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As we go through life, we will all experience pain through the words and actions of others at times. To one degree or another, we will be sinned against. We cannot avoid this reality, but how we respond is vitally important. As Christians, extending forgiveness to others is essential. Jesus taught us this and modeled it for us, even as He was dying on the cross.
When I teach on this topic, I like to say that forgiveness is like a coin; it has two sides and you can’t take one side without the other. One side of the coin is that we receive forgiveness from God. The other side of the coin is that we extend forgiveness to others. Consider this well-known statement from the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 ESV).
In light of what Jesus has done for us, God clearly calls us to forgive. When we harbor unforgiveness, bitterness, and resentment, we put ourselves in a spiritual prison and open the door for demonic influence. I have seen this reality many times in praying for people for deliverance.
With all of that said, I want to address another important issue: how forgiving someone does not mean that you cannot maintain boundaries with them. It is biblical and often necessary to establish boundaries with toxic and abusive individuals. How can you forgive someone and still have boundaries? I hope the following will help bring clarity.
What Forgiveness Does Not Mean
Sometimes, teaching on forgiveness has been misunderstood and misapplied, causing even more damage to a person who has already been severely wounded or abused. And sometimes a person’s reluctance to forgive is based on a misunderstanding of what it means and does not mean to forgive. Therefore, it is important to make the following clarifications:
1. Forgiveness does not minimize the damage done
It is important to emphasize that forgiving someone does not mean that what they did was okay or that the hurt you experienced is not real. Forgiveness does not minimize or justify abusive, deceptive, or hypocritical behavior. It is not a call to just stuff everything down, pretend like nothing ever happened, or sweep everything under the rug. It is simply saying that you are releasing that person to God and forgiving them because God has forgiven you.
Rather than stuffing the trauma and pain of what happened, it is good to process the pain in a healthy way. It often helps to do this with the help of trusted friends, mentors, pastors, or counselors, depending on the severity and nature of what you have experienced. But you can process the pain, take it to God, heal, and move forward in a productive way.
2. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation
Extending forgiveness does not mean that you necessarily need to communicate anything to the person who hurt you. This will often depend on the specifics of the circumstances. But know that you can process pain with the Lord, allow the Holy Spirit to move in your heart, and pray prayers of forgiveness without involving the person you are forgiving. You can let go of any resentment, hatred, or bitterness that is in your heart. Although forgiveness is related to damage done by another person, it is primarily a transaction between you and God. In fact, sometimes the ones you need to forgive have since passed away.
Forgiveness does not mean that you must automatically reconcile with the person who hurt you. It takes one person to forgive, but it takes two willing people to reconcile. While reconciliation is ideal, it is not always possible when a person persists in unrepentant sin and ungodly actions. You do not need to continually put yourself in situations where you are being abused. Reconciliation can happen if the person shows the fruit of genuine repentance, but that is out of your control.
Forgiving While Maintaining Boundaries
Let me give a few illustrations to explain this further. Let’s suppose that you hire a person to do work on your house, and they rip you off and don’t fulfill their obligation. You can forgive that person, but you can also choose to never hire them again for house repairs. To use a more serious situation, suppose that it comes to light that a babysitter sexually abused one of your children while you were away from the house. You can forgive the babysitter, but you may choose to never allow them into your home again, and certainly not alone with your children (even if the babysitter was a family member).
The point I am making is that you can extend forgiveness and maintain boundaries at the same time. Some have been pressured to “forgive and forget” in such a way that has caused them to be re-abused continually. This is not healthy and is a misapplication of forgiveness. Yes, we must always forgive. But we can allow time for trust to be rebuilt and look for repentance before taking steps toward reconciliation. Forgiveness is always something you can do regardless of the other person’s actions. Reconciliation is a separate thing and requires active participation on the other party involved.
Let’s walk in forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Let’s also walk in wisdom and discernment, and maintain healthy boundaries. Both are essential to our relational and spiritual growth!