How Do We Forgive Betrayals?

I ended last week’s story of betrayal with the faint beginnings of a desire to forgive. But our wanting to forgive doesn’t mean we’ve granted forgiveness any more than wanting a beach vacation gives us tickets to Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.

Our desire to forgive is undermined by our memories, recollections of the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall.

A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the smell of lilacs through the screen porch.


We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch their way out of the holes we buried them in.

We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment. Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take [them] by surprise; let them go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).

Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after they’ve been hanged.”

It twists our soul

Last week, I heard a talk radio host interview a therapist. The therapist claimed that “un-forgiveness is a major contributor to heart disease,” and that “bitterness can kill us.” The wrong done to us begins to take root in us. The evil inflicted on us begins to flow out of us.

Mirslov Volf wrote, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy from the community of humans and I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” We begin to dehumanize our betrayer, and in turn we are dehumanized. Agony and anger twists our souls.

On hearing the consequences of non-forgiveness, the radio host responded, “I don’t want a stroke, so I’d better start forgiving. I’ll just let it go.”

But it’s not so simple. No magic wand will wave away the stain. To claim, “I’ll just let it go,” is like getting over stage-fright by saying, “I’ll stop being self-conscious.” It makes matters worse.

And it completely misunderstands the essence of forgiveness.

Because someone does have to pay

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the World War II martyr who died resisting Hitler) said:

If you’ve ever really forgiven somebody, forgiven some real wrong, all forgiveness is suffering. If you say “I forgave and I didn’t suffer,” it wasn’t that serious a wrong. But if you have ever really been wronged, and if you have forgiven it, then you have suffered. Because all forgiveness is a form of suffering.

When we’ve been deeply wronged—not just an accidental slipup but a treacherous betrayal—we know there is a debt, a deep-seated sense of injustice. We can’t shrug it off as if nothing happened, we can’t simply dismiss those memories in a momentary fancy of forgiveness.

When we remember the injury, we must choose between two paths. We can make the perpetrator pay (by finding little ways to make them suffer, poking pins in their memory, disparaging them to our friends, or snubbing them in our heart); or we can forgive.

If we make the perpetrator pay, evil wins. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, and not even with our betrayal of others. The road to hell is paved with our non-forgiveness.

So what does it mean to forgive?

Everyone thinks forgiving is a wonderful idea. Until they have something real to forgive. Because forgiveness means suffering. If we don’t make the perpetrator pay (and somebody has to pay), it means we pay.

Forgiveness means we pay our betrayer’s debt.

It’s normal life. If I borrow your car and wreck it, then either I cough up cash for the repair, or—if I don’t have any money—then you do. The damage doesn’t disappear magically. Somebody pays. (Or you drive a wrecked car, which is just another form of you suffering for my mistake.)

How do we pay? When we’re tempted to dwell on their cruelty, we stop (it costs not to punish them in our thoughts). And when we have a chance to tell others of their betrayal, we shut up (we suffer when they enjoy a good reputation). And we pray for their welfare, not punishment.

Of all Christian disciplines, this is the hardest. First we suffer the horrible wrong done to us, and then we pay for their wrongdoing. It’s double baked death. Compared to forgiveness, chastity, charity, and contentment seem like sipping lemonade on a summer’s evening.

Forgiveness also brings us closest to Christ. It is suffering, thorns, nails, and a cross.

Forgive me for repeating myself

To settle a debt requires capital. We need a full bank account (either financial, emotional, or spiritual reserves) to write that check. We need deposits in our account before we can pay out. But our reserves were depleted by the wrong done to us. What are we to do?

Our ability to forgive is wholly dependent on our being forgiven. When it seems impossible to forgive, our only hope is to understand our debt to God, and to grasp our own forgiven-ness.

Jesus said of the prostitute who washed his feet, “She loves much because she’s been forgiven much, and whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” With the deposits of our own forgiven-ness, we pay our debtor’s debt. And little by little, we find we have forgiven.

