When my husband and I were dating he asked me what I thought was the most important thing in a relationship. I said love and respect for one another and healthy communication. I asked him what he thought was, and he said, “I agree with you, but I would also say it’s forgiveness, because that exemplifies God’s sacrificial and unconditional love. What Christ did on the cross for us is like he gave us a clean slate forever. He keeps no record of wrongs and neither should we.” He took my hand in his and moved it as if he was erasing a chalkboard. He said, when we hurt each other it will have its own consequences, but I want us to be able to address what’s really going on and then clean slate one another and keep no record of wrongs that may fuel future fires we will face.” This has been a foundational part of our marriage for the last 22 years.
Christ’s love and forgiveness for us exemplifies grace but not passivity. Christ was never passive. One of the most defining moments in our marriage was a time where his love looked most like Christ’s in this way and he stood firm in boundaries that were necessary for our marriage and for our family.
It is true that God calls us to forgive as has first forgiven us. If not, we end up being prisoners in our own resentment and cause a wedge in our relationship with Christ because of our disobedience. Part of forgiving is recognizing we are all human and imperfect and we will fail one another. Part of it is in recognizing that we act in self-preserving behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms and usually underneath hurtful, harmful acts is a hurting person. While God calls us to be like him and forgive, he does not call us to inflate or magnify minor offenses or to minimize situations that must be addressed. Louis B. Smeades the author of Forgive and Forget and also The Art of Forgiving, helps bring clarity on when our flesh gets entangled or we have a skewed perspective of forgiveness. In his book Forgive and Forget he says,
“Forgiving is love’s toughest work, and love’s biggest risk. If you twist it into something it was never meant to be it can make you into a doormat or an insufferable manipulator.”
Smeades sheds light on situations that he calls minor offenses and reunions/restoring in relationships. Minor offenses are acts that are done innocently or with pure motives. He states,
“Not every hurt calls for repentance or in need of forgiveness, any more than every cut needs stitching. In the cross-town traffic of human relationships, we have limitless chances to rub people the wrong way, thoughtlessly, carelessly and stupidly. Mini wrongs can be soothed with a modest gesture that falls well short of repentance and in need of forgiveness.”
He also makes note that it is not always healthy to reconcile or reunite right away, or even at all, in every act of forgiveness by stating, “Forgiveness is something that is done within a person’s heart and mind and does not obligate us to go back. Forgiving happens inside the wounded person while reunion happens in a relationship between two people. Forgiving has no strings attached and reunion has several strings attached.” I advise the people that I work with that those strings include boundaries that send the message “I will not let you hurt me (or our family)” and “trust is something that must be rebuilt”.
When I counsel couples and families I will often put out three plastic bowls and let them represent areas within the family system that need addressing. The first bowl represents the minor offenses, in other words, the things we need to let go of. The second bowl represents the things we need to compromise and work through to a healthier place for all parties. The third represents nonnegotiables. These are rules or boundaries that keep everyone safe. Boundaries will vary within each unique situation but there are times when separation for safety, counseling and healthy restoration are necessary.
The non-negotiable boundaries that include situations where someone is being abused, neglected, a threat of harm, or is no longer safe within his/her environment, require a physical separation for as long as the offender remains a threat to safety. In situations involving substance abuse/addiction, situations that put the family financially at risk, or cause serious emotional distress, the variance of boundaries is not as cut and dry. They vary from areas that clearly fall within the non-negotiable to ones that lend themselves to working through the underlying hurt to a place of possible healing, reunion and restoration. Here is where wisdom must lead. Meeting with a counselor or pastor can help you navigate so you’re neither abandoning your spouse in a time of great need nor enabling their behavior.
Forgiveness is given, but boundaries must be set. Consider what it looks like for trust to be rebuilt and at what level of restoration is healthy for all involved. Is the one who has offended showing evidence of humility, taking responsibility for their offense? Repented? Willing, committed and following through with counseling and/or treatment for their own healing? Meeting with a pastor or mentor regularly? Being honest and meeting with an accountability group or partner? Taking initiative or agreeing to the removal of opportunities to repeat the offense? Making a plan of action together? Respecting other boundaries you have set? Trust can begin to be restored at a gradual level when there is a pattern of progression and commitment to healing and change.
In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Smeades states, “If we keep forgiving, judgment and good sense in their right places, we can let the miracle of forgiving do its own proper work of healing and leave the restoration of the offender to other practical considerations.”