In a previous post I mentioned the Six Steps for Granting Forgiveness, from the PREPARE/ENRICH marriage system by LifeInnovations. This is the second in a series explaining each of those steps in greater detail.
One of the big mistakes people make when granting forgiveness is thinking that in order to really forgive you have to pretend the hurt never happened. I think this is especially true among Christians. We read in the Bible about how God forgives us, how he remembers our sins no more, and we think that means that to forgive like God does, we have to pretend a person never did anything wrong. We even sometimes think that we need to actually forget that it happened.
I don’t think that’s what God means. And I certainly don’t think that’s what he expects of us. In fact, that would be quite unhealthy for us.
When we think about God telling us that he remembers our sins no more, there are two important things to keep in mind:
- He is God. While our sin grieves him, it does not harm him. He can afford to treat us as though we had never sinned.
- God’s anger over sin has been satisfied by the death of Jesus Christ. His “forgetting” of our sin is tied up in Christ’s atoning work. Christ took our sin and covered us with his robe of righteousness. It is Christ’s righteousness God sees when he “remembers our sin no more.”
Because we are neither God nor the workers of our own redemption, we cannot actually accomplish what God can when he forgives us. When Paul says “Forgive one another, just as in Christ God forgave you,” he isn’t saying “forgive the same way God does”, but rather is saying, “forgive because God does.” There is a difference.
Does that mean we should not forgive from the heart? No.
Does that mean we should insist on apologies before we forgive? No.
Does that mean we can limit our forgiveness? No.
But it doesn’t mean that we should not set boundaries. When we have been hurt, we need time to heal. We need to be able to rebuild trust. That requires that the other person not hurt us the same way again, and that we have communicated that expectation clearly. This is the second step in granting forgiveness:
- Be specific about your future expectations and limits.
This is not a failure to love or a lack of true forgiveness. In fact, it is in the best interest of the relationship because it is saying, “This relationship is important to me. If it is to continue, I cannot let you hurt me this way again. So I am setting a boundary to avoid future hurt, so that our relationship can continue and grow.”
What kind of boundary should you set? How do you set it? That’s going to depend on the relationship, the situation, and the hurt. You will set a different boundary with a child than with a spouse, a different boundary with a parent than with a friend.
The boundary might relate to what you are willing to do, or it might be requesting that the other person do something. It might involve limiting contact with the person, or setting up some ground rules for contact. It might involve creating a safe word so that when you say, “Peaches!” (for example), the person knows that you are starting to feel things are going out of bounds.
Whatever it is, it is an important part of forgiveness. It shows that you are willing to do what is needed to preserve the relationship, and is asking the other person to do the same.
So, if a friend has hurt you by betraying a confidence, you might communicate that for some time you will not be sharing such closely guarded information.
If a child has been wildly out of line, you might set some household rules that will curb such behavior.
If a spouse has been unfaithful, you might establish some new rules for transparency.
If a spouse has been cruel or physically or emotionall abusive, you might get some space (stay with a friend or family member for a time, or move out while pursuing counseling). Or set some specific rules for handling consequences with mutually agreed upon consequences if either of you breaks them.(Please note, be sure that if you are in real danger, serious steps may be absolutely necessary and should be discussed with a counselor).
If a parent has disappointed you in a major way, you might seek another adult friend you can depend on, and make it clear to the parent what level of contact you will allow. (Please note with this one, if you are under 18 this should be handled with the help of the other parent, a trusted guidance counselor or teacher, a minister, or some other professional).
This principle works even in smaller scale. Maybe you just have a bad argument with your spouse and both say some things you shouldn’t say, those sharp biting words, those button pushing phrases that just come to mind. Should you still communicate expectations and limits? Absolutely. But do so gently, with respect, and for the good of the relationship.
When Jesus gave forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery, what did he say to her? “You’re forgiven, now get out of here and do as you please.” Nope. He said, “Now go and sin no more.” He communicated an expectation, that she would change her lifestyle. When God speaks to us about our sin, he communicates his love, but he does set a limit: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). He is saying, “Your sin could be a problem for our relationship. Don’t ignore it.”
If we are wise we will practice the same kind of loving communication in our relationships. This will set us free to practice real, true forgiveness.
If you want more information about how to set boundaries in your relationships, check out the book Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend.