There’s an old saying, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” While the phrase is usually meant cynically, it is something to look at. This is because our Christian faith includes so much about forgiveness—both our being forgiven by God and others being forgiven by us. However, we should never take this forgiveness for granted, nor use it as an excuse to be immoral or hurtful.
When we take the forgiveness of others for granted, we act expecting them to forgive us. We know our action is something the other would not like. We know the action is something for which we will need forgiveness—in other words it will be an immoral or inappropriate act. We may find ourselves thinking, “So-and-so will not like that I am doing this, but he will forgive me.” This is true, but will that person trust you again? We forget that trust and forgiveness are two very different things.
When I forgive you, I am choosing to not demand restitution or punishment for an act committed against me. For example, if you took money from my wallet and I forgive you, then I would not demand repayment and neither would I demand your punishment. I would also choose to not hold the act over you. So, I will not come back at you years later in anger and say, “Remember when you stole my money?” It is this last that is so hard. We often express forgiveness, but in a heated moment the memory comes back and we lash out. This is part of our own imperfection—we want to forgive as completely as God, but we are weak and sinful.
This problem doesn’t just stem from our imperfection though. It also comes from the problem of trust. Trust and forgiveness are too different things (as I said above), but they can be related. Back to our illustration: if you took money from my wallet and I forgive you, does that mean I will be comfortable leaving my wallet around you in the future? Some may, but I think most would not. You see, even though you have been forgiven, you may never be trusted again. You committed the first act; you were forgiven for the act; you may not be trusted in a similar situation again. Though forgiven by the other, your status with that person has been harmed.
Now, is this wrong? Is there anything that says forgiveness must include future trust? Since I trusted you before your action, does forgiving the action require me to still trust you? Actually, I don’t believe one always requires the other. One is a question of relationship and response to an action. The other is an assumption of actions. When I trust you with my wallet, I am assuming you will refrain from taking anything from it. When I trust you with my children, I am assuming you will protect them as your own. When a woman and man marry, they trust each other to act in keeping with that covenant. When any of these are violated, the offender needs forgiveness by the offended, but can the one offended return to the original assumption about the person. Does the command to forgive require resetting the assumption?
This is a hard question. This is because our own forgiveness is such a justification (remember the old saying, “Just as if I’d Never sinned”) that not only has the old sin been covered, but it is removed as if it was never committed—we are declared to have never committed the sin. This justification is the basis of our being reconciled to God and the establishment of a relationship with the Father. From then on, he treats us as one who has never sinned.
So, when we forgive, we should seek this sort of reconciliation with those who hurt us. However, does this reconciliation mean trusting them? Should a woman who was beaten by a boyfriend continue to date him as part of forgiving him? Should a parent whose children were harmed by a neighbor forgive and then continue to allow that neighbor to watch the kids? It is in these situations where we find it easy to agree that forgiveness may not mean a restoration of trust—at least not to the original degree.
My reason for bringing this up today is not to tell you that forgiving someone doesn’t require you to trust them. That would be too much of a blanket statement because sometimes the trust should be restored. I am writing this to remind you that while it may be “easier to get forgiveness than permission,” the ruptured trust may be impossible to restore. When you approach a relationship this way you make an assumption about the other person. That assumption may irreparably harm the assumptions the other person makes about you. Do not treat others from the assumption that they will have to forgive you. Instead, treat them with the respect of demonstrating that you want their trust rather than their forgiveness—because you may not be able to have both.