The other day I had a great conversation with a couple of my friends. We were driving together for several hours, so we had a lot of time to visit. The conversation ranged all over, but because my friends Mark and Peter (good biblical names) care so much about many of the things I am also passionate about, the conversation gravitated to a very interesting topic I would throw out as the topic for my weekly rant.
The question posed was something to this effect: Does forgiveness mean restoration of the relationship? And that is an important question!
In the context, we were visiting about abuse survivors and abusers. How does a survivor move forward well? God invites each person to forgive unconditionally. And that seems to be a little risky, a lot hard, and perhaps even a staggering amount of foolish.
Let’s begin by defining forgiveness, then move to defining restoration. Finally, we will put the two together and try to marry real wounds with real forgiveness.
By definition, to forgive means “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” In other words, forgiveness is giving up your right to be angry. And this matters. The goal of forgiveness is setting someone free from the pain of an event, infraction, or violation. It is letting someone off the hook for the consequences of a painful experience caused by someone to someone.
But the someone set free is not the offender, and that is the big idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about letting the offender off the hook. It is not about giving in or turning away from the consequences of the infraction for the offender.
Forgiveness is about setting the offended person free. Your forgiveness is for you, not the other person. It does not mean you don’t take into account who that person is or what they have done or could do to you again or to others. Forgiveness, even in its dictionary definition, is all about me and my decision not to be bound to an offense caused by someone else. Beyond the reality of the physical benefits of forgiveness (less stress, less cortisol, more connection, more dopamine — a healthier person), the reality of the emotional effects are undeniable.
Here is the rub: In Scripture, one of the things we see connected to forgiveness is restoration of relationship. This is true with Jesus on the cross. It is true of the sacrificial system within the temple. It is true in the many stories Jesus tells. Even the prodigal son (Luke 15) is restored because of his father’s unwillingness to make him pay for the mistakes he had made. So, is this the end goal of forgiveness, that we must be back in relationship with the person who wounded us? When a person says something hurtful, that is one thing. When a person abuses another person, that is something entirely different.
Restoration by definition is“the action of returning something to its former owner, place, or condition.” That could sound like, in order to forgive from a biblical sense, we must return everything just like it was before they wounded me. And if I can’t do that, then I cannot truly forgive. The bigger problem is Jesus says that in the measure we use to forgive, the same measure will be used to forgive us. If I can’t restore things back to the way it was before you hit me or abused me sexually or spent all of my money or cheated on me, or whatever else, I can’t be forgiven. That sucks!
That could be what it sounds like, but it isn’t.
Think about this. In any relationship, the navigation of that relationship constantly moves. What I mean is that as people change, grow, learn about one another, and spend time together becoming aware of themselves and each other, boundaries are constantly in the process of evolving. Many times, we don’t know what we are getting into with a relationship until we are there. How many of us who are married were surprised by something that we learned after we married a person, even though we were in love and shared our whole lives together beforehand?
Not to mention the variables that change. Mom gets cancer, kids are born, friends move, parents move in, jobs cause stress, and a thousand other things all affect how we interact with one another.
The assumption that in order to call the relationship restored, it must return to what it was before the offense, is unwise on every level. It doesn’t work in hard circumstances, but it doesn’t even work in everyday life. We cannot go back and blindly trust a person who has wounded us so deeply as if it never happened. Boundaries must change. The relationship will be different. That’s okay.
Forgiving is giving up your right to be angry. Restoration is a call to healthy and proper and new boundaries in that relationship, and those boundaries may be that you do not have any interaction with that person. That’s okay, too. Those boundaries may be that you have limited relational access to that person, or none at all. Forgiveness is not giving the person the ability to hurt you again and again. Restoration isn’t blindly walking back into the same situation that hurt me in the first place. There is no wisdom in either of those ideas.
Forgiveness does lead to restoration — restoration of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit, and of relationships. But that does not mean we must subject ourselves to the pain that unrepentant offenders continue to inflict on others.
So may you forgive well. May you let go of bitterness and take hold of freedom and peace. May you experience the power of effective boundaries in your relationships. And may you be the catalyst for the healing of many hearts.