I have waited to write the second part of the forgiveness discussion because it’s hard. I’ve had to sit and think about it a bit.
You see, the highest purpose for forgiveness is restoration. This is the return of a relationship to a status equal to or better than it was before. Yet relationships fall in a large spectrum across the scale of friendship. From essential and vital friendships down to bare acquaintances, what precisely are we restoring? If an essential relationship is betrayed, can it be restored completely? What does it take?
My point in the first post was to provide two elements of forgiveness that do not require the offender to do anything. When we forgive unconditionally, we mean that we are not bitter and will seek no personal vengeance. But we don’t mean that we will restore the relationship to it’s former status.
Jesus forgave us completely only by the violent satisfaction of Justice on the cross. Forgiveness was impossible without the cross. Still there is one thing we need to do in order to restore our relationship with God. We respond to the call of Christ by faith. We are saying by faith that we repent and we want a restored relationship with God and further, we accept the price that was paid on our behalf. Otherwise, without faith, no one is restored. No one is saved.
Let’s apply this to people. A friend that we loved does a dastardly deed directed at us and we no longer trust him/her. Say this was one of a handful of people with whom we felt safe to be vulnerable and honest. Then, in some savage fashion, they used our trust against us. We have been betrayed. Can we forgive them?
Certainly. We can trust God to use this horrible event for our good in the long run and thus refuse to be bitter and we can leave vengeance to Him and trust that justice will be done some day.
Do we restore the relationship? Not to the original level and maybe not at all. It depends on whether our trusted friend repents. Without repentance there is nothing we can do.
Which leads to another question: what does genuine repentance look like? How do we know that the “I’m sorry” is not just empty words? Words are meaningless unless the heart is changed. Who can know if a heart is really changed?
There are at least two indicators that I look for: signs that they understand me and actions over time.
Signs that they understand me
By this I mean, the person who harms me has come to profoundly grasp how I felt and feel about the betrayal and they manage to convince me that they understand this by some means, however awkward. Sometimes this includes tears that come from deep inside. Words that I have never heard them say before, are another example. Primarily, I am looking for a indication that they hurt because they hurt me. Then I can perhaps trust they will never do it again.
Actions over time
Depending on the degree of duplicity, restoring a vital friendship can take some time. If the betrayer demonstrates a consistent faithfulness to the friendship for months on end, forgiveness will be strengthened and the relationship reborn. Eventually the past will be forgotten.
There are two levels here, I think. First is just restoring the Friendship. Second is restoring the Deep Friendship. The latter takes awhile and may never be reached again.
God does this better than we do. His patience with those who love Him is incomparable. I can’t match it. Partly because I can’t discern who is sincere and who is faking? Then there is the “woe is me. I want to feel sorry for myself a little longer” that keeps me from forgiving. Time helps us sort out who is genuine and then I believe we are compelled to forgive them just as we have been forgiven.
Forgiveness that restores is hard for the human heart to do. The Holy Spirit is essential to the process in order to make us pliable enough to do it. Forgiveness is certainly not instant. It takes faith and demands genuine repentance.
Remember that serial killer who killed one daughter and is forgiven in court by her parents? I asked if forgiveness meant that he would be allowed to date their other daughter? Not a chance. Unless he repents fully. Even then, I don’t know…
6 Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon. (NASB)