How to forgive when deeply hurt
“He said I am sorry, but it’s at least the 10th time!”
“I don’t know what to do. I’m told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive and the Lord knows I’ve tried. But each time I forgive, he changes for a little while and then returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling I am handling things the wrong way. He never changes and I just get angry. What should I do?”
Sound familiar? How do you forgive one who has repeatedly hurt you? Perhaps you know it’s your Christian duty to forgive but you feel you’re being deceived or taken advantage of. What if you sense that forgiveness is being used to enable the selfish behavior of your offender? What does forgiveness look like when trust has been deeply broken? Does God give us a pass on forgiveness in such cases?
Many people struggle with forgiveness because they think it requires immediate restoration to a manipulative, unrepentant offender. They wrongly assume that forgiveness requires immediate restoration of trust and relationship after it has been deeply violated.
We must be clear that forgiveness is first about God. Our first need is to resolve forgiveness in the context of our relationship with God. Jesus warned that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15). It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Instead, God expects forgiven people to forgive (Matthew 18:21-35). God’s act of forgiving our sins is so great that he expects us to forgive others. Because God has so graciously forgiven my sins by lovingly bearing their just penalty on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), he expects me to forgive those who sin against me.
Forgiveness is not whitewashing or pretending nothing happened. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to neutralize our sense of justice. The very act itself takes seriously the offense. Forgiveness involves surrender of revenge. It’s as an act of worship in the presence of the God who forgives our sins by acknowledging God’s sole right to punish our offender (see: Genesis 5:15-20; Romans 12:17-21). It frees us from grudge-bearing vindictiveness and empowers us to love our enemies as God loved us (Romans 5:8).
But we must learn the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s possible to forgive someone without offering immediate reconciliation. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in the context of one’s relationship with God apart from contact with her offender. Reconciliation is focused on restoring broken relationships. Where trust is deeply broken, restoration is a process.
Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. Reconciliation is about restoring a broken relationship. Those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process.
In such cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong and asked for forgiveness, the offended person could rightly say, “I forgive you, but it might take time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is not always immediate restoration of relationship but surrender of a vengeful attitude.
In cases involving minor offenses, restoration should not be delayed or used as a tool of revenge. Unforgiving people withhold fellowship over minor grievances. Yet where trust has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, forgiveness does not necessarily require one to return to the same level of relationship.
Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all the consequences created by our actions. Being forgiven, restored and trusted again is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who deeply hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions might affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not always sufficient to restore trust.
When someone has been deeply or repeatedly betrayed, it’s wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. Reconciliation requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust (unless a clear issue of personal safety is at risk).
Those who deeply or repeatedly betray others must be required to recognize that reconciliation will be a slow, difficult process. Its timing usually involves three considerations: the depth of the betrayal; the pattern of the offense; and the attitude of the offender.
But how do we work toward reconciliation when we’ve been deeply (and perhaps repeatedly) hurt? Restoring a healthy relationship requires confirming the genuineness of the offender’s repentance. You can be sure that an unrepentant offender will resent your desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance.