Forgiveness and Trust

When there is a breach in relationship, a wrongdoing or harm directed from one party to another, there is almost always erosion, or sometimes even complete destruction, of trust. If there is hope for complete reconciliation between two people, trust must come into play at some point.

The Erosion of Trust

If someone has wronged me, I probably have lost some or all trust in that person. The degree to which trust has been broken depends on all kinds of factors, including how grievous the offense was, whether it was coming from someone with whom I’ve had a long-term trusting relationship, whether the person was a person in power over me, or even whether this was a one-time event versus a repeated, habitual thing. Every situation will be different, but one thing is sure: every time we are wronged, or we wrong someone else, trust is eroded.

When it comes to forgiveness, there is a paradox at play: When someone wrongs us trust is eroded, but in order to forgive that person requires us to turn around and extend even a small amount of trust. The question is, how do we trust enough to forgive when trust has been lost in the first place?

Dealing with this paradox is like getting back on the proverbial horse after getting bucked off. You may not trust the horse anymore, but if you want to ride him, you’ll have to trust him again, even a wee bit, to do so. However, as we’ll soon see, in order to trust the horse a second time, you might decide to change or limit the circumstances in which you ride him. You might decide, for example, that you can only trust the horse sufficiently with someone leading the horse. That doesn’t mean that horse won’t buck you off again. He may well do just that! But the point is: any attempt to get back on will likely mean that your trust is a bit more focused the second time around.

It is foolish to live life in complete and utter distrust of anyone who happens to wrong us. “Never again will I trust that person” is the phraseology of someone who has abandoned any hope of reconciliation. And indeed, living by that mantra will guarantee that one day we will live a life free from the risk of being hurt by another. But the cost of that guaranteed freedom from pain is that we will also be free from gaining even the basic benefits accrued from human relationship: a sense of being loved, security, even the wondrous experience of entrusting a piece of ourselves to someone else.

The paradox of trust and forgiveness means that forgiving someone always means taking a risk. Or to put it another ways, There is no risk-free forgiveness. If you aren’t ready to take a risk in forgiveness, you probably will never get around to forgiving.

Let’s play this out in a little thought experiment.

Let’s say that I have been regularly lending you my car (see my pride and joy below). We’ve made an agreement that when you borrow the car you are responsible for damages, that you will clean it and fill up the gas tank when you return it. So far in the last 10 times you’ve borrowed it, you’ve returned it clean with no new dents or damages and with a full gas tank. Every time you do this, you deposit a bit of “trust-credit” in our relational account.

However, let’s pretend that on the 11th occasion, you bring home the car without filling up the gas tank. That’s a fairly small matter, but it was part of the original agreement. Now at this point, I have a choice: 1) I can overlook this and assume it was simply an oversight that won’t be repeated in the future, or 2) I can mention it to you.

If I say nothing and overlook it, it’s important to understand that I am not “forgiving” you at this point, but simply drawing on the “trust-credit” you and I have built up together. I prefer, rather, to call this act an outworking of the language of “bearing with one another” (Cf. Gal. 6:2), a “forbearing” with you, or giving you the benefit of the doubt. I may choose, for a number of reasons, not to bring it up with you. It may be I’m just scared to say anything because I don’t want to add friction to our relationship. Or I may simply sense that you’ve been having a difficult month and out of a sense of love, I don’t want to burden with this so I just let it slide. Whatever the case, I am not making a choice to “forgive you” at this point because your action is morally ambiguous. You may have simply forgotten or you may have been quite intentional and hope that I don’t notice. I simply don’t know. But I can still choose to say nothing, to overlook it.

But let me be absolutely clear here: If we choose to bear with one another, we do so on the basis of our mutually built up “trust-credit” account. And when I bear with you in this “little matter,” I actually withdraw a little of my trust of you. Why? Because at this point, I still don’t know why you didn’t refill the gas tank and I really won’t have a hope of knowing unless I ask. And the longer I don’t ask, I will continue to draw from our trust-credit account until it is all gone–likely by the second or third time you return the car without filling up the tank.

Forbearing is not forgiving. It is rather simply standing in solidarity with our fellow human in their weakness and finitude. It is an overlooking on the basis that, I, too, know what it is like to forget or to make a mistake and that when I forget or make a mistake, I’m not sinning per se. But in forbearing, I still cannot be sure whether you have made a moral decision to wrong me because forbearance assumes human weakness, not moral culpability.

But let’s go back to the scenario. If instead of simply overlooking or forbearing, I decide to mention the fact that you have not filled up the tank, how you respond to my query at that point will determine how much or whether I have to draw further from the trust-credit account.

