Forgiveness, Trust, and Social Closeness

NOTE: This is a blog post Susan wrote in 2010 on another site we had at the time. After a little bit of updating, we decided to share it with you here. It seems like this topic is always applicable. Enjoy!

A Pastor friend of mine recommended a book to me recently because of the chapter on forgiveness. Most of this blog will be quotes from that book because I don’t think I could say it better. The book is 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe by Larry Osborne.

I have been questioning what it feels like and what it means to forgive someone when there has been tremendous hurt. If there is still hurt and distrust, is it really forgiveness? How do I get past it all? What am I doing wrong? These were just some of the questions I asked my friend. Osborne addresses the false beliefs we tend to have about forgiveness. Here is one:

Some of us have been taught that forgiveness is pretending nothing happened – a head in the sand posture that ignores the obvious. Some of us think of it as a never ending series of second chances. Others view it as a fresh start with all the consequences and old baggage removed. Still others imagine it as the immediate and full restoration of a broken relationship, complete with the same level of trust and privileges that preceded the wrongdoing. But the goofiest idea of all is the widely held belief that genuine forgiveness means literally forgetting what happened – wiping the slate so clean that every memory of the transgression disappears.

He then spends time talking about how we think that God actually “forgets” our former transgressions and so we should forget it when people sin against us. But God doesn’t forget in the sense that he can’t remember things!

So, what does the Bible mean when it speaks of God remembering our sins no more? It means that he no longer responds to us in light of those sins. They no longer derail our relationship with him. They no longer garner his wrath. They are gone – completely – from our account. But it doesn’t mean he can’t remember all the things we’ve done. An omniscient God doesn’t forget stuff.

He then talks about why this is such a big deal:

When forgiving becomes synonymous with forgetting, it tends to produce spiritual confusion and other rather unfortunate spiritual responses for those of us who have been forgiven and those of us who need to forgive.

Simply forgetting that someone has deeply hurt you or abused you, allows the door to remain open for even more hurt and abuse. While a Christian’s vertical relationship with God remains untouched in the midst of sinful actions, there are horizontal consequences in the form of broken or lost relationships that often accompany deep hurt and wounds. Osborne continues:

There’s another problem that occurs when forgiving gets confused with forgetting. We tend to assume that if someone has forgiven us, whatever happened in the past should be a dead issue. The other person should just get over it and move on. But that’s unreasonable. It unfairly turns the tables on the one who has been wronged. It assumes his or her pain should magically disappear. And if it doesn’t, we get to write off the injured party as an unforgiving slob. Our sin is now their problem. Not a bad deal! Yet, in reality, healing takes time. Forgiveness is a decision lived out as a lengthy process. The expectation that those we’ve wronged should simply forget about it is not only unreasonable; it’s emotionally unhealthy. People who can’t remember what happened to them or who bury their pain are not spiritually mature; they’re mentally or emotionally handicapped.

That really spoke to me. I think for a long time I’ve dismissed emotions. After all, God is Sovereign and He does everything perfectly and for my good. Yes, He is and He does, but that doesn’t take away my humanity. I was created with emotions. Jesus displayed many emotions while walking on this earth with mankind. He had compassion, He cried, and He was angry at times!

The Psalms are full of emotion. The Psalmists cry out to God. They praise God. Tears of anger and joy abound in the Psalms! So why do we think that our hurt and pain should just go away? I heard someone once say that the Holy Spirit is pleased to sometimes work in decades. But we live in a culture of quick fixes. TV shows abound with huge problems that are solved in 30 – 60 minutes. We can cook a meal in minutes with our microwave ovens, so why are you still hurting? Come on, get over it! I’ve been guilty of expecting not only myself, but others to “get over it” sooner than later because I have left out the work of the Spirit. Not only does God work perfectly in my life, He works in His timing and on His own schedule! Osborne adds:

Perhaps the most significant downside of equating forgiving with forgetting is that it makes forgiveness seem impossibly out of reach. Anyone who has been deeply hurt knows that painful memories stick. They can’t be willed away. Pray as we might, they aren’t erased. The pain may lessen. The memories may fade. The nightmares may disappear. But gone for good? Not often. And sadly, having decided that it’s not possible to forget, many of us also mistakenly decide it’s not possible to forgive – at least when it comes to the big stuff.

So, how do we live out this kind of forgiveness in the real world? What consequences are appropriate? Which ones are punitive? How far do we go with second chances? Does forgiving mean trusting someone again even when we know they’re untrustworthy? Does it give those who have hurt us the right to barge back into our life at deep and time – consuming levels? Do we have to invite them over for dinner?

It’s important to wrap our minds around the fact that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that trust and social closeness are automatically restored. Trust and social ties are earned privileges that may never reoccur in this life. Forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply and broken your trust doesn’t necessarily mean that you must also grant them the right to climb back into your life. Those are two different things. Osborne puts it this way:

There is one other area of confusion that needs to be addressed. Does forgiveness mean restoring a broken relationship to its original state? Does it mean we have to trust the other person again? Does it mean we have to invite her to our next party? Some people seem to think so. Once they’ve been forgiven, they expect to be immediately restored to full trust and relationship. But that’s not the case. Trust, close relationships, and forgiveness are not necessarily related. While forgiveness puts aside all bitterness and all plans for revenge, it doesn’t make someone trustworthy or turn the person back into our best friend. Trust has to be earned. Close social ties are a privilege. We don’t owe anyone either.

While counseling a woman whose husband had cheated on her a second time, after she forgave him the first time, she asked Osborne if God would forgive her for not trusting her husband again. This is what he said:

I assured her that she wasn’t the one in need of God’s forgiveness. God wasn’t asking her to trust her husband again. He was asking her to forgive him. That might or might not mean staying in the marriage. But it certainly didn’t mean believing him when he called to say he was working late at the office again, or claimed that a flirtatious female coworker was ‘just a friend’.

This is not to say that God doesn’t heal and restore relationships. I have seen marriages healed and become a beautiful example of forgiveness and humility. But it’s not always like that and to expect it to be can be very harmful to both parties. Sometimes there are new beginnings, but not always, and knowing what forgiveness is and what it looks like will help us to heal.

Osborne wraps up the chapter by talking about Jesus and His forgiveness for us. In light of what Jesus did for me on the cross, how do I respond? Someone once said “You need to go backward to what Christ has done in order to go forward in what you are to do.” This is especially important when we find we are unable to forgive someone. Perhaps the wounds are too fresh or too deep and you’re just not in a place right now where forgiveness would be genuine. Forgiving someone is not mechanical and it can’t be forced or manipulated. It’s a process and sometimes it’s a long process. Especially when someone hasn’t asked for forgiveness, or when they deny that they have sinned against you, or they put a spin on it to explain it away and justify it. But forgiveness doesn’t mean we will always experience full restoration of the relationship, or that we are even obligated to pursue it. Sometimes, all we can do is look to Jesus to do the forgiving.

In his book, The Heart of a Servant Leader, Jack Miller wrote:

Therefore I urge you not to be discouraged, but to walk wisely and in love. Forgive, bless, and show love whenever it is consistent with holy wisdom that God will give you.”


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash