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To Forgive or Not to Forgive

By May 7, 20096 Comments

ForgivenessMore often than I would expect, I hear break-up stories from my college students that will go something like this…

Alex and Sarah have been dating for 2 years, and even though they’re only 19 years old, they’re already talking about marriage. Everything seems just perfect! Then one summer Alex and Sarah are apart for a few months, and during that time Sarah finds a guy that she likes better than Alex, so she hooks up with him.

Alex and Sarah eventually break up, and Alex is left completely heart-broken. But strangely enough, if you ask Alex about Sarah he still maintains that she’s a nice girl. Even though Sarah has totally crushed Alex and treated him badly along the way, he says that she really is a “good Christian.” She may have made a mistake, but she’s still the most amazing woman he’s ever met! And what’s even more miraculous is that he was able to forgive her almost as soon as she told him the bad news. That’s how much he loves her.

Whenever I hear this story, I feel somewhat conflicted about how to respond. After all, we ministers are supposed to encourage forgiveness, not warn against it. However, this poor guy is setting himself up to get hurt again, and I can’t encourage him to do that either.

So the question is, what is really going on here?

The problem in Alex’s thinking is that he’s failed to draw a distinction between forgiveness and trust. One of the best examples of this difference can be found in the life of Joseph in Genesis 44. After having been betrayed by his brothers and later reunited with them in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers don’t recognize their successful younger sibling. So Joseph decides to send them on a little misadventure. He frames them for stealing and threatens to throw one brother in jail, all the while observing their responses.

After leading them through this trickery, Joseph discovers that their hearts have indeed changed, so he reveals himself to them and they all live happily after.

The story has a very happy ending, and is especially encouraging to read when we go through the dark times in our lives, but what was up with the deception and manipulation at the end? Was that really necessary? It seems like Joseph was almost toying with his brothers just to get back at them.

While I cannot know the heart of Joseph, I suspect there was a lot more to his motives than simple vengeance. On the contrary, Joseph was testing them–not to determine whether he should forgive them, but whether he should trust them. He was learning whether or not he should let them back into his life, but that is a very different matter from forgiveness.

We know that Joseph had forgiven his brothers because of his response that “what they intended for evil, God intended for good.” His forgiveness was based not on their repentance, but on God’s love. This tells us that Joseph wasn’t acting out of a twisted desire for retribution, but out of wise caution as he took the time to determine whether they were trustworthy.

And this brings us back to the case of Alex and Sarah. When I hear stories like theirs, I wonder if Alex is confusing forgiveness and trust–he may think that he’s forgiven Sarah, but what he’s really experiencing is a desperate desire to get her back, which is leading him to trust her prematurely. He is sure that she’s still a nice girl, and odds are that if she came back wanting to reconcile, he would let her. That does not, however, mean that he’s taken the time to determine if she is trustworthy. On the contrary, his actions reveal that he hasn’t learned anything about her character at all. Nor has he grappled with the hard work of forgiveness…he’s just temporarily blind to it.

Forgiveness and trust are two very different things. While God does call us to forgive everyone, He does not call us to trust everyone. Before we put our confidence and vulnerability in someone who has hurt us, we must first determine if they will be responsible with that vulnerability. And this can only be determined over time.

The problem is that many people will be quick to trust, under the guise of being forgiving. From the outside, it would seem that they’ve already forgotten the injury, but in reality they are naively trusting and hoping for the best. If any forgiveness has taken place, it is based on a hope that the person can change, not based on the sovereignty and love of God.

The distinction is this: forgiveness is based upon God, but trust is based upon the individual. Because God never changes, the command to forgive does not change either. But not all individuals are trustworthy, so if someone breaks your trust, be slow to trust them again. That is something they must earn.

Now there are two different ways that we go about this whole forgiveness process wrongly. The first is what I described above–we think we have forgiven someone because we are so quick to trust them again, but that doesn’t mean forgiveness has actually occurred. Usually that kind of forgiveness is conditional–you have forgiven them under the condition, or at least hope, of reconciliation. But when that reconciliation does not happen, the true nature of your forgiveness will often reveal itself in the form of jadedness or long-festering disdain.

Or, the “forgiveness” is actually just a devaluing of yourself. In romantic relationships in particular, individuals are quick to “forgive” because they don’t think the injury was really all that bad. They are sure that this person is the one for them and that they won’t find anyone else who will love them more, so they “forgive” them, sometimes even thinking that they may have deserved it. This is NOT forgiveness. The only reason forgiveness is even necessary is that a REAL injury has taken place, so a quickness to forgive should not be based on a belittling of the wrong or an underestimation of what you deserve–it should instead be based upon the infinite healing and love of God in the face of these wrongs.

The second error we make is the opposite of the first: Refusing to forgive under the guise of refusing to trust. Though we have not actually forgiven the individual, we hide our anger behind the excuse, “I just can’t trust them anymore.” And while it is fine to wait before you trust someone again, this lack of trust does not legitimize a heart of bitterness or rage. Withholding trust is an intentional action based on wisdom and prudence–refusing forgiveness comes only from a selfish desire to hurt the other.

If someone has hurt you, you will likely find yourself in one of those two places. For some of you, you have been wounded beyond measure and this will be a long process of forgiveness that will take years to mend. For others, you have been wounded but you are so quick to trust that you are foolishly running right back into throes of danger. In both cases, I would encourage you to read the story of Joseph. It provides us with much needed hope during times of great darkness, but it also reminds us of the importance of caution when our hearts tempt us to act unwisely. The God of Joseph is the same God of you now, so be sure that you actions are determined by His unchanging, faithful character, not your circumstances.


  • Joe Jones says:

    I really like the idea of “refusing to forgive under the guise of refusing to trust.” I have spent way to much time in my life justifying my harsh treatment of a friend, because he or she needed to prove that they were truly trust worthy again.

    I wonder how many times I have thought, “You need to re-earn my trust” but in reality thought, “You need to be punished and I am more than willing to be the one who punishes.”

    humm..? Solid post Sharron 😉


  • yipeng says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I’ve quoted you with a link to you blog. Hope you don’t mind 😉

    Those last few paragraphs are gems!

  • Anna says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I really appreciate it because I feel like I’ve mistaken forgiveness and trust. How do you think we can show the person who’s done wrong to us that we’ve forgiven him/her even though we don’t really trust them? That’s what I struggle with.

  • Sharon says:

    I think the most important thing is open communication, in addition to being completely honest with yourself about your true feelings. I would communicate to the person that your heart is still healing from what they did, and that you need time to recover from it, but that doesn’t mean you are in any way trying to hold their sin over their head. However, the key is to then ACT on those words–make sure that you don’t treat them with bitterness or passive aggression. They will be able to see through your actions if your intentions aren’t pure, so you have to continue searching your heart on that, and let God examine your motives as well.

    However, if they still don’t understand why you’re distant, there is an extent to which they will simply have to be patient. Their actions have consequences, so God may have a lesson for them in that brokenness as well. But let Him teach them that.

  • sherri says:

    Wow. Brilliant post. Thanks for such a good explanation of this topic.

  • Sheri says:

    Thank you Sharon for your post. I was hurt by some family members right before Christmas and even though one has asked for forgiveness, I have not yet forgiven. After reading your post, I realize that as a Christian I must forgive, but that healing from the hurt takes time. I’m not ready to be all “warm and fuzzy” towards then like nothing happened. I’m guessing this is where the trust part comes in. What I’m wondering though, is it ok for me to not want to be part of family functions right now? Is it ok for me to keep my distance until I am comfortable being around them again?

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