If you say, “Oh! My apologies. I completely forgot! Let me take the car and fill it up right now,” you probably will succeed in restoring the trust-credit account to where it was before and my forbearance was the correct response.

Why did I forbear in the first place? Because of the history of our relationship. Ten times before you’ve never failed to fill the tank so I’m apt to trust that you simply forgot. Thus, when you tell me you forgot, and indeed, go fuel up the tank, my faith and trust in your is instantly restored, if not increased, and I realize that you not filling the tank was a result of human finitude and weakness, not sin. And you don’t have to forgive humans for being weak or finite. We laugh it off together, or I politely accept the apology (and apology is not a confession of sin–that’s another post!). We just keep loving each other in the midst of our finitude and weakness.

HOWEVER, what you if after I ask you about the empty gas tank, you say, “I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve decided I’ve more than paid for the gas I’ve used and I feel like you are abusing me with this rule. I always fill the tank, no matter how empty or how much I’ve used the car, and you’re getting more gas than I use so I just decided not to fill it up this time, and in fact, I won’t fill it up again for the next three times”?

Now we have a very different situation because your answer reveals to me that you’ve violated what we agreed upon. Sure, maybe I’m getting a better deal and sure, maybe you feel taken advantage of by me. Then the right thing to do is to come to me to try to renegotiate the deal. Who knows? I may make a new deal with you on the basis of the trust-credit we had built up! But instead, you unilaterally did NOT do something I trusted you to do. Guess what? You not only lost a small deposit in the trust-credit account, but you’ve potentially, in one action, put yourself into the red in regard to my trust-account. All that had been saved up can be instantly lost. That’s the weird thing about trust. It may take a long time to build up, but can be almost instantaneously lost.

Now of course, I could play out this little thought experiment many more steps, but the point is that when someone does something that harms trust, it doesn’t necessarily mean that forgiveness is necessary. Something may in fact happen just because we are weak humans. But we can’t really know until we have a conversation about it. If I hadn’t brought it up with you, the next time you brought back the car without filling up the gas, I would have begun to get angry and upset. And within one more time of borrowing of the car, we would now be in for a fight, an argument or me vowing never to lend my car to you again, not to mention potentially breaking off our relationship.

In other words, trust grows only when there is constant verbal openness between people in relationship. Openness to discuss and get clarity on why things didn’t happen the way they normally happen. Without that openness to discuss “relational anomalies”–actions that are different from what we’ve experienced in our relationship–trust inevitably, and quickly, erodes.

In this regard, I am absolutely convinced that the most important reason relationships are broken and destroyed so quickly is that people are generally unwilling to have an honest conversation with one another when relational anomalies occur. Why? For various reasons, I’m sure, but a major one is simply that the majority of us (with some notable exceptions!) avoid conflict at all costs. We see conflict as bad rather than as the key opportunity to strengthen a relationship.

Earlier I mentioned “relational anomalies.” It’s crucial to be alert to when these happen and not to assume that a relational anomaly is an instance of sin or bad intention. Sometimes we just forget or are careless. Sometimes we are tired. Sometimes we have something else heavy on our mind (a sick parent, a child who is failing in school, the threat of a lay-off, etc.) and we act in ways the other person doesn’t expect. These aren’t because of sin. But never, ever, should we assume, apart from a conversation, to know why someone did or didn’t do something. We cannot read each other’s minds or intentions. And so, unless we have the courage to raise the issue, in a non-accusing, non-condemnatory but exploratory way, we are very likely to have trust eroded at lightning speed.

[At the risk of getting sidetracked, I have to mention that I believe the practice of unilateral forgiveness–that is, mentally or emotionally forgiving someone in the absence of knowledge of what really happened or even what their intention was–does more to hasten the erosion of trust than anything else because it is forgiveness offered in the absence of conversation. It is a feigned form of relational “omniscience” which presumes to know the reason and intention of the person without that dialogue or conversation. It robs, in other words, the other person the right to explain themselves. That doesn’t mean that conversation will always result in reconciliation. It doesn’t. Jesus makes that clear in Matthew 18:15-20. But NOT to have a conversation and to forgive is, in my opinion, ignoring the very structure of how Jesus wants us to deal with relational anomalies. But that’s a whole other conversation!]

Re-building Trust

How, then, is trust restored after it has been eroded or lost?

Let’s assume that trust has been eroded or lost not simply due to human finitude (ran out of time, another thing came up we couldn’t avoid, etc.) and weakness (e.g. forgetting, emotionally distracted, etc.) but because one or both of us followed our flesh and did what is sinful. At that point, the re-establishment of the relationship will require forgiveness not as the sum total of our reconciliation, but as a step along the way to reconciliation. Forgiveness, in these sense, is always a means to the ultimate end of reconciliation.

