needs to know the forgiveness of God because this can cripple a person for the rest of his life if he doesn’t grow in that. We don’t know what the spouse is going to do.

One of the dangers at this point is that he can begin to to relinquish God-given spiritual leadership because of his past sin. She can become the new spiritual leader, because after all he’s the one who did this and she didn’t. If her heart isn’t humble before the Lord, there can be a kind of moral pride here and he can feel like the inferior one and not take proper biblical leadership.

Steps Forward for the Offended

All right, let’s walk down her path.

1. Find your security and identity in Christ, not in your spouse or in marriage.

In many ways, working with him can be a quicker—though maybe more intense—process. Working with her may take longer period of time. That’s been my experience. Not because she’s more spiritually dull, but because the offense of what’s happened can really continue to haunt and hurt her. I love Psalm 27:10, which says, “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.” I substitute husband for father and mother in the text; “Though my husband has forsaken, the Lord will take me in.”

Jesus says in the upper room, “You will leave me all alone,” to his disciples. “But I am not alone. For my father is with me.” The presence of God the Father in Jesus’ life trumps the absence of friends who are about to abandon him in his hour of need.

Some other really helpful passages to take her to can be Psalm 27:9-10, Psalm 73:25-26, John 16:32, Galatians 3:26-29, Luke 10:20, 38-42.

Let me read something that I wrote to a person. I orally said all this with her in person, but I did a written follow-up. “All your emotions of sadness, frustration, anger, despair, and weariness all make sense. I’d like to help you gain a bigger vision—the vision of what it means practically and meaningfully to find a deeper measure of joy, peace, and contentment in Jesus, so that your desire for your husband is not vanquished or neutered, but placed in a bigger context. To the extent that we make our spouse our life, to the extent that you have yielded your joy, peace, and contentment into your marriage or your husband, to that extent you will miss the joy, forgiveness, love, power that Jesus wants you to have.”

2. Adopt a biblical view of trials/mistreatment, including God’s sovereign, wise, loving purposes. If you put this marital infidelity or betrayal into the category of trials and suffering, our whole Bible opens up for us. We have it all right there.

3. Cultivate attitudinal or heart forgiveness (unconditional), in light of the gospel. At this point, we haven’t had him in the room for the confession yet. I’m working with him several sessions on confession. We need to have her heart poised to release the bitterness, to let go of the bitterness, to entrust the him to God’s hands, to be willing to work with him.

4. Grant transacted/granted forgiveness (conditional, if the offender repents). This will happen after we meet. Let me tell you what that looks like. I have the session where I have the persons come together. There is one agenda for this session: For him to confess to her. I ask of her nothing in terms of response. In fact, I probably don’t want her to say much. I want her to listen with a heart that has been ravished by grace, a heart that understands the gospel, and a charitable heart to listen to his confession. I will not have that meeting unless I’m persuaded he’s repentant. I’m not going to put her into that room with an unrepentant adulterer or betrayer in various ways. I can’t know his heart, but so far as I can tell, if I’m satisfied he’s sincerely repentant, then we’ll have this session.

This is where he confesses and she doesn’t have to say anything. In fact, she will be tempted to say “I forgive you” before she really means it. Because good Christian girls do, right? Let’s have a separate session for that where we talk about what forgiveness looks like and what it entails. Then we’ll have a next session where she can come and respond. That’s the way I’ve found it most effective.

If you had that assurance, it might rob you of an opportunity to trust the Lord, because if this does happen again, here's God's promise: if something like this happens again, God will still be with you and will walk with you through that. Click To Tweet

5. Realize the process nature of these matters; deal with continuing memories. Include submitting to God the understandable desire that this will never happen again. Too many wives have said this to me, “I can forgive him and I think I can learn in time to trust him, but I just need to know that this will never happen again.” I say to her, “Oh my sister, I wish in one sense that I could give you that assurance. I cannot. God cannot. And your husband—as sincere as I think he is—he ought to say, “I’ll never do it again.” That’s right, but take heed lest you fall. Can any of you in this room say, “I will never commit X, Y, Z sin”? You don’t know your own heart.

So I want to say to her, “If you had that assurance, it might rob you of an opportunity to trust the Lord, because if this does happen again, here’s God’s promise: if something like this happens again, God will still be with you and will walk with you through that. That’s all I can promise you. That ought to be enough. I know it might not be enough today.” We want to be patient and understand that. This is a truth we have to help her deal with.


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