Forgiveness — Part 4


“But aren’t we supposed to forgive, forget, and move on?”

In Part 1 of this series on Forgiveness, I outlined how we have arrived at such a fractured and unbiblical view of what forgiveness is and is not as we have in the church and society-at-large today.

In Part 2, I discussed the foundational aspect of forgiveness. The first of the three types of forgiveness in the human experience is JUDICIAL FORGIVENESS, which is God’s alone to provide.

In Part 3, I described the second type of forgiveness as INTERNAL FORGIVENESS. This is the one we are responsible for.

The third and last type of forgiveness we want to discuss is the one that is most misunderstood and misapplied: RELATIONAL FORGIVENESS. This is the level of forgiveness where the restoration of relationship can take place in a manner that is both Biblical and safe.


Relational Forgiveness occurs when the one offended can trust that the offender will most likely not reoffend.

Since offenses can fall anywhere along a broad spectrum of sinfulness and resultant evil suffered, it is helpful to us if we can have God’s mind about when and how to properly be restored in relationship to someone who has wronged us.

As we have seen in my earlier posts on this subject, confession and repentance go together – two sides to the same coin, as it were.

Relational Forgiveness is conditional upon our repentance (repentance – turning and traveling in the opposite direction).  You cannot have one without the other.  (See Matthew 3:8; Ephesians 4:28).

It is not just a change of behavior; it is the heart attitude behind it. This heart-change is required in order to be transformed and for old toxic, sinful behaviors to be replaced with fruitful, righteous behaviors.

True change is NOT a matter of behavior modification alone. If one’s heart isn’t in it, the “change” is temporary at best.

Just as we have to wait for an apple tree to produce fruit for from 3 – 5 years after it is planted, so it takes time to see the fruit of authentic repentance.

Someone saying, “I’m sorry,” is not confession, neither is it repentance – nor has there been any time for fruit to develop. Someone saying, “I’m really, really sorry,” is neither confession nor repentance either.

A helpful parallelism for understanding the contrast between the prerequisites for Internal Forgiveness and the prerequisites for Relational Forgiveness (reunion) can be found in Lewis Smedes’, The Art of Forgiving:

It takes one person to forgive. It takes two to be reunited.

Forgiving happens inside the wounded person. Reunion happens in a relationship between people.

We can forgive a person who never says he is sorry. We cannot be truly reunited unless he is honestly sorry.

We can forgive even if we do not trust the person who wronged us once not to wrong us again. Reunion can happen only if we can trust the person who wronged us once not to wrong us again.

Forgiving has no strings attached. Reunion has several strings attached.

If we enter into Relational Forgiveness with a person before we see the fruit of repentance, we often actually get in the way of the work that God desires to do in that person.

Are they denying the wrong? They are unrepentant.

Are they rationalizing or justifying the wrong? They are unrepentant.

Are they minimizing, blame-shifting, or scapegoating? Again, then they are unrepentant.

A contrite heart – a heart that recalls the raunchiness and effect of one’s sin – underlies true confession and repentance. Contrition means a heart that is broken over the sin committed and the evil another has suffered as a result.

Do you feel a sense of repentance from someone who does not have a sense of contrition? Not if you understand repentance, you don’t. And for those who have experienced abuse, a lack of contrition on the part of the offender is the NORM when it comes to being unrepentant.

The Need of the Offender

God has an intention and purpose for every life: in every case, God’s desire is for each person to be reconciled to Him.   That reconciliation requires confession and repentance (See Part 2).

Confession and repentance, in turn, require a conviction that what we have done has violated God’s moral code and that we are accountable for it; authentic confession and repentance do not come because we simply wish to avoid consequences.

Entering Relational Forgiveness illegitimately often alleviates the process of the offending party having to face most or all consequence for their evil and, hence, the catalyst for authentic confession and repentance is absent. That puts us between that person and God and weakens their ability to be aware of Him.

  • Q. Why would we oppose God’s best?
  • A. Only because, some place in our heart, we believe God’s agenda is defective and our agenda supersedes His.

If we are willing to allow our offender to live out consequences for their offense, we clear the way for God to work in them – and we may get to witness God work in their life in a real and powerful way.  There then arises a very real possibility for a safe, God-honoring relationship to develop that will become good and healthy instead of ungodly and abusive.

When you really grasp this, you will see that you are not responsible to forgive based on others’ expectations of you.  God not only doesn’t expect, He doesn’t allow for us to enter into Relational Forgiveness in certain situations.  When there is no repentance or fruit in keeping with repentance, God makes no provision for Relational Forgiveness.

To expect and to teach abuse survivors that they must “forgive. forget, and move on” is not only grossly in error, the result is a retraumatizing of the victim. We have no business doing that: it makes us as guilty as the original offender.

In Summary

There can be no comprehensive forgiveness unless we understand and process the sin that has been committed and the effects of it on us, as well as our sin responses to it. Remember: Internal Forgiveness and Relational Forgiveness are NOT one and the same thing.

It’s important to continue to remember and to reinforce in our hearts:

  1. One type of forgiveness (Judicial) has nothing to do with us; it is God’s alone.
  2. The second type of forgiveness (Internal) is our responsibility, and is accomplished with God’s help.  Internal and Relational Forgiveness are not synonymous.  One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.
  3. God does not expect us to forgive relationally until the offending party has done their part.  The restoration of relationship is not a simple affair and needs to be handled according to God’s economy for it to be God-honoring, safe, and healthy.
  4. Unless and until the offender has confessed, repented, and borne fruit in keeping with repentance, we are neither required nor allowed to enter into Relational Forgiveness.


Once again my heartfelt thanks to Dr. Steven Tracy for his powerful book, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse. Of all of the tools I have used over the last 26-plus years, this one (in conjunction with the workbook by Steve’s wife Celestia) is by far the most theologically robust and scientifically sound material available to those who counsel abuse and neglect survivors.

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