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Q&A: Feeling Guilty About Past Mistakes

If your spouse has confessed past failures to God, help him understand God’s forgiveness.

By Dennis and Barbara Rainey

Before my spouse became a Christian years ago, his first marriage ended in divorce. His life has changed a lot since then, but often he still feels guilt about his unfaithfulness to his former wife and his poor job of being a father to his first two children. How can I encourage him?

Dennis: Many of us continue to feel shame and replay pictures of past mistakes—whether those mistakes led to divorce or not. The guilt we feel can be overpowering when we see the long-term results of our selfish choices.

You can play a key role in encouraging him to address this problem. First, assure your spouse of your “over-acceptance,” regardless of what he has done in the past. One of your spouse’s greatest fears may be that if you truly understand who he is and what he has done in the past, you will reject him. Your spouse’s greatest need is to be assured of your steadfast commitment and love. An environment of over-acceptance provides a climate for healing and growth.

Second, if he has confessed his past failures to God, help your spouse understand that he has been forgiven. Romans 8:1 reads, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Some people still condemn themselves, not believing that Christ took the punishment we all deserve. He paid the price for all our sins—and made it possible for us to become new creatures in Him. You may want to consider memorizing this verse together.

Barbara: I think this is one of the best things about marriage. Each of us has the privilege of reminding our spouse of what God has done for us—no matter what we have done in the past. And we can also model forgiveness by continuing to give it ourselves.

Early in our marriage, I experienced some difficulty with depression and self-esteem. There were days when I would feel like such a failure because I had done things I felt were really wrong. I believed I had blown it. I remember feeling unlovable during those times and would think to myself, I’m just not a good wife. I’m not a good mother. I’m not worthy.

Then Dennis would come to me and say, “It’s okay. I love you, and God loves you.”

I’d look back skeptically and say, “You can’t love me. I’m just not good enough for you to love me.” Then I’d argue with him, allowing my feelings to overrule the truth.

One day, after a number of these discussions, Dennis finally said, “Barbara, I want you to know that I love you and God loves you, and it’s the truth. Now, you have a choice as to whether or not you will believe it.”

The light came on in my mind, and I thought, He’s right. I’m calling Dennis a liar by saying that he doesn’t love me when he really does, and I’m calling God a liar as well. That was a real turning point for me in acknowledging the truth, regardless of how I felt about myself.

Dennis: The final step you can take is to encourage your mate to seek to restore broken relationships. It’s never too late to do what is right. And though your husband will never have the same type of relationship with his former spouse, he can still work to make the relationship friendly and provide whatever help and support he can.

This will mean approaching his former spouse and his children in humility and asking forgiveness for how he has hurt them and failed them. Pray with your husband that God will give him wisdom in how and when to talk with them.

When he asks for forgiveness, he should guard against expecting any type of response in return. He should not expect his first wife and children to immediately grant him forgiveness or to ask his forgiveness for their own offenses. Leave those results to God.

For some fathers, it takes years to reestablish a good relationship with their children. But there is great blessing in obedience to God, in knowing you have done what you can.

The Bible offers tremendous hope that you can move beyond the mistakes of the past. As Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14: “ Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

© by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

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