Rebuilding trust takes time when someone— a husband or wife, a close friend—has deeply hurt you. Do you fear forgiving the one who hurt you?
Forgiving a person who has sinned against us means that we will no longer hold the sin against the offender. It does not mean that the relationship returns to where it was before.
Often a husband or wife may fear forgiving their spouse who has committed adultery, thinking that forgiveness means they have to immediately trust their spouse again. Trust will take time to rebuild, and the adulterous spouse will have to live out the consequences of their sin with patient endurance, persistently demonstrating trustworthiness.
God Calls You to Forgive
In the meantime, God calls the innocent spouse to forgive. He knows the spouse is not going to feel like forgiving, but our forgiving another is based on God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 6:12, 14). God does not wait for us to be trustworthy before He forgives us.
He is aware of the sin that is deep within all of our hearts and knows it would be foolish to entrust Himself to us. He moves toward us in the middle of our guilt and shame offering us forgiveness. In the same way, we can move toward others before we feel safe, before we trust again, and before there is proof of change.
Forgiveness: One Part of Reconciliation
Forgiveness is not the end of the process, but a part of the larger process of reconciliation that aims to restore the broken relationship. If we forgive someone but say we don’t want a relationship anymore, then there is no process underway.
How would you feel if God said, “I forgive you, but I don’t want a relationship with you?”
When we repent of our sin, accept Him as Savior, and ask for forgiveness, God forgives us and makes us His beloved children. We belong to Him as children who owe Him an enormous debt of love. God’s forgiveness leads to relationship—not away from relationship. The forward-looking goal of forgiveness is to have a goodwill attitude toward the offender, to avoid alienation, and make a future relationship with restored community.
The goal in forgiveness is reconciliation, not separation.
When to Delay Reconciliation
We are called by God to forgive those who sin against us and we must be ready and willing to do so, but pursuing reconciliation is complex and not automatic. There are, however, situations and sins that call for a delay in reconciliation or even an intentional separation from one another.
If the offender has not repented or acknowledged their sin, and does not seek forgiveness, we can still grant forgiveness, but reconciliation is not warranted.
It may be wise to delay reconciliation because of exceptional circumstances—such as situations of immediate danger or harm—to bring the offender to true repentance. In certain circumstances, not creating and maintaining separation may facilitate and assist a person’s sin.
Separation can be purposeful and must be done with a desire for God to rescue a loved one from a particular sin such as child abuse, chronic deceit/lying, physical or sexual assault, adultery, drunkenness, persistent verbal and emotional cruelty, a gambling addiction, and things like these. Constructive loving kindness means saying “no” and waiting for genuine change.
When trust is broken, restoration can be a long process determined by changing attitudes and actions of the offender. Words and tears are not enough and will never restore trust. When an offender genuinely repents, there is an acceptance and understanding that rebuilding trust will take time.
Restoration in these situations requires clarity of confession from the offender, authentic repentance, taking responsibility and providing restitution as appropriate.
Joseph Learned to Trust Again
The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis 42–45 gives us a picture of someone who has forgiven his brothers for their severe sins against him. Joseph wisely withholds reconciliation until his brothers have acknowledged their sin and demonstrated true remorse.
Joseph strongly desires to be reunited with his family, but refrains from restoring relationship until they bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8). The fruit is seen in changed attitudes, new desires, and self-sacrificing behavior for the benefit of others.
Is your heart willing to move toward another after forgiveness has taken place? Take some time to analyze your heart and the reasons for your actions.
Use the following questions to probe your thinking:
- Can you think of some ways you have avoided true reconciliation with someone you have been called to forgive? How could you start to pursue true reconciliation with that person today?
- How do you know you have truly forgiven a person even though reconciliation is delayed?
- How can intentionally-created distance in that relationship be motivated by a desire to reconcile?
- Are you willing to be patient and wait on the Lord through whatever time it takes for the person to bear fruit of a changed attitude, desire, and care for another?