As a follower of Christ, I absolutely must believe in the power of forgiveness. Why? Because I, above all, have been the beneficiary of His forgiveness. I’m not writing today to talk about the limitations of Christ’s forgiveness but of the limitations of human forgiveness.
I have counseled countless individuals through the years who have suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of friends and family members — people they should have been able to trust. While Christ’s example of forgiveness establishes the pattern for our own lives, there are many things that are quite outside the realm of our influence and control. Chief among them is the fact that while God is able to forget as far as east is from west, He has designed our brains to remember. And that design is partly for our own protection. Another factor beyond our control is the capacity to somehow undo damage that has been done.
I submit that it is entirely possible to forgive someone (that is, to set the offense aside and hold them responsible no more) without restoring the relationship to its prior level of trust and intimacy. Forgiveness, after all, is really not about the other person; it’s about the one who was offended. It is ultimately a gift we give ourselves — the freedom to move on in light of the new reality of life with a scar of some sort to help us remember the risks associated with human relationships.
I would go a step further and say that there are certain situations in which forgiveness and relationship restoration are simply incompatible goals. As parents, for example, we are charged with the safety and protection of our children — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some offenses cut so deep that any fantasy of a three-strike rule for the offender must be immediately abandoned. To do anything else would be foolish, stupid, and wholly irresponsible.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Many offenders are masters of deception, smooth talkers, and incredible manipulators of truth. They will say and do absolutely anything to again exert their power and convince others that any natural consequences of their sin are unfair, unjust, and unwarranted.
I wish more than anything that these things were not true. I wish that the building blocks of life, once broken, could always be used to restore every relationship to its highest level of previous functioning. The truth is that fairy-tale endings are reserved for the movies, where a team of highly skilled writers, producers, and actors work together for hours on end to achieve an optimal outcome. The problem is that no relationship is perfect. No person is without sin. And no offense is too great to receive forgiveness.
Scripture says that so far as it depends on us, we are to be at peace with others. Sadly, that sometimes means forgiveness without restoration or reconciliation . . . a far cry from that fairy-tale ending our hearts yearn to experience and our souls long to see.
Forgiveness for most is a process, not a one-time action. With practice we hopefully learn to do it better with time. In the meantime we must accept its limitations just as we accept its liberty to move on.
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What are your thoughts on forgiveness? Have you ever experienced a situation in which relationship restoration was not possible?