You need to understand here that I understand the biblical notion of forgiveness as a bilateral relational transaction where the wrongdoer is convicted of and confesses his wrongdoing to the one he or she has wronged. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:3-4 is the most succinct description of this bilateral relationship. (I should also note that according to a Christian doctrine of sin, when we sin, all sin is really only against God (Psa 51:4), but we acknowledge that though all sin is against God, we secondly, sometimes, sin against others, too).

Now let’s return to our little scenario. After a short time, you might come to conviction that you unilaterally changed the terms of our agreement and that by refusing to fill up the gas tank, you were doing something wrong that risked the trustful status of our relationship. You admit that it was basically breaking your word, and you first (hopefully) ask God to forgive you (1 John 1:9). But you now also realize that even if God forgives you, our relationship has now been broken and needs repair. So, you come to me, admit that this is what you did and ask me to forgive me. Now what? Where does trust come into play?

In the scenario I outlined above, you had borrowed my car 10 times previously with no problem so your apology and seeking forgiveness would probably be relatively easy for me to grant. NEVERTHELESS, even if it was relatively easy, I have to take a risk to draw on the trust-account and give you another chance. Yes, it is a relatively small risk, but there is, in my reading of the situation, a good sense that you are repentant. You admit you were wrong, you come voluntarily without me badgering you, you even make a promise never to do it again.

I do a quick mental assessment of your confession and then take the risk (i.e., I decide to extend you a bit of trust) and forgive you, trusting that you will not do it again. In other words, I assume that you are repentant. Now what? One of two things happens:

  1. You carry on borrowing my car and I continue to trust you as I lend you my car, and this incident never happens again. We rebuild trust after one or two more times and things are good. We are reconciled. You risked my trust by coming to me and I risked trusting you again and forgave you.

  2. You do it again.

If #1, we’re fine and this little trivial matter–whether because you forgot or because you temporarily let your flesh get the best of you–does not prevent us in growing in our fellowship with one another. We go on to be best friends and have deep trust of one another.

If #2, the second time you come to ask for forgiveness, I will be obligated to forgive you (“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” Luke 17:3). Indeed, I believe Scripture is clear we are obligated to forgive anyone who asks. However, forgiveness even in the face of authentic repentance does not automatically restore trust.

In fact, in terms of “trust,” I may hesitate next time you ask to borrow the car. And you may also draw double the amount of trust out of my trust-credit account the second time. That means that before we can get to a fully restored, reconciled relationship, we might need a bit more time, a bit more conversation, perhaps a renewed agreement, etc. before I’m back to trusting you as I did.

Of course, if #2 keeps happening, trust will erode very quickly to the point that when you come to ask for forgiveness, though I’m still obligated, it now takes me a bit longer to respond and it may take a even longer to heal the relationship and to trust you a third, fourth, seventh and seventieth time. Indeed, I may really reconsider around the fifth time whether to lend you the car anymore until I see some of those habits change. Remember that when Jesus teaches us to forgive our brother or sister seventy times, he’s simply making the point that repentance obligates us to forgive. He isn’t tell us to through out wisdom and to be foolish in permitting our brother or sister to continue doing what they’re doing without challenge.

To be clear, my new hesitation to lend you my car doesn’t means I’m being unforgiving. It just means that trust has been eroded to the point where I’m not quite as willing to put myself into the situation where you might hurt me again.

So yes, forgiving when asked, of course, is a biblical requirement. But it is not a biblical requirement to cast our pearls before swine, to use the jarring metaphor that Jesus uses (Matt 7:6). Stomp on my pearls once, and I will forgive. Stomp on my pearls twice, and I will forgive if asked–but you can well be sure I’ll be holding on to my pearls a bit more closely next time. Stomp on my pearls three times and if you ask for forgiveness, I’ll still be obligated to forgive. But wisdom and a spirit of discernment may well be warning me at that point to stop lending you my pearls. Moreover, I should also realize that by continuing to lend you my pearls (car!), I’m not only putting myself in a situation where I am being abused, but I’m putting you in a situation where I keep letting you carry on in your abuse, i.e., actually encouraging and enabling you in your sin.

So next time you ask to borrow the car, and I refuse, it’s not because I’m an unforgiving person or keeping records of wrongs, but because you are demonstrating a life of unrepentance and I simply don’t want to aid and abet you in your unrepentant ways. Just like we don’t give whisky to an alcoholic, so, too, in Christian love for you, I do not give you opportunity to keep sinning against me.

Not until, of course, we have found other ways to begin restoring the trust we once had. Then and only then will I be even ready to consider lending you my car!