Over time (not magically in a moment) something miraculous happens. We begin to really hope for them, to really wish them the best; we even begin to love them.

The evil done to us has been executed.

Sam   (see also, Betrayal)

P.S. Don’t think that because I can write this that I can also do it well. But I’m getting better.

P.P.S. Forgiveness does not mean disconnection with reality. Our betrayers may still act like jerks toward us or toward others. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we should go back and work in that ministry or become best pals with that former friend. But it does mean their debt has been paid, that we have shredded our case files, and we that desire their welfare.

I need your help; because You are my marketing department.
  The primary reason people read these articles is because friends like you share them with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Would you please share it by pressing one of the share buttons above?
I can't thank you enough.

I reserve the right to remove offensive, off-topic, or lengthy comments (see the Comment Policy page).

What do YOU think?

25 thoughts on “How Do We Forgive Betrayals?

  1. Thx Sam! I’m in the middle of navigating forgiveness & betrayal in several relationships. Even this morning I had to re-enter a painful place w/ a man who surprised me, over coffee, by describing his offense and then asking me for forgiveness. I realized the depth of cynicism I had entered when I found that I simply didn’t want to forgive. But his vulnerability was too attractive & it drew me out. Even this ‘easy setup’ to forgive was painful. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to practice … at some level… the painful discipline of releasing someone from punishment and thereby releasing myself.

    • Buzz,

      I think you understand forgiveness quite well. You mention the “pain” in a way that shows you grasp our suffering as we forgive.

      I’m amazed how that man asked for forgiveness; we don’t always get prompted like that. And, yes, I understand the cynicism, though it’s not always cynicism, sometimes it’s a good understanding of reality. Just as it takes time to forgive (to pay their debt), it sometimes takes time to grow in real repentance.

      But, as you say, releasing another also means releasing ourselves. That’s a great line.


  2. Thanks Sam. Was betrayed just last week in my 11 year relationship.. I am talking infidelity. The worst kind for me. I am glad you sent this. I never really thought this would happen and I have a long way to go.,

    • Greg,

      I cannot imagine what you feel. As I said in last week’s blog, I think infidelity is the most painful of all betrayals.

      And, as you just said, you have a long way to go. Not that there is “something wrong with you” that you have a long way to go, but forgiveness is more than a whim. It is suffering.

      I don’t know what to say to you other than I feel a pain for you, I trust you will navigate this–though it may be the hardest thing you have ever done–, and I will pray (along with other readers, I know), I will pray for God’s grace and presence to be with you. We need “Him” even more than we need answers.

      But I’ll pray for answers too. Stay in touch with us.

      Your brother,


  3. Hey Sam, would point out that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. One may never forget an act of deep pain, but one can still forgive. There is also another aspect involved in forgiveness and it comes from a verse we often do not hear preached or taught enough and that is James 5:16.

    While forgiveness should always be given, often healing may never come until both parties are willing to sit down and talk about what happened. I often think God has a real big rug in which we sweep under it everything in the past. The rug is made up of a special kind of fiber, the fiber is called “it’s in the past and God’s forgiven it, so we should move on.”

    The issue with this is that undiscussed issues or hurt usually does not lead to healing and true restoration it leads to “YES, I have forgiven you with a stiff arm out rather than a welcoming, loving arm in.

    This really is the answer “When it seems impossible to forgive, our only hope is to understand our debt to God, and to grasp our own forgiven-ness” and it’s called relating through grace rather than the law. .

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Pat,

      You make a great distinction. The word in Hebrew often translated “remember” means more than mere recollection. It means a power. That’s why some of the Psalmists say, “Remember this against them.” They mean, “remember and do something.”

      I don’t think God “forgets” our bad actions, but he doesn’t “remember it against us” when he forgives us. (Even the eternal scars on the body of Jesus mean our sin isn’t forgotten, but it means God “remembers for us” his love and forgiveness.)

