Jesus taught his followers that forgiveness was not an option. He said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). There are many similar passages throughout the Gospels. However, many have understood Jesus’ message on forgiveness to mean that victims of abuse should continue living under the domination of their abusers.
But did Jesus mean to convey that forgiveness will always result in the restoration of the relationship to its original, pre-offense condition? If someone has hurt me deeply and still poses a threat to my (emotional or physical) well-being, do I have to be friends with them in order to forgive them? If forgiving someone and trusting that person is the same thing, then the answer is yes. But is it possible to forgive without trusting the forgiven person?I’d like to propose a subtle, but definite difference between forgiveness and trust.
I’ll use the case of Joseph and his relationship to his ten older brothers to illustrate this. This is one of the most beautiful pictures in Scripture of forgiveness. Joseph was Jacob’s eleventh son, and was favored by his father. This led to hatred, envy and abuse on the part of his older brothers (Gen 37:4). They severely mistreated Joseph and then sold him into slavery. They thought they’d never see him again, and he probably thought he’d never see them again. In fact, I’m sure that long journey to Egypt caused Joseph uncontrolled grief and terror. Though the Bible doesn’t say this, I believe for a time Joseph felt a great deal of anger and resentment towards his brothers.
We know that eventually, and I don’t think it was long after his journey began, Joseph gave himself fully to the God of his fathers. He resolved in his mind that he would serve God faithfully in spite of this terrible misfortune that Joseph had to go through. We are told that the “Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” in Egypt (Gen 39:2). God was with Joseph because Joseph chose to let God in to his life. I believe at some point early on in his journey, Joseph had to make the difficult decision not to live the rest of his life feeling bitterness toward his brothers, because the Bible teaches that a person who “does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).
Now fast forward thirteen years or so. Joseph went through a lot of ups and downs in his journey in Egypt. Promoted in Potiphar’s house, then falsely accused and imprisoned. Promoted in prison but then forgotten by a cupbearer who benefitted from Joseph’s benevolent service. Then finally promoted to be prime minister of the most powerful nation in the world. Then a famine in the Middle East leads Joseph to have an unexpected encounter with his brothers.
From the record we have, I conclude that Joseph had forgiven his brothers, but that he did not trust them. In fact, not even Jacob trusted them. Let me explain. The famine was so bad in Palestine, Jacob decides to send his sons to Egypt to buy food. However, he doesn’t allow them to take Benjamin (Gen 42:1-4). When Joseph first notices them, they don’t know who he is, and he acts as a stranger to them (vs 7). Then Joseph puts them through a series of tests before finally revealing his real identity to them.
Had Joseph still been angry and harboring resentment, he could have killed them at best and tortured them at worst. Then why all of the agony and testing and going back and forth that took place, if it wasn't retaliatory? I suggest that Joseph was trying to determine if they were trustworthy. Because they proved themselves genuinely changed men, Joseph reconciles with them and treats them almost as if none of the evil they had done against him had happened (Gen 45:1-5).
This is good news in at least two ways: On one hand, we find hope that evil people, even abusers, can change and that some form of reconciliation with people who have hurt us in the past may be possible. On the other hand, we are freed from the expectation that we should allow ourselves to remain in an abusive relationship in the name of Christian forgiveness. Forgiveness depends on the victim, but reconciliation depends on the abuser.
Much damage has been done by many well-meaning spiritual leaders who have encouraged victims to remain in abusive relationships in the name of forgiveness. May God give us the fortitude and faith to forgive people who have hurt us, meaning we give them to God. And may he give those who have hurt and damaged others the power to change so that reconciliation and healing may take place in broken relationships.