Over the years I’ve forgiven some rather unforgivable things. I hope you have as well. . . Wait – that didn’t come out right. Hopefully you’re one of those rare birds who have never had anything particularly unforgivable happen to you. But if you have had someone do something unforgivable, I hope that you have been able to forgive them.*
One of the problems that people commonly struggle with when it comes to forgiveness is the issue of the restoration of relationships. Can you really say you’ve forgiven someone if you are unwilling to be in relationship with them? Does forgiveness demand that your relationship be restored? Or can you forgive but refuse to engage in relationship with the person who wronged you?
Part of why I am such a big fan of forgiveness is that it’s a very empowering act. I cannot often control the way other people behave towards me, but I can control how I respond to it. Forgiving allows me to take back my power from someone who has injected pain, suffering and turmoil into my life against my will. I get to declare in the heavenlies when a person is bound or loosed from their sins. And forgiveness also props opens the door to healing from harm done.
On the other hand, insisting that forgiveness must be accompanied by restoration of a relationship is just the opposite; it’s dis-empowering. It doesn’t allow for choice. It doesn’t allow for self-love or self-protection. It makes my own pain and struggle and needs completely irrelevant. And all too often, this insistence that forgiveness must go hand in hand with restoration of relationship is a tool of control which gets used against people who are already in a weak position.
Being in relationship with other people always opens us up to being hurt. And if we refuse relationship with anyone who is dysfunctional or hurtful, we will be lonely indeed. Most acts of forgiveness should not be accompanied by a reconsideration of the relationship as a whole. Generally, we ought to forgive and move on freely. But there are those times when what is being forgiven does call the entire relationship into question. So how can we maintain our default openness for relationship while also being realistic about which relationships are simply too dangerous, unhealthy or dysfunctional to continue?
As Christians we worship a Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) which means we worship a God whose very nature embodies relationships. As such, I am of the opinion that we are to be open to being in relationship with other people as our default. As Romans 12:18 says: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people.”
Therefor, whenever possible, it is my intention that forgiveness will lead to a restoration of the relationship as well. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes forgiveness can be given, but the relationship itself will remain broken.
When you forgive someone for a wrong they have done, you are declaring that the wrong done will no longer be a barrier to relationship. What you are not saying is that there are not or cannot be other barriers to being in relationship. For example, I may be able to forgive someone who assaulted me but also recognize that someone with poor impulse control, violent tendencies and anger issues is not safe to be in relationship with. I can forgive someone who engages in emotional abuse for their behaviors but decide that as a matter of self-love and mental health, I cannot subject myself to further emotional abuse.
What it always comes down to for me is this question: am I willing and able to remain in relationship with this person, knowing what sort of person they are and what I can reasonably expect from them? Which is not about past behaviors, but is focused on the person’s character, relationship skills (or lack thereof) and how they respond to life. Basically, can I accept and be in relationship with this person as they are or will doing so require more from me than I have to give?
On rare occasions when I decide that for my own sake, I cannot remain in relationship with someone who has wronged me. It has nothing to do with forgiveness or lack of forgiveness, but is simply a recognition of the realities I am dealing with that go beyond any particular wrong done. Sometimes I’m temped to feel guilty about making this choice, especially if it’s someone who I have a lot of history with or who I know is needy themselves. But the truth is that God is perfectly capable of tending to that person, with or without my help. Just as I sometimes have to struggle through on my own, it’s OK for others to do so as well.
*If you are struggling to forgive something, you may want to check out this video I made explaining my method for reaching forgiveness. I also cover forgiveness in my amazing, under-appreciated gem of a book The Upside World’s Guide to Enjoying the Hard Life.