      And I love how you remind us that the best healing is restored relationships. But they don’t happen as often as we like. Partly because the perpetrator doesn’t (or can’t yet) fully repent; and partly because we don’t (or haven’t) yet fully forgiven. Sometimes it just takes time.

      (But I remember once when I tried to “forgive” someone; so I went to them to get them to repent, and it didn’t work. Later, I realized my attempts at reconciliation–under the guise of forgiving–were really my trying to jab them one more time. Alas. Even many of my attempts at goodness are filled with weakness.)


  4. Do you think it’s as simple as wanting their welfare, Sam? Because I want that for a person who has deeply betrayed me. When I think of the consequences of their actions, it really scares me on their behalf, honestly, and I don’t want them to have to pay, at least eternally, I just want them neutralized so they aren’t hurting anyone anymore (I can’t control that, only my own boundaries with them, but that’s the desire). I always thought of forgiveness as more like letting go of the anger and outrage, the debt to be paid, saying they didn’t owe me anything anymore. Have I got this out of order? 🙂 Seems like wishing for someone’s welfare would be the last step after letting go of anger and resentment that would be hardest of all, but maybe the anger is just functioning as a signal to me that the boundary with this person isn’t set firmly enough yet and they’re still hurting me and people I am responsible for, and will go away when I have dealt with this.

    • Laura,

      You ALWAYS have such great stuff to say, ask, and observe. Where to begin … ?

      First, the order of things. Despite many Christian’s attempts, I don’t think spiritual matters are as formulaic as we try. While forgiveness is suffering, the order of what we do is as varied as we are people and as the circumstances are different. We may begin with wanting their welfare, or that may be the way we end. God is infinite, I bet how we forgive is infinite too.

      Second, we really do have to be careful about being able to forgive … but not being stupid. If someone has has a problem stealing money from people, we may need to forgive, but we shouldn’t leave our wallets lying around.

      Third, anger at wrongdoing is a good thing. Anger itself isn’t bad. We should be angry at evils perpetrated on God’s creation. God is. He loves his creation, and we humans deface it all the time. But the hard part is to separate our personal anger (our desire for revenge) from righteous anger. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. We don’t have it in our natural strengths, only in our supernatural strengths.

      Last, boundaries. A truly spiritual person is not ignorant of reality. We are not unnaturally Pollyanna s, forgetting the world is broken; and we are not overly cynical, forgetting God is healing–restoring–his creation.

      Sometimes we are not ready to be in a relationship with that person simply because we don’t know how to deal with their brokenness; and sometimes we can’t be in a relationship because they don’t know how to deal with their brokenness. (And sometimes it’s because we don’t know how to deal with our own brokenness.)

      In all of this, we need God, his forgiveness, and his supernatural grace.


  5. Thank you for some clarity on this. A few years ago a ministry I had devoted my heart to working together with deeply betrayed me as a father and friend. They moved on without any seemingly real remorse. I got an apology, but there seemed to be a heart disconnection. Then another minister was sent to confront my lack of forgiveness because I did not treat our relationship the same and I wanted to separate our ministries. I was scripturally brow beaten in to confessing the sin in me of unforgiveness and embracing the men as my “pastors” again. Inside I felt sick. I knew I needed to forgive, but this seemed like psychological suicide, and now I was being labeled a sinner for not wanting to be best pals and spiritual underling of theses people. I just pulled away…It was just not right in a very creepy way. I stagnated and bled inside for a long time as I searched for an understanding of forgiveness that was in line with God’s Word, in line with the Heart of Jesus and did not force denial of realities. It is a subject that is written about in the most horrible soul killing ways in many Christian books. Thank you for adding to clarity. Adding to my soul relief, and pointing a way to healing of my heart and to being truly able to pray for good things for my offenders without having to show up for additional beatings. – Keep on keeping it real.

    • Hi David,

      I’ve heard this same story oh so many times. I bet you have too. But it’s different when it happens to us.

      I have a friend who (years ago) realized he is an alcoholic. For a year or two (maybe more), he felt he couldn’t even go into a restaurant that even served only wine, because the temptation would be too much. I think he was smart. He recognized reality.

