One of the Christian duties I have found myself explaining more and more frequently is the difference between forgiveness and trust. The two are related, but they are not identical, and serious confusions creep into situations when they are thought of as being roughly the same thing.
There might be a car mechanic in my church who gets into a sinful funk and intentionally slashes the break lines on my car. The next day, while driving down the Lewiston grade, I get to try out one of those runaway truck ramps and find out if there really is no fee for using them. The kids think its extremely exciting, nobody is hurt, and no harm done. The mechanic finds out, is cut to the heart and offers a heartfelt, genuine apology. Jesus requires that I forgive him honestly and completely from the heart. And according to Jesus, even if he repeatedly ransacked my car throughout the day, and his conscience was repeatedly smote, and he returned again and again, confessing his sin, I would be required to forgive him.
Every. Single. Time.
But at some point, one of the most loving, one of the most gracious things to do would be to get him away from my car. Apparently him and my car have this thing going where he can’t help but sin when he gets within 10 feet of it. So, being the loving brother that I ought to be, I don’t ask him to work on my transmission or the alternator. In fact, I may never ask him to repair anything of mine again. I don’t trust him. And it doesn’t seem to be good for his soul. But he is my brother, and we are in fellowship. On Sunday morning, I can greet him warmly, offer my prayers together with his, and sit down at the Lord’s Table with him.
I may not recommend him when asked about local mechanics. I may not think that being an auto mechanic is really the best vocation for him, but I have forgiven him, and my understanding of his situation is not bitterness or resentment for what he did to me. I have released that debt. He is forgiven.
You could apply this to a barber that turns your head into a hurricane alley. You could apply this to a teacher who has a poor reputation at a school. You could apply this to an elder or a pastor or a parent who has lost credibility. If the pastor admits to his congregation that he has been getting drunk off the communion wine and seeks their forgiveness, it should be the easiest thing in the world for the congregation to gladly accept the apology and extend forgiveness, but it would be the most foolish and truly unloving thing in the world to allow the pastor to just go right back to business as usual. It could be the kindest thing in the world to tell the pastor to pack his bags. And it wouldn’t be a lack of forgiveness. It would be a matter of trust and qualification. And even when there is no history of an individual sinning against you personally, you can have no personal bitterness or animosity and resolutely steer clear of the person simply because you don’t trust them in that capacity. And you are not sinning against them, any more than a grown woman should feel guilty for turning down some guy who asks her out. It might be because his nose is too big, it might be because he’s too short, it might be because of his reputation, it might be for any number of reasons, but she’s a free woman in Christ and has no romantic obligation to any man. Assuming he’s a believer, she only owes him the debt of ordinary Christian fellowship, but the rights and privileges of lover come by painstaking trust-building.
Fellowship is required by the gospel. We must forgive as we have been forgiven. As far as it depends upon us, we must be at peace with all men. But vocations and offices are privileges not requirements (cf. 1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1). And this applies to lawful authorities as well. A husband or father has true authority in his marriage and family, but it is not absolute authority. A wife submits to her husband as to the Lord, and this means, I do not tire of saying, that a Christian woman sees Jesus standing directly behind her husband (Eph. 5:22). In so far as he is pursuing Jesus, she should gladly follow and submit (and where it’s not a matter of morality, e.g. ice cream flavors, favorite colors, and other preferences, she can follow cheerfully, trusting the Lord). But if a man suggests that they sit down and watch some porn together, wants to cheat on their taxes, decides to rob a bank, or wants to bow to icons during family worship, a Christian woman must graciously but firmly refuse and immediately call elders or cops for back up.
And, to get to the point of this post, when the husband comes to his senses and admits that the whole bank robbery idea was sinful and foolish and asks his wife to forgive him, she ought to gladly forgive him and cheerfully insist that they continue going to counseling for a while. She must forgive him immediately, but she would be out of her mind to act like there is nothing to be wary about. It is the most unloving thing in the world to act like there is nothing to watch out for. Forgiveness is the first necessary step in rebuilding trust, but a flagrant disregard for the physical or spiritual safety of people under your care is a good reason to have that trust revoked. It is not unloving to hold your toddler’s hand while walking down a busy street. It is not unloving to not trust his ability to judge where it is safe to run. It is in fact the most loving thing not to trust him. And when a grown up shows significant lack of judgment or competence, it is not unloving to insist on guard rails, accountability, and serious hand holding. And true repentance must see and feel that sense of irresponsibility deeply. There’s nothing so disenchanting as the one at fault feeling hurt when people aren’t ready to trust them yet. You can’t shoot out all the windows in your home and then wonder why everybody is a little jumpy when you walk in two weeks later.
In recent weeks, there has been discussion of Doug Phillips and the Vision Forum fiasco, and this is an excellent case and point where clearly the fact that this was allowed to go on as long as it did means that in addition to Phillips’ own radical personal failures, everybody around him was neck deep in this confusion. What Phillips needed really early on was a heavy dose of real grace. Confusing forgiveness and trust means that forgiveness doesn’t actually have any teeth; it’s grace without power. But the whole point of forgiveness is to help a sinner change. Forgiveness certainly restores fellowship, but love cares about proclivities, weaknesses, and wants to see real healing happen. If your husband has an anger issue, a porn problem, if a teacher or a pastor is too handsy with the girls, if a dad has blind spots and is systematically alienating his kids in the name of headship and responsibility, the hard but loving thing is to forgive him and get help, forgive him and don’t pretend everything may just go on as it always has. That isn’t love. That isn’t grace. It’s actually some kind of hatred. And we can’t be surprised that after a number of years of this sort thing, the whole thing blows up and everybody does hate each other. Turns out practice does make perfect.
There’s typically a whole hornet’s nest of complicating factors in these sorts of situations, but one way of helpfully beginning to clear away the mess is by carefully, prayerfully beginning to make this distinction in your mind and in your practice. Learn to forgive first, learn to seek peace, but wisdom isn’t blind and remember: trust is a privilege not a right.