In other situations people feel that although they should forgive, they do not ever need to trust the person again.
Both of these extremes can be wrong. We always have to forgive, but we do not have to trust those who hurt us and show no sign they are sorry. On the other hand, once we have forgiven we should strive to allow trust to be rebuilt whenever possible. The difference lies in the fact that forgiving someone who has wronged us is our responsibility; reestablishing trust is most often the responsibility of the person who wronged us.
In real life, people get hurt repeatedly – that fact was the basis for Peter’s question to Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). The problem is a very real one because humanly, repeated wrongs done against us can make forgiveness progressively harder. That is why Peter suggested we only forgive up to seven times – a “manageable” number of wrongdoings. Jesus’ answer, of course, was that we must not put a limit on the number of times we forgive someone (Matthew 18:22). But his answer has no application to staying in a situation where we would continue to get hurt if that is avoidable. Nor does it mean that we should trust the wrongdoer if it would be unwise or dangerous to do so. Remember again the Scripture’s counsel: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” This clear wisdom is expounded twice in the Bible (Proverbs 22:3; 27:12) for a reason.
Not understanding these basic truths prevents many people from restoring relations after forgiving those who have hurt them and causes many others to suffer unnecessarily when they do. In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says: “Many people are reluctant to show mercy because they don't understand the difference between trust and forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past. Trust has to do with future behavior.” Warren is surely correct in this, for while forgiving must be immediate on our part, trust must be rebuilt over time and depends on the behavior of the one forgiven. As Warren puts it, trust requires a track record: “If someone hurts you repeatedly, you are commanded by God to forgive them instantly, but you are not expected to trust them immediately…” Our forgiveness of others must always be unconditional, but our trust of others can and often should be conditional – it has to be earned.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to see change in the other person in order to forgive them – that would be an entirely wrong approach. We must forgive whether an individual changes or not. But we need not trust them if they have not changed. Trust develops slowly – and it must be remade over time. Think of the example of Jesus asking Peter three times, “do you love me?” (John 21:15-17) after Peter’s betrayal. Peter had failed Jesus three times, of course (John 18:15-27), and perhaps there is a lesson in Christ’s repeated questions that we should see recurrent or ongoing evidence of change before we fully trust again.
A simple analogy is that being hurt by another is like receiving a cut to our body. Forgiving the person acts like the stitches that close our wound, but spiritual and emotional healing, just like physical healing, still require time. Even when we fully understand the difference between granting forgiveness and trust, we must always remember that allowing time for trust to be repaired does not mean allowing ourselves a period of time to brood, feel sorry for ourselves, or to allow resentment or anger to continue to develop. That would be like allowing an infection to take hold in the cut that should be healing. Granting ourselves time to trust again should always be based on our complete and unhindered forgiveness of the other person – that is the only way we will, in fact, heal.
We should always be open to allowing trust to be rebuilt whenever this is possible. Forgiveness is a possession we all have that we are able to give to others. But trust is not a possession, it is a process that we allow to develop once our forgiving makes trust possible again.
* Exerpted from our new free e-book How to Forgive. You can download a copy here.