One of the enemies of good boundaries is confusion around forgiveness. Often in the church we collapse into our use of forgiveness three different ideas: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Trust.
Forgiveness is what our Lord commands us as believers to do, in light of God’s great grace towards us. It essentially means to let the one who has sinned against us “off the hook” for the way they have wronged us. We make a decision to not hold it against them.
Forgiveness is a decision made in a single moment but may have to be revisited over the course of a lifetime many more times. It’s like the vows made in a wedding ceremony. They are a commitment made at a single moment in time, that are then revisited time and again. When we decide to forgive, we are choosing to surrender our right to justice and committing to remind ourself of that decision whenever circumstances trigger remembrance of the hurt caused.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean not feeling angry. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t mean feeling warm fuzzy feelings towards the offender. It’s a choice. Sometimes the first step in forgiveness is the decision to make the decision. That is, we are not always ready to earnestly forgive right away. We can, however, choose that we will do the work necessary to arrive at forgiveness, because that is what our Lord wants us to do.
Forgiveness is not denial, avoidance, or minimization. Jesus didn’t pretend not to notice or not to think about our sin; He looked it in the face and bore the full weight of it in his body – and chose to forgive. Jesus didn’t say of our sin, “It’s not that big of a deal,” or, “It’s ok” – He said IT’S A BIG DEAL, and IT’S NOT OK, AND I forgive you.
You can’t let go of what you don’t take hold of. Part of forgiveness is honestly coming to grips with the exact nature of what you are choosing to forgive, including its impact on you and those you love – past, present, and future. Forgiveness without doing so isn’t really forgiveness, it’s spiritualized avoidance/denial.
Forgiveness is something you can choose to do unilaterally. While it’s certainly easier if the other person is repentant, their repentance is not necessary for you to able to forgive. Repentance is necessary though for reconciliation.
I can forgive you and chose to never speak to or interact with you again. I can let you off the hook for how you have sinned against me and choose not to be in relationship with you anymore. The decision to continue in relationship with a person is reconciliation, not forgiveness.
You can reconcile with a person, and decide to continue in relationship with them, without their repentance – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The wise person sees danger ahead and takes refuge. The foolish person goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. Healthy people, with good boundaries, require repentance if they are going to reconcile in relationship. Jesus requires that we repent of our sins, not just ask for forgiveness. Repentance denotes a change of behavior. It’s a 180 degree turn where I go in a different direction.
If a person is repentant of their sin towards you and their behavior demonstrates the fruit of a repentant heart, then you may choose to continue in relationship with them. Notice I say, “MAY.” That’s because you are under no obligation to do so. You are required by Scripture, to the best of your ability, to live at peace with all people – that doesn’t mean you have to be friends with every person. In fact, that’s impossible. You can only be friends with so many people; there’s wisdom in being selective about whom you choose to be in relationship with.
Now, if you are married to them – either through matrimony, or because they’re family, or part of your ministry – then you may have some other compelling reasons to reconcile. At other times the Holy Spirit – to Whom you should always be obedient — compels you to reconcile.
Reconciliation doesn’t mean doing what the other person wants you to. Unhealthy, immature, controlling individuals are always trying to tell you what forgiveness and reconciliation mean you “have to do.” Don’t buy it. Let me repeat myself: Reconciliation doesn’t mean doing what they want you to do. Whether that’s lending them your weed whacker, inviting them to your birthday party, or hanging out with them this Saturday. It also doesn’t mean that the relationship has to be as though the offense never happened.
You can choose to forgive and to continue in relationship – but some breaches in relationship change the relationship forever. That’s just reality and it’s not unbiblical. There’s nothing in Scripture that says you must have the same kind of relationship with everyone in your life and that the nature of those relationships can never change. Trust isn’t rebuilt overnight.
Forgiveness is different than reconciliation, which is different than trust.
- Forgiveness says “I let you off the hook”
- Reconciliation says “I’m willing to continue in relationship with you”
- Trust says “You’ve earned, through trustworthy behavior and transparency, over time, my confidence in this area.”
It’s naïve to give trust. Trust should always be earned. Now, if you are a trusting person you may give people the benefit of the doubt, a certain level of “starter trust” until shown to be untrustworthy. Even this is optional and largely shaped by your experiences of life and culture. For example, if you live in the country and trust your neighbors, you may leave the front door of your house unlocked and your car keys in the ashtray. If you live in the ghetto…you probably don’t, with good reason.
Unsafe people frequently expect or demand trust when it hasn’t been earned. They have unrealistic expectations about how quickly trust should be earned after breaching it. They tend to get angry and indignant if their trustworthiness is questioned.
The formula for trust is as follows:
Trustworthy Behavior + Transparency + Time = Trust
If a person isn’t acting trustworthy, then it is foolish to trust.
If a person says they are acting trustworthy, but there’s no way to verify other than their word – there’s no transparency. To believe someone is being trustworthy, because they say they are, when they have previously said things that proved not to be true, is foolish. Transparency enables confidence to be built by independently verifying that what is said aligns with reality.
Time by itself doesn’t equate to trust. If you violate trust, and we go separate ways for 10 years and then meet up again, even if you have been trustworthy the entire time, I don’t trust you. If I haven’t seen your trustworthiness, I don’t know you are trustworthy. Transparency is necessary.
If there is trustworthy behavior and transparency so it can be confirmed, then a repetition of situations that demonstrate the trustworthiness (time) can establish trust. If time passes without opportunities to demonstrate trust, then trust isn’t built. If there are opportunities that are handled well, each one earns a little trust. Over time, if there are not new breaches, trust accumulates.
Trust is a decision. No one can make you trust and no one can keep you from trusting, even if you shouldn’t. If you are open to trusting and the other person is repentant, then reconciliation provides an opportunity for trust to be earned.
Trust is categorical also. I trust my mechanic to work on my car, but not necessarily to babysit my kids. My babysitter is great with the kids, but I don’t want her doing my taxes. Trust in one area doesn’t necessarily equate to trust in another. Breaches of trust in one area doesn’t necessarily mean a person is untrustworthy in every area.