Last week I began to share a few thoughts in response to a question from one of our readers: how do we deal with our emotions when another Christian sins against us and there is no reconciliation?
Much more needs to be said about applying the gospel, God’s sovereignty, the doctrine of sin, personal holiness, forgiveness, and reconciliation etc. to conflict between Christians. For further study I recommend starting with Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.
I want to wrap up by touching on a few practical issues related to forgiveness: issues that are seldom addressed and yet are troublesome to our emotions.
Christians can be pretty fuzzy about forgiveness, which makes this point from John Piper particularly important:
“[F]orgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person. In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.”
What do we do when there is no repentance to respond to? Or how do we respond when someone talks and acts as if they have not sinned against us? Do expressions of affection from someone who has betrayed us mean we should all go back to the way things were? In this post I’m considering these questions in light of sins by another Christian such as slander, hostility, cheating, stealing, lying, or deceit.
Given our fuzziness on forgiveness, we need to press in and better understand what Scripture says about forgiveness and friendship, and also what it does not say.
If we are to live at peace with all men so far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), we have to understand exactly how far it depends on us. Our question must not be: What do other people expect from me? Rather, we must ask: What does God require of me?
Answering this question brings clarity. It helps us to move forward with a clear conscience, even if we are swimming against a current of expectations from others; and it clears up a lot of the confusion that follows in the wake of broken relationships.
1. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must agree.
Nowhere does Scripture require us to agree in order to resolve a conflict with another Christian. We are to love them. We are to refrain from retaliation. We are to pray for them. But we are not required to agree with them.
In fact, we must not agree if agreeing means violating a biblical conviction. To hold your ground on a moral or ethical issue is not unkind, unforgiving, or stubborn, but right. It is not un-Christian, but uniquely Christian.
Even if well-meaning people encourage us to agree for the sake of unity, we must graciously resist that pressure when biblical issues are at stake.
Charles Spurgeon humorously put it this way: “I have known good men with whom I shall never be thoroughly at home until we meet in heaven: at least, we shall agree best on earth when they go their way and I go mine.”
2. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must trust.
“You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you” insists John Piper. This is not rude or unforgiving. It is wise.
If a person has betrayed you and shown a disregard for the truth or for your reputation, you are not obligated to trust them again, even if they ask for your forgiveness.
Sometimes as Christians we experience false guilt on this point. When someone asks for our forgiveness, or acts like nothing has happened, we may feel like we are withholding forgiveness by not trusting them again. One insightful pastor explains:
There is confusion between forgiveness and restoration….To explain: If a friend seriously betrays me, I am mandated as a Christian to forgive him if he asks for it. But I think I would be foolish to restore him to a position of trust. I often drew the analogy with babysitting—if someone babysat my kids but neglected them, I should forgive them if they repent; but it would be delinquent to let them babysit again.
It would be unwise to trust an individual who, through lying or slander, has violated our trust. We must be cautious and careful in how we relate to that person in the future.
If someone has betrayed our trust, they must re-earn it, proving over time the genuineness of their sorrow and the fruit of repentance in the form of godly character. This is possible, by the grace of God, and I have witnessed, as you may have as well, the sweet restoration of trust that can flow from repentance.
But a glossing over of the issue, a half-hearted apology, or an expectation of immediate restoration does not obligate us to trust someone, unless or until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must remain close.
Sentimentality muddies the waters of forgiveness. A longing for “the way things were” is not a reliable guide for friendships. A close friendship in the past does not obligate us to remain close.
Friendship is a significant category in Scripture, and we must hold it in high regard. If we pretend that certain sins don’t have a devastating effect on a relationship, we deny what Scripture says about the meaning of friendship: trust, loyalty, honor, truthfulness, constancy, and sacrificial love.
True closeness is only possible under these conditions.
If someone betrays us, but fails to acknowledge that sin or make restitution, then to relate to them as if nothing has happened would be to undermine the meaning of biblical friendship.
But if a person realizes their sin, asks your forgiveness, and proves their trustworthiness, your relationship may be restored; you may even be closer than ever before. However, we are under no biblical obligation to be close again. We have not fallen short of forgiveness, or failed to honor God, if we graciously go our separate ways.
It may be that we now find ourselves in a different place or situation than before. God, who brings good out of every trial, may have used this broken relationship to move us into new areas of service and caused new, godly, friendships to blossom.
We must recognize these as blessings from God and move forward to serve him in the new ways to which he has called us. God does not expect us to maintain the same level of closeness with every Christian for the rest of our lives.
4. Forgiveness does mean we trust God.
Finally, as we try to carefully pick our way through the rubble of a broken relationship, we must leave the remaining confusion and questions in the hands of our loving, heavenly Father. Take this wise counsel from Dr. Cotton Mather:
It may not be amiss for you to have two heaps: a heap of Unintelligibles, and a heap of Incurables. Every now and then you will meet with something or other that may pretty much distress your thoughts, but the shortest way with the vexations will be, to throw them into the heap they belong to, and be no more distressed about them.
You will meet with some unaccountable and incomprehensible things, particularly in the conduct of many people. Throw them into your heap of Unintelligibles; leave them there. Trouble your mind no further; hope the best or think no more about them.
You will meet with some [unpersuadable] people; no counsel, no reason will do anything upon the obstinates: Throw them into the heap of Incurables. Leave them there. And go on to do as well as you can, what you have to do. Let not the crooked things that can’t be made straight encumber you.
And remember, above all, that God is good and wise as he rules over every aspect of your situation. I leave you with these encouraging words from John Piper:
God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up. He is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ.
“The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.” Ps. 37:39