      Yes, we need to forgive (but remember it takes time); but let’s not be stupid! Sometimes we are still too broken to deal with their behavior; sometimes they are still too broken to change their behavior; and often the patterns of relating simply need a long time-out before any “normal” relating can happen.

      And this is in the best of worlds where they really repent and we really forgive. It’s not bad or sinful to recognize reality. In fact, it’s wrong NOT to
      recognize reality. In John 2:24 it says, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.”

      It’s not wrong to know what is in man (as long as we remember what is in us too!).

      I love your closing line, that you want to “pray for good things for my offenders without having to show up for additional beatings.”

      You nailed it.

    • David, I appreciate your transparency. There are many who have suffered tremendous betrayal while serving in ministry. Let me assure you, despite how you may feel, you are not alone in this. Often we feel “blindsided” by these betrayals since we rarely expect them to be inflicted by the body of Christ, thus these wounds are especially damaging. Talking with a number of people regarding these types of wounds, I find we often have misconceptions regarding forgiveness. Among them: 1) Forgiveness automatically means reconcilation. No it doesn’t. I can forgive someone for beating me. It doesn’t mean I immediately put myself in a position to be hit again. Boundaries need to be established, and trust needs rebuilding. 2) Forgiving means forgetting. No it doesn’t. Hypothetically, I don’t forget that I lost a leg in the car crash I was in. However, with God’s help, I can choose not to harbor rage against the drunk driver of the other car through forgiveness. 3) Forgiveness is a two-way process. No it’s not. Restored relationship following wounding is two-way, and is sometimes possible with forgiveness, though far from certain. Forgiveness by itself is possible, whether or not someone approaches me and asks for it. If I wait for someone to admit their wrong, I may wait a very long time. Frankly, I don’t want the bad taste of anger and bitterness poisoning my system that long. I’d rather spit out the poison through forgiveness and leave them to God… I once heard someone say that forgiveness is letting a person off the hook, only to discover that the person on the hook was you….

  6. Sam, thank you. This is perhaps the most insightful description of forgiveness I have ever read. Personally paying for the offender’s debt resonates so deeply with Jesus’ words: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross…’ (Mt. 16:24). I especially love your line about executing the evil done to us.

    • Hi Quentin,

      Thanks. I heard this concept (paying for our betrayer’s debt) in a sermon by Tim Keller. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard it this way.

      And yet, like you, it is so clearly the gospel. We comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given; and we forgive others with the forgiveness we’ve been forgiven.

      It finally brings clarity (for me) to that “horrible” part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins) as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us.” Now we know how to do it.


      • Sam,

        What I learned in my forgiveness experience.

        1. It takes too much toll on your soul to nurse justifiable resentment.
        2. It’s much easier when the enemy is incapacitated with disease or near death but there’s no honor in waiting.
        3. The “Good News” is primarily about forgiveness.
        4. You don’t Really understand it till you implement it.
        5. You benefit immensely once you make significant payments.
        6. There are more opportunities than you can shake a stick at.
        7. Don’t attempt it without consulting the Holy Spirit.

        • Hi Jim,

          Great advice. I especially like your last item. The truth is, we can’t forgive without the power of God working in us. Our power to forgive depends on the power we get from God, and that from his forgiveness of us.

          Don’t try to do this alone.



  7. Sam,
    Someone has to pay??? I’m the victim here, why should I pay?? At least that’s the attitude I kept close to my heart for more years than I will readily admit. My betrayer disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again – so there was no chance for confrontation, resolution, arrest, etc.
    I really wish I figured this out a long time ago, would have saved me years of bitterness and wasted energy – and made for a happier man.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Lyman,

      Great honesty. We all think that, “I’m the victim here.” You said it exactly like we feel. I wish i said it so succintly.

      And we often are the victim. (Of course, to be real, sometimes we’re the perpetrator, but we REALLY hate to admit that).

      Thanks for